X is for Bletchley Park

I know what you’re thinking. Bletchley Park doesn’t begin with an X. Thankfully, it’s a destination that is also known as Station X so I can sort of get away with it (mostly because it’s my challenge and I make up the rules). Turns out it’s quite hard to find places to go that begin with an X, but thankfully I’ve been wanting to go to Bletchley for a while anyway.

I walked to Bletchley from the direction of the train station, which must have been the same journey that many, many codebreakers experienced when they turned up. For them, though, they wouldn’t have known what on earth it was they were letting themselves in for. I, meanwhile, had a good idea what to expect and wasn’t disappointed.

You get one of those multimedia audio guide things to walk you round the site, and the main highlights are the lake, the mansion and the huts. There are other bits and pieces open, and plenty of stuff that isn’t open or is in progress, but those three pieces were the areas that left a lasting impression. The beautiful lake sits in front of the mansion, and you’re immediately confronted with boards that tell you about what life was like in this secretive place – difficult to find time to relax in, almost impossible to maintain relationships in, amongst a backdrop of hugely complex tasks to complete.

The mansion has a mockup of some offices and yet more information about how the residents spent their spare time – Bletchley Park Drama Group gets quite a high billing. From there, it’s round the corner to the garages for a look at the motorbikes and cars in use during the period, and then down to the huts.

There are a couple of huts that have exhibitions about the machines used to break the codes, and the machines that were used to make the codes in the first place (so many Enigmas!) as well as plenty of documents from the period, including letters from Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower about the people at Bletchley.

Some huts are exhibitions only but some are set up like they would have been at the time. Here’s where you really get the chills down your spine, treading the same boards as these incredible people that worked so hard under difficult conditions to make a huge difference to the entire world. There are a lot of rooms that are essentially just desks and pencils and telephones but even so, there’s something weirdly compelling about the whole thing.

And then to the museum, where there’s a whole floor dedicated to Alan Turing, and whilst it’s true that he was one of many people that made a big difference at Bletchley Park, his really is the story that resonates. I walked round the museum taking it all in, but then when I saw Turing’s teddy bear, I had to make a swift exit because it made me feel a bit weepy.

I’m not 100% sure the site actually taught me anything I didn’t already know, except perhaps the sheer scale of the operation and the great exhibits that explained the steps gone through to get a message from the field and spit it out the other end decoded and useful. Mostly it was just a matter of being there, seeing the place with my own eyes, and thinking, yet again, about the incredible efforts of people who worked so hard so that I can live the life I do today.

W is for Windermere

I knew it had been a while since I last went on an Alphabet Adventure visit, but looking back now, I’m horrified to find it’s been over three years. Ridiculous. So, I stopped putting it off, and dashed to the Lake District to have a gander at that body of water known as Windermere. It’s famous, apparently, for being the longest lake in the UK, and it’s very pretty, but I have to admit, I was expecting a little more.

I took a Lake Cruise from Bowness down to Lakeside, which included a brief trip on a steam train, a walk around a very small but refreshingly modest aquarium, and then a journey by boat back up to Bowness again.

Boat

The boat trip was good, it was fun to see how long the lake is and get some views from along the way. It’s good to peek at what is nestling lakeside and see who has houses that lead right to the lapping water. There was the occasional audio guide on the boat but I couldn’t hear it at all, so missed out on all the facts. On the way back, too, I got really, really cold, so was quite happy to get my feet on dry ground again.

Train

The train was fun, although the track didn’t go round enough bends to be able to see the steam engine chugging along whilst also being on it. It’s private land, and the track travels extremely close to some houses along the fifteen minute journey. At one point, there was a man in his garden who stood and waved at the passing carriages. I can’t see him getting much gardening done if he does that to every train that passes.

Aquarium

Like I said in the introduction, the aquarium was small but I actually quite liked that – it wasn’t trying to be anything more than what it was. There were no huge exotic exhibits, just smaller, more domestic aquatic life. I did like some of the more unusual items, like the leafcutter ants, whereas the walkthrough underwater tunnel wasn’t as good as at other, larger attractions.

So, for the most part, a successful trip. I did feel that despite the nice surroundings, there really wasn’t so much special about Lake Windermere that couldn’t be found at any lake nearer to home.

V is for Valley of the Rocks

The Valley of the Rocks is in North Devon, accessible from the nearby village of Lynton. It’s steeped in history, all sorts of Ice Age glacier references and rocky bits and pieces. The Wikipedia entry has what is now my new favourite word – fossiliferous – included in the description. Apparently parts of the book Lorna Doone were set there, although I can’t really picture that in my head, despite having read it relatively recently.

