Saving Station X

The UK's Bletchley Park has been credited with bringing WW2 to an early close as well as being the birthplace of modern computing but it still faces a constant battle to survive
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor

The total cost of the Millennium Dome from its conception six years ago to the present day is somewhere in excess of £800m. This is a structure that was ostensibly used once for a party and then ignored. The plan to pay homage to the diversity of life in the UK, as a new millennium dawned, mutated into a cut-price carnival themed somewhere between Disneyland and a 1970s school science programme.

Its contribution to the well-being of the average UK citizen has been pretty minimal apart from the handful of people who actually visited it and the considerable larger group who glean cathartic pleasure from lambasting the whole sorry enterprise.

The Millennium Dome is an easy and obvious target but that doesn't detract from the fact that it was a gargantuan waste of money. If it's worth spending more than three-quarters of a billion pounds preserving the site of a New Year's party, what sort of price do you put on maintaining something of real worth? For example, how about a facility credited with bringing the Second World War to an early end and saving tens of thousands of lives, and believed to be birthplace of modern computing? Well if you're the government then the price you put on it is about the same amount of Lottery money spent on the Dome's toilets.

The auspicious place in question, Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire -- aka Station X -- receives no direct government funding. The trust that manages the site -- a loose collection of sheds and outbuildings centred around a grand mansion house -- faces a continuing scramble just to keep the place ticking over. Yearly admin costs are something approaching £1.5m without even tackling the significant overhaul the site deserves.

The lack of attention the site gets is shocking enough given its role in WW2 but Bletchley's place in the history of computing -- thanks to genius mathematician Alan Turing building the first programmable computer to crack the German Enigma codes -- makes the government's attitude seem something akin to criminal negligence.

This is a site that attracts thousands of visitors a year, has had countless books written about it and at least two Hollywood films -- "U571" and "Enigma" -- yet is being left largely to support itself through a variety of ingenious fund-raising events. As well as the planned launch of new business incubator -- allowing technology start-ups to benefit from Bletchley's innovative history -- the site holds conferences and open days to boost funding.

The trust is hoping for some Heritage Lottery funding in the next 18 months of around £2m to £3m with more expected over time but given the amount flushed down the Dome this seems like a pretty paltry sum. Ironically, the trust's director, Christine Large, claims that if the site was in Germany, funding wouldn't be a problem. "I have had it said to me by the MD of a German company, ironically, if this was Germany you would be reporting to the Chancellor -- there wouldn't be any messing around," she told me recently.

Large has being doing her bit to promote Bletchley by publishing a juicy account of the theft of an enigma machine from the site back in 2000. The book reads somewhere between a Patricia Cornwell crime novel and a historical text weaving a day by day account of the investigation with the machine's part in the war. Hijacking Enigma, released last week, follows events from the initial theft of the machine on April Fool's Day 2000 to it eventually ending up in the hands of Newsnight anchorman Jeremy Paxman.

Despite the conviction in 2001 of one Dennis Yates, from Sandiacre near Derby, of handling stolen goods, the actual thief has never been found. Yates maintains that he was simply a middleman for a shadowy mastermind figure who orchestrated the theft and the ensuing attempts to ransom the machine, which is valued at around £100,000.

Large is adamant that the thief will be tracked down as the case is still open -- comparing the determination of the officers involved to the team that hunted down the great train robbers. But given the huge amount of publicity the theft generated it could be said that the shadowy mastermind actually did Bletchley a good turn in the long run -- shrouding the place in a modern day mystery worthy of its covert code-cracking past.

Details of upcoming events and how you can support Bletchley Park can be found at. www.bletchleypark.org.uk

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