Royal Visit.

Around Christmas time there was a documentary on the telly box about the engineers, mathematicians and thousands of support workers at Bletchley Park, the top-secret location of the codebreakers who cracked the Enigma machine messages. I made a comment on Facebook about what an amazing story it had been, and what heroism those people had displayed – working against seemingly insurmountable odds.

My Facebook comment was responded to by Mike O’Connor who has largely been an internet friend of mine for about 7 years, having met him and his wife Sue at an Ian McNabb gig at The Stables in Milton Keynes, back in February 2004. I once referred to Mike as ‘Mikey Boy’ online, and believing this automatically made him cool and youthful again, he’s never really forgotten it.

We’ve all met up from time to time at various gigs, but we’ve never spent any proper time in each other’s company. Mike mentioned that he and Sue and their son Jamie live just five minutes from Bletchley park, and to their shame had never visited. We agreed therefore that I should go over to their house in Milton Keynes for a weekend, sometime in the new year, and we would all go together.

This weekend was that weekend. I packed a bag, bade farewell to the cats and caught my train to Milton Keynes Central. Some eejit train driver had turned his freight train over at Bletchley, causing network chaos and signalling fuckwittery.This meant that I had to disembark at Northampton, but very kindly Mike and Sue came all the way out to collect me from much further afield.

I had heard rumours of Mike and Sue going a bit billy bonkers on the welcoming committee, and there had even been whispers of a red carpet with brass band and various local dignitaries. However, since I was now arriving at another station, all of the pomp that had been arranged was apparently dispensed with, and happily I was met by the O’Connors about 10 minutes after my train arrived. I walked towards their car shouting, “Where’s my fucking brass band!?”, but I was appeased with the promise of a G&T as soon as we got back to the house.

Milton Keynes is not nearly as dull as people would have you believe. There are some really pretty areas, and it feels like it has alot of space. Mikey Boy and Sue’s home is beautiful and very welcoming. I was ushered in and introduced to Binnie the Jack Russell, who quickly became my new best friend. Then I saw the banner. And the t-shirts. And the mugs. And the typed and printed menus and itineraries. And the place settings. Bloody hecking hellfire. Mike had gone utterly mental and had all kinds of brilliant stuff printed up with “Chappers in MK 2012”, as though it were a bona-fide royal visit! Completely flattered, a bit gobsmacked, but highly amusing. Absolutely priceless!

The G&Ts started to flow and while Jamie began to entertain me with anecdotes about how totally EPIC he is, Sue cooked up an absolute storm with meatballs, pasta and a delicious tomato sauce. Over dinner the conversation got sillier and sillier and the laughter was non-stop. Mike was quizzing me about things he’d read on Facebook, but had hardly dared ask until I was a) tipsy and b) full of pasta. A great night with great friends, round a family dinner table, just as it should be. Full and drunk and happy, I stumbled off to bed in The Chappers Suite, which was in fact Jamie’s Dr Who themed bedroom, which had been temporarily renamed by him for the duration of my stay. Blessim!

The following morning, Mikey Boy made us all do PT on the lawn in our vests and knickers. Actually that’s a fib. What actually happened was we all performed our ablutions and sat down to a delicious cooked breakfast, to set us up for the day ahead. Following breakfast be repaired to the lounge with steaming mugs of tea, and carried on with nattering, catching up and having a larf.

At a suitable juncture we set off at a brisk rate to Bletchley Park, and by buggery it was cold. The wind was icy and a bit painful if I’m honest. Sue (a fellow Northerner) and I agreed that it was definitely colder down South, than it ever is up North. But then the Sun only shines on the righteous, I suppose. Bletchley Park was just as I imagined. Some huts have been renovated to look something like they did in the 1940s, some have been left as tumbledown prefabricated buildings, but I understand that finances are coming in slowly but surely to help renovate more of these historic buildings. Some of the unused land has been sold off for housing developments, which is not an ideal scenario in terms of preserving the site I suppose, but it makes economic sense, and since Bletchley Park is the very by-word for progress, one can’t complain.

