Thursday, June 13, 2013

Middle England

Today I set off on another futile quest to find some stock for my business, driving 135 miles to a meeting that lasted for five minutes. The address sounded promising enough and I envisaged a vast industrial estate. Instead, I arrived here:

I've no idea why this building is on stilts, at such a precarious angle. Perhaps I should have asked.

I was met by a woman with a very territorial dog, who showed me a pitiful selection of books. I tried to seem enthusiastic, but I think she could tell that my heart wasn't in it. I got back in the car and drove past a sign that read "POLISH CAMP. PRIVATE. KEEP OUT." Then my satnav died.

After driving aimlessly for a few miles, I pulled over and stopped the car. I had no idea where I was, except that I was somewhere in Bedfordshire.

I've never really liked Bedfordshire. The countryside is generally flat and dull and its two main towns - Luton and Bedford - are twinned with Hell and Purgatory. However I was impressed that somewhere which had seemed over-developed and urbanised could still contain so many miles of remote, slightly menacing countryside.

With a growing sense of desperation, I fiddled with the power lead of my satnav until it suddenly sprang into life, telling me I was nowhere. Was this a fault or an upgrade? I turned the engine on and started driving.

Just as I was thinking horrible thoughts about Bedfordshire, I passed through a town that actually looked quite pleasant:

I was in Olney, a place I had never heard of. Most of the buildings were pre-20th century and had been made out of this attractive local stone:

I parked  the car and discovered a very likeable town, full of quirky, unusual buildings, hidden courtyards and little touches of civic pride that revealed a lot about its inhabitants. I didn't see a single piece of graffiti. Bedfordshire had redeemed itself.

Then I discovered that I was in Buckinghamshire.

The one thing that spoiled Olney was the traffic. The A509 cuts right through the heart of the town and the buildings shake as juggernauts hurtle past. Looking at Olney on Google Earth, I can see that the town is surrounded by flat fields of no particular merit, so perhaps this is one of those rare occasions when a bypass is justified.

After Olney, I made a slight detour to Bletchley Park, home of the World War Two codebreakers:

I'd always thought that Bletchley Park was a remote country house. It probably was once, but since the War it has been slowly enveloped by the urban sprawl of Milton Keynes - a new town with an impressive number of roundabouts. The entrance to Bletchley Park is now opposite a large office building with blackened windows.

The actual museum of Bletchley Park is a rather disparate collection of exhibitions, mainly housed in outbuildings. Some of the exhibits are fascinating, whilst others have a more specialist appeal (I'm afraid that I have a limited interest in the use of pigeons for espionage).

But whether you're interested in the subject or not - and I have to admit that there are only so many encryption machines that I want to see in an afternoon - it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer ingenuity of the codebreakers. The dazzling complexity of these machines made my head hurt:

A very earnest man tried to explain how these machines worked and I nodded and smiled knowingly, hoping that I'd be able to sneak off before he realised that I hadn't a clue what he was talking about. I think the gist of what he was saying was about how these machines took a code that had 128 trillion possible permutations and reduced it down to a more manageable number of alternatives. Thousands, possibly millions of lives were saved as a result.

Before I finished my visit, I had to see the ultimate codebreaking machine: Alan Turing's Colossus computer:

I left feeling inspired and very humbled. I thought I was reasonably intelligent, but if I'd been responsible for breaking the Enigma code, we would have probably still been at war in 1952.

As much as I enjoyed Bletchley Park, I think I'll have a break from visiting remote industrial estates for the time being.


Anonymous said...

Love your post (as usual) and glad that dying satnav inspired it. But maybe next time, you could check the address on Google street view, to save yourself the journey if it doesn't look promising? Though such journeys make excellent blog material that I'm delighted to read.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Another great post. Sorry you weren't able come home with a car full of wonderful finds. Love your comment that Luton and whatsit are twinned with Hell and Purgatory, though.

I think the reason Alan Turig was able to decipher the enigma machine was because he was daft as a box of frogs. Any sane person would've given up long before the final result was achieved. Good to see that madness does have its uses for things other than tilting with windmills.

Have a wonderful weekend. xoxo

Tim F said...

Was it Turing who handcuffed his favourite coffee cup to the radiator?

Rog said...

Taking a van to Luton and Bedford seems appropriate.

I imagine that enigma I was an anagram.

Steerforth said...

Anonymous - I use Google Street View whenever possible (and used it to decide against visiting Northampton yesterday), but most of the industrial estates I visit are beyond the reach of the Google vans. Even from the air, the resolution is of a grainy quality that is normally reserved for military bases. It's a journey into the unknown.

Carol - I'm sure you're right. It's very likely that Turing had Asperger's and couldn't filter out seemingly superfluous information. Of course, retropsective diagnoses are always a little suspect, but there's a persuasive argument here:

Tim - Yes, he did. My favourite anecdote is this one:

"It's fairly well known, for example, that Turing cycled around the Bletchley area in a gas mask as a defence against his hay-fever. What's less well-known is that his bike had a problem with its chain, and that rather than getting it properly fixed, Turing would instead count the revolutions of the chain and get off just before the chain was about to slip off to put it right."

Rog - You have a gift for one-liners. Did you have another life writing scripts before you switched to Lovejoying?

Peter said...

I grew up in Northampton and occasionally return - you were wise to give it a miss. However, it does mean that I’m pretty familiar with parts of the neighbouring counties and Olney is certainly one of the attractions. Were you really unfamiliar with the town? It is, of course, home to the world famous Pancake Race and a tradition which apparently dates back to 1445. For the most part, Bedfordshire is pretty uninspiring but venture far enough south to Dunstable Downs and the edge of the Chilterns looms, where there are some fantastic views and walks to be had.

