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Kentish charms

Whitstable

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Beach hut, Whitstable

The first time we went to Whitstable for a short break, a few years ago, we stayed in nearby Seasalter and made a couple of day trips into the town. We liked what we saw, and it was frustrating not to be able to easily spend our evenings here. So when we were considering ideas for a coastal staycation during the pandemic, renting a house in the centre of this appealing seaside town was a no-brainer!

The photos on this page were taken on both visits, March 2015 and October 2020.

Oysters

Whitstable is known for its oysters and a short distance west of the harbour you will find the Whitstable Oyster Company. The company claims to be able to trace its origins back to the 1400s. and to be one of the oldest companies in Europe. But the fame of the oysters of Whitstable goes even further back, almost two thousand years, to when the Romans discovered them and shipped them back live to Rome to be enjoyed as a delicacy at the best tables there. At the company’s peak in the 1850s it was sending as many as eighty million oysters a year to Billingsgate fish market. By that time oysters had become so plentiful and cheap that they were regarded as the food of the poor, not the gourmet indulgence of today.

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Oyster shells

However in the twentieth century the industry began to decline due to a number of factors: cold winters, a parasite infection, two World Wars, the great flood of 1953 and changing tastes – notably the rise of the prawn cocktail!

In recent decades there has been a resurgence in the oyster industry. The company is now a family-run business, not only farming oysters but also running a highly-regarded restaurant in the old oyster stores. Walking around outside, the discarded oyster shells crunch under your feet – a sure sign you are in Whitstable.

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The Whitstable Oyster Company

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Sign at the Whitstable Oyster Company

The harbour

The harbour at Whitstable is very much a working one. Fish are landed and processed here, and there is a tarmac production site, with what it must be said is rather an ugly main structure. But I like the fact that it is functional as well as tourist-focused. Fishermen land their catch right next to the informal fish restaurants selling mussels, oysters and fish and chips; old fisherman’s huts are home to small craft shops and art galleries; locals walk their dogs, and tourists stroll, in the shadow of the tarmac factory.

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Whitstable Harbour

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Harbour scenes

In the summer boat trips run from here, out to see the wind farms and the offshore World War II sea forts which are visible on the horizon. These Maunsell Forts (named for their designer, Guy Maunsell) were built in the Thames and Mersey estuaries during the Second World War. They were used for anti-aircraft defence – during World War II, the three forts in the Thames estuary shot down 22 aircraft and about 30 flying bombs. They were decommissioned by the Ministry of Defence in the late 1950s; some were used in the 60s as bases for pirate radio stations.

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Wind turbines and Maunsell Forts

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Birds in flight and Maunsell Forts

The Favourite

One boat not to be found in the harbour is the Favourite. This is a traditional Whitstable oyster yawl and was built by the Whitstable Shipbuilding Company based at Island Wall (west of the harbour and oyster company) in 1890. She was used by the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company to dredge oysters from the beds off shore until 1939. She was machine-gunned by an enemy aircraft and began to sink, but was beached and dragged up the shore. When the sea wall was built she was moved and spent some time in a cottage garden before being acquired by a charitable trust who raised money for her restoration. Today she sits on display just behind the wall, very near where she was built. As she would have been built directly on the shingle beach the site around her was restored to look like a beach and now has a good display of shingle flora.

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The Favourite

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Flowers by the Favourite

Beach walks and beach-huts

Although Whitstable doesn’t have a traditional seaside promenade (and for me that is one of its charms), it is possible to walk the length of its beaches stretching some distance both east and west of the centre – a walk of about three miles in total. To the east you are walking along the foot of Tankerton Slopes. At first these are green lawns, sloping down to the sea. At their foot are colourful beach huts, one of my favourite subjects for photography in Whitstable.

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Beach huts, Tankerton Slopes

The footpath passes the Street, a naturally formed spit of land that extends into the sea and can be walked on at low tide.

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The Street

A key feature of Whitstable’s beaches are the breakwaters, a favourite perch for visiting gulls.