Anyway, to North Devon I ventured to complete the V of my alphabet adventure. From Lynton, there’s a narrow road leading past heaps of bed and breakfasts and guest houses, and eventually it leads out onto the pathway heading towards the valley and the rocks. It’s a steep drop, and there’s not much in the way of guard rails, but the view is fantastic – both of the rocks to the left hand side, and the masses of water to the right.

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There’s also the goats. They’re wild goats, free to roam around the valley as they please (although I think someone must be looking after them a little bit, like the horses in the New Forest or the Exmoor ponies). The places they get to on the steep cliffs are amazing, and you can be walking along and suddenly a pair of horns/antlers appears out of nowhere on the side of an impossibly steep hillside.

It’s a beautiful walk, that gets progressively more interesting as you go along, until eventually you round away from the sea and then through the valley itself and back round to the village. It’s definitely a walk for good weather, and it was a very fortuitous day for me – breezy but no rain, which is as much as you can ask for in October. If it had been raining, it would be an absolute nightmare, totally exposed and with sheer drops to try and avoid.

Thankfully, that was not the case, and I managed to log a successful V in my alphabet adventure.

U is for Uffington White Horse

I had a few options for the letter U in my alphabet adventure, but I opted for the Uffington White Horse as it was something a little bit different. I’ve done castles, gardens, museums and attractions, but I had not, as yet, done a chalk drawing on the side of a hill.

Naturally, October isn’t the ideal time to get out and about in the British Countryside, and it was a breezy morning when I clambered up the hill. Located on some rolling hills in Oxfordshire, the horse is a National Trust destination. There’s a car park across a field from the hill that hosts the horse, and as you head towards the hill you get some brilliant views. Or you would, in slightly better conditions.

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They say the horse looks better from an aerial point of view, but I wasn’t totally convinced it looked like a horse from above either. It definitely doesn’t from close up.

Of course, it’s just some lines on a hill, and if you stumbled across it, you’d think it was just the way nature is sometimes. A bit rocky here and there. Knowing that it’s Ye Olde Bronze-Age makes it slightly more interesting. As the National Trust so expressively put it:

The internationally-renowned Bronze-Age Uffington White Horse can be seen for miles away leaping across the head of a dramatic dry valley in the Ridgeway escarpment.

The horse is only part of the unique complex of ancient remains that are found at White Horse Hill and beyond, spreading out across the high chalk downland.

It was a bit of an odd one all in all. Tucked away down some very narrow lanes, and a close-up view that leaves a lot to be desired. It’s nice to have white horses, but I don’t think they make for great visitor destinations.

T is for Tyneham

When I was a kid, I remember being driven across Salisbury Plain, and spotting a pristine but empty looking village tucked away in the fields. My parents told me this was an army village, not for living in, but for exercises and drills. My imagination was absolutely caught by this and whenever I travelled around, across or anywhere near Salisbury Plain, I would always be on the lookout for this exceptional village.

I think I must not have driven across that same road since because I’ve never seen it, and the village has taken on a magical, mythical, Brigadoon-esque quality in my mind.

I have since learned that, of course, it’s not Brigadoon, but Imber – a so-called ghost village, evacuated by demand of the Army during the second world war and never relinquished.

From what I can tell, it’s pretty difficult to get a look at Imber, it being a site of gun battles and terrifying army exercises. But there is an easier ghost village to get to and that is Tyneham.

I took advantage of what may be the final day of sunshine available in the UK, and hot-footed it to the Dorset coast. You can park at Tyneham, for free, and have a look round, but I decided to make a bit more of an adventure of it. I parked at Kimmeridge and walked through the military range, up and over the cliffs, and down to Tyneham. I kept my eyes peeled for any tanks or camouflaged personnel elbowing their way through the long grass, but as the military ranges were open and the public were allowed in, I guess they were having a day off.

Tyneham was a little underwhelming, if I’m honest. It was fascinating to see the shells of houses and they put storyboards in some of the buildings to describe the previous inhabitants. Just like Imber, this village was taken by the military and never returned to the owners, despite vigorous protesting on their part. It’s very rundown now, with just the main wall structures remaining.

There just weren’t as many buildings as I’d imagined. The church looked the most complete, but that had a heap of scaffolding around it, taking away any picturesque qualities. There’s a schoolhouse too, but that was fenced off for repairs, leaving me with just two sets of houses and the church interior to really enjoy.

There is a creepy feeling about the idea that people were just forced to leave with no return, but I had thought it would be a little more atmospheric. It didn’t help that there were a lot of other nosey tourists like me around, so that it really didn’t feel very ghostly! It seemed to be a popular destination for bikers.

It wasn’t a disappointing day, because I really enjoyed the walk to and from the village but I can’t say I stayed very long once there. On the one hand, I felt a bit deflated about the ghost village, but on the other hand, I’m glad it was Tyneham I saw and not Imber. The mythical mystery in my mind lives on!