Steerforth said...

Peter - I'd really never heard of Olney until yesterday. I don't know how I've managed to pass through life without ever registering its existence.

Re: Northampton, I wanted to visit because of its musical connections - the town was the birthplace (as I'm sure you know) of Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn and Edmund Rubbra. But the local museum seemed more interested in shoes and while I appreciate their role in the town's economic growth, I'm not that interested in footwear.

As for Northampton itself, it looks as if the postwar town planners have succeeded where the Luftwaffe failed.

Nota Bene said...

Fascinating reading indeed....really enjoyed it.

I've only been to Olney was by accident as I was travelling cross country. The sun was setting,and the farmers were burning off the fields around the town...absolutely beautiful

Canadian Chickadee said...

Steerforth, I think I owe you an apology...I read somewhere once that Turig was schizophrenic, and just assumed that was the case. However, if he had Asberger's or some form of autism, that's something quite different.

I just came across an article in our paper about Temple Grandin. She is in her late 60's now, but has always been an outspoken advocate for autism sufferers. Her feeling is that an autistic brain is a very special thing and that the world needs all kinds of intelligence if humanity is to advance.

I have also learned lately that it is suspected that Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, is autistic. He is obviously very bright, but he has always been uncomfortable in social situations and is very much a loner. However, the intense focus of the autistic may be what enabled him to keep repeating the experiments over and over until he found a solution which would work.

If you are interested in reading about Temple Grandin, I would be glad to send you the clippings if you will give me your mailing address. You can email it to me at:

I hope you have a wonderful Father's Day on Sunday. Take care and God bless.

Dale said...

I stayed in Northampton in 1982 when visiting Althorp.

Every hotel in town was full of sales reps, and we got stuck in Northampton's (probably prize-winning) entry in the World's Grottiest B&B awards. They actually looked surprised when we asked for towels, and rounded up some mismatched, threadbare efforts.

The fish and chips we had for dinner were slimy.

Not Britain's finest hour. I wish they'd build some nice motels.

Steerforth said...

Nota Bene - Perhaps Olney's a place that people discover by accident. I like the image of burning fields. Perhaps I won't recommend a bypass after all.

Carol - Don't apologise. I wasn't being politically correct and I often describe certain people as 'barking mad' (including my own dear son when he's having one of his off days). I'm just genuinely fascinated at how a particular disability has managed to produce individuals of rare genius.

I've looked up Temple Grandin - there seems to be a lot of stuff on the internet about her - and it's fascinating. My only concern is that some people's view of autism has become distorted by the few success stories.

Re: Father's Day, being a curmudgeonly sort of person, I've banned it in this house on the grounds that it's a not a genuine tradition (but I will be having a lie-in ;) ).

Dale - Most hotels have improved dramtically since those days, but there are still a few shockers. There's one in Lewes that used to be the meeting place for Thomas Paine and his friends and thanks to this association, it gets away with pokey, overpriced rooms and substandard food. Fortunately, websites like Trip Advisor now make it harder for hotels and b&bs to get away with poor service.

I agree about motels. I used to love the Motel 6 chain when I drove around the USA. Sometimes a mere $25 would get me a room that was comfortable, spotlessly clean and air conditioned. The only problem was the location - sometimes I had to walk a mile or two to buy a beer!

Canadian Chickadee said...

It's so funny to hear you say that you have banned Father's Day at your house.

In the early days of my marriage, I was quite hurt that my husband refused to buy me a Mother's Day gift because I wasn't his mother, though I was the mother of his child.

One year, I got so annoyed I went out on a shopping spree and bought some new clothes. When I got home I realised that my "victory" was totally pointless. I'd used my own credit card, which I paid for out of my wages ...

ah, well, what can I say? At least the things I bought fit! (Not an entirely frivolous thought, as I am quite tall and stuff is nearly always too short, somewhere, if not everywhere.)

Have a great non-Father's Day. xoxo

Dale said...

I know what you mean about hotels trading on snobbery without providing service. Have seen enough of Alex Polizzi and Ruth Watson on TV to know that every dunger hotel they visit is more typical than they would like to admit. We're middle budget travellers, so we're not even seeing the worst of them!

Trip Advisor certainly helps, as you say. Trouble is, Trip Advisor and similar sites have a hard job to stop accommodation providers using friends to boost their own facilities and denigrate those of rivals.

We have family in East Anglia and on our frequent visits there used to be able to organise family gatherings because there were two charming old-fashioned country pubs in the village offering rather rudimentary B&B, and a real motel nearby.

On our last visit, both pubs had been sold to rich people who were turning them back into private homes, and the government had acquired the motel to use as permanent accommodation for asylum seekers. Result: no accommodation to be had in the village or surrounds.

The rich are doing very nicely, and the asylum seekers are getting a helping hand, but I can understand those people who reckon middle Britain is getting a raw deal.

Annabel said...

I just love the way that you make the most of any journey to include new discoveries so that your day isn't totally wasted.

Steerforth said...

Carol - I'm completely with your husband. There seems to be a sharp male-female divide on the issue of cards. As a bookseller I used to watch women spend an agonisingly long time trying to find the right card: first this one, then no, that one might be better, but on the other hand...

The men walked in, took a cursory glance at the spinner and you could almost see a thought bubble saying "This will do."

Dale - It's a great pity when a decent pub closes. I know that many are struggling to survive these days, as an increasing number of people prefer to drink at home. I'm guilty of that myself.

Annabel - Thank you. That's my way of staying sane. I couldn't bear the idea of driving 250 miles for nothing.