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The beach near Tankerton Slopes

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Breakwaters on the beach

Further along, the tamed lawns give way to a nature reserve, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, where the largest population in Britain of hog’s fennel can be found. Not being an expert in botany, and with no winter images on the information board, I am only about 80% certain that I photographed the right plant, but in any case I loved the sculptural shapes of its seed-heads.

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Hog's fennel - I think!

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Above Tankerton Slopes

Eventually in this direction you reach Swalecliffe Brook, a small stream running into the sea between Whitstable and the next town, Herne Bay.

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Beyond Tankerton - Swalecliffe Brook

This is the furthest we have walked in this direction, so let’s turn back now and head west.

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Enjoying the sea views

Walking west from the centre you pass the Favourite, mentioned above, and soon after arrive at one of Whitstable’s best-loved pubs, the Old Neptune or ‘Neppy’ as it is affectionately known. It makes the proud claim to be ‘one of only a handful of pubs to be found on the beaches of Britain’. It sits directly on the shingle and while it has a cosy interior, the main attraction for us and for many others is found outside where, even in these times of COVID, there are plenty of wooden tables and benches where you can enjoy a beer and maybe some fish and chips with a sea view. It was just about warm enough during our recent October stay to be able to stop off for drinks here on a couple of occasions.

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The Old Neptune

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View from our table at the Old Neptune

Beyond the Neppy are more beach huts and some attractive and interesting old houses. One of the latter was once home to the actor Peter Cushing, best known for his roles in the Hammer horror films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The house is marked with a blue plaque.

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Beach huts and boats

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Beach hut detail

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Colourful houses

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Peter Cushing's former home

There are also more breakwaters, whose rhythmically-spaced lines stretch away into the distance on either side, creating interesting photo opportunities.

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Looking back towards the town centre

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Breakwaters

When it’s time to turn back you can return the way you came or take the quiet road running parallel to the beach, Island Wall, to see more of Whitstable’s quaint houses.

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House detail

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Halloween in Whitstable

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Starling outside a Whitstable house

The town centre

I’ll finish in the centre of town which is in its way as appealing as the shore. There are plenty of independent shops selling upmarket clothing, books, jewellery, antiques and of course souvenirs. The latter include craft items and home decorations, perfect if you want to replicate the beach house look at home, although in our London terrace that is best restricted to the bathroom! The restaurants too are mainly independents, although there are a couple of Italian chains, and likewise the cafés, although again there is one chain coffeeshop. Of the pubs we liked best the atmosphere in the Royal Naval Reserve on the High Street, as the Duke of Cumberland (which we’d had a good lunch in on a previous visit) was rather cold and empty, perhaps because COVID restrictions prevented it from staging its popular live music evenings.

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Pub and antiques shop

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Cheese and gift shop

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Look for the details

Finally, take a look at these fun murals, most of them by an artist called Cat Man, which I spotted around the town.

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Whitstable murals

Posted by ToonSarah 04:57 Archived in England Tagged beaches buildings boats harbour england coast history pubs seaside details street_art Comments (23)

Cracking the code

Bletchley Park

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Sign at Bletchley Park

We have been meaning to visit Bletchley Park for some time, our desire to do so increased by seeing ‘The Imitation Game’ a few years ago, and finally we went – and immediately decided to return soon! There is so much to see here, and luckily entrance tickets are valid for a year, so a repeat visit makes even more sense.

Background history

In 1938 the mansion of Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire became the base for a small group of people from MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School. Tensions in Europe were growing, and their job was to set up and run intelligence activity from the house, chosen for its location near to, but not in, London. When tensions seemed to ease the base was closed down, but reopened when war broke out. The work that was undertaken here became vital to the Allied war effort, with ground-breaking inventions which shaped the future of computing science – a perfect illustration of the old adage about necessity being the mother of invention!

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Signage at Bletchley Park

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Signage

Today this site is rightly regarded as a hugely significant part of the history of Britain’s role in World War Two, but it might not have been. In the early 1990s there were plans to demolish Bletchley Park and build housing here, as part of the ever-growing new town of Milton Keynes on whose southern fringes it now lies. After public outcry and campaigning Milton Keynes Council was persuaded to declare most of Bletchley Park a conservation area