There’s a large brick-built block with houses the majority of the exhibition, and the all important Turing Bombe – one of the decoding machines used to decipher the Enigma messages that were sent by the Nazis to each other, giving vital operational information during WWII. The Enigma machines were very complex coding machines that transformed plain text into coded text via wires, cogs, reflectors and valves, and the patterns were altered by the Germans every 24 hours. There were millions upon millions of possible variations, and every day WRNS who were trained to operate Turing’s Bombe (named after an ice cream sundae) cracked the enemy codes, and passed on the Nazi communications to the Home Office.

It was absolutely mesmerising to see a reproduction of the Bombe actually working, and to see how the 12 miles of wiring and shedloads of Bakelite were used to crack these codes, sometimes in less than 15 minutes. There were also a number of Enigma machines, including Mussolini’s own personal unit.

In the manor house itself, we learned about the Leon family who built Bletchley Park, and continued to own it until 1937. The actor Sir John Standing (the pervy bishop in V for Vendetta) is a descendant of the original Leons and is in fact the 4th baronet, but never uses the title.

The all important pit stop at the coffee shop (Mike’s poorly hip was playing him up – an old shrapnel wound perhaps?) found their refreshments to be both delicious and reasonably priced, except Mike expressed horror at the price of tinned pop. We reminded him there was a war on, and he plumped for a NAAFI cappuccino.

There were lots of displays giving a wider view of wartime Britain: a mock-up of a 1940s home, displays telling the stories of the carrier pigeon teams, HMS Petard (the crew of which won George Crosses for capturing the first of the Enigma machines) and various other amazing WWII heroes. Sue and I found a display about the important role of female spies and resistance agents very informative, but got the giggles when we reached a board about ‘FANY Support’ (First Aid and Nursing Yeomanry).

Eventually, having been in Hut 8 (Alan Turning’s workplace throughout his stay at Bletchley), seen the Bombe and Enigma decoding, and gradually starting to suffer the effects of hypothermia, we dashed back to the car, and buggered off back to O’Connor Towers for a warm up. There’s a slight possibility that I had another G&T at that point, but if I did, it was only to ward off the cold, and certain death.

Having provided me with a comprehensive overview of the region’s restaurants, Jamie had been keen for me to choose somewhere to eat out on Saturday night. Since he seems to be quite a young connoisseur, I delegated that choice to him, and he decided in his infinite gastronomic wisdom that we should go to the Red Hot World Buffet in Milton Keynes’ theatre district. Some of you may already be familiar with this concept, but for those of you who prefer the food on your plate to be of one nationality at a time, I will explain.

Basically you pay a plate price, and then  you stuff your fucking cake hole as much as you like. There’s Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Italian, Thai, Tex Mex and everything else that you can imagine or possibly want, all sitting there either in rows upon rows of bain-marie, under yards and yards of heatlamps or on hotplate upon hotplate of deliciousness.

We ate until we were a table of four Mr Creosotes. I guzzled down half a pint of Black Russian at one point, like it was tap water. It was a feeding frenzy, and there was a certain amount of very un-British jostling at the bain-marie when the fajita chicken started to run out, but all in all it was brilliant. Jamie chose well and it was a smashing night out.

It was snowing like a good ‘un by the time we left the restaurant, so back at the ranch, Sue and I changed into our cosy jimjams, and we all watched Paul (the Pegg/Frost alien film), while I washed my tea down with another couple of G&Ts. Rude not to, since they’d bought a whole litre of Gordon’s especially for me. At bedtime I trundled off to the Dr Who themed ‘Chappers Suite’ and utterly zonked out within nanoseconds of my head touching the pillow. Apart from a few minutes at 3:30am (when poor Jamie’s Red Hot World Buffet decided to make a re-appearance) I slept soundly, and all in all I thoroughly enjoyed a wonderful stay with great friends.

This morning we breakfasted together, but one eye was on the clock as we were thinking about me getting back to the train station, and since Milton Keynes was under about 4″ of snow by this time, we decided to take it easy and not visit the Peace Pagoda and Tree Cathedral, which had been on the itinerary. Sad, but I suspect they may be even more beautiful after Spring has sprung.

Goodbyes were said just after 1pm, and Mike dropped me off at Milton Keynes Central. Sad to leave good friends and a great weekend behind, but pleased to be going home to the felines. I’ve just opened my weekend bag to put my mucky (mostly food stained) things into the washing machine, and found a beautiful card, handmade by Sue, which encourages me to return to them.

Careful what you wish for O’Connors – I bloody well will!

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