S is for Snowdon Mountain Railway

There were a few options for the S of my Alphabet Adventure, but when I thought of Snowdon, there could be no other contender. The point of the adventure is to go to new places, visit different things and get a view of the country I haven’t had before. Going up a mountain fits into all those categories and then some. I opted for the Snowdon Mountain Railway, because I thought climbing a mountain on my first go would be a bit much and… well, it was so hot.

It was beautiful, incredible, an outstanding view and perspective that was made even better by the clear conditions we were very lucky to get. Although it was baking hot on the ground, by the time we got to the top of the mountain it was cloudy and a cool breeze was blowing through. It was refreshing and lovely.

So it was a good experience but I have a list of things that were less positive about the day. None of them were enough to dour the trip entirely, and in some cases it’s just because of the type of person I am. But these things do add up to take away from what could have been brilliant.

  • It costs £27.
  • It was supremely busy. I arrived at their stated opening time of 8:30am, and there were two or three people queuing at the day tickets and a huge line at the pre-orders. As I was buying on the day, the first train I could get on was for half twelve, which gave me four hours to while away.
  • The trains are cramped. You’re assigned a compartment so they can keep things orderly, and make sure they bring you back down off the mountain as well as take you up. There were two benches facing each other, and five thin cushioned areas on each. On the way up I was in the middle of one side, and personal space was limited.
  • It takes an hour. The views don’t really get good until the last twenty minutes or so. There’s a recorded audio tour guide but it was almost impossible to hear it over the loud engines.
  • I was ever so slightly disappointed to find that all there was at the summit was more people who had gone up a mountain.
  • There’s a building, hosting a fast food style café, a dingy souvenir shop and toilets. It smells like a locker room, because these are mostly people who have been climbing for several hours.
  • There was no signal.
  • I felt like I’d cheated because a lot of people there were experiencing the reward of having climbed. All I had to revel in was surviving the claustrophobia of the train compartment.
  • The way back down was slightly better because one of our fellow travellers didn’t show up so I got to scooch over by the window and take photos. Having said that, my back was starting to ache from the hard seats.
  • All the best souvenirs say “I climbed Snowdon” and I couldn’t buy one of those. I ended up with a less than impressive mug with a photo of the concrete summit building on it.

These sound like moans and complaints, and I suppose they are, but I want to accurately reflect the experience. It was amazing to do, and I’m happy to have done it, but now that it is done and in the past, it feels more disappointing than it should have.

It has made me want to climb a mountain though. An easy one. Not with ropes and stuff. Then I can buy the good souvenirs.

R is for Royal Pavilion

There were a range of options available to me for the R stop on my Alphabet Adventure, but when I realised it coincided with a trip I was taking to Brighton, it seemed to make sense that I visited the Royal Pavilion. To make things slightly more interesting, my parents were joining me for the visit too, so I got to enjoy the wonders of the pavilion with company.

The Royal Pavilion was built by King George IV as something of a play home, showing off and trying to outdo everyone else in terms of style and decoration. There’s an odd visual straight away because the outside is very Indian in style, whilst the inside is all the reds, blacks, bamboos and dragons of China.

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royal-pavilion-entrance

The Pavilion is unfortunately one of those locations that doesn’t allow photography inside the building, but once inside, it was easy to see that wouldn’t be a problem. The rooms are so dark and cluttered and dingy, that it’s hard to think of a good photograph you could actually take. There is an audio tour that guides you around each room, although both my mum and I struggled with the unintuitive handsets and kept pressing the wrong buttons at the wrong time.

So, we wandered from room to room, listening, chatting, gazing around. I was a bit disappointed at how closed off everything felt. There was a section about halfway through which demonstrated the damage that millions of visitors could have on wallpaper and furniture and the like. I can understand the need for presentation, but it was such a hands off experience that it was quite hard to totally engage with it.

Some of the rooms were better than others (in terms of taste), I was astounded at how busy everything was/is. In some of the more decadent rooms there is just no single block of colour to give your brain a break. Busy wallpapers, patterns, a myriad of colours, glittering chandeliers and gold-leaf on everything. It made me long for a plain white wall!

I found the kitchen interesting, particularly the horrendously large menu, as well as the King’s bedroom with the secret doors. I also enjoyed the music room with its acres of space. There were snakes curling around the curtains in that room though, so I went off it pretty sharpish.

Anyway, as I couldn’t take any pictures inside, I opted for a couple of postcards from the gift shop.

royal-pavilion-postcard

Overall, it was an interesting experience but not one I would particularly recommend. The rooms inside are not to everyone’s taste (my mum’s impression after two rooms: “Dark and dingy… and horrible!”), and they are pretty intense. As mentioned, the preservation of history takes far more precedence than the enjoyment of it, so you may as well just look at the postcards rather than pay the entrance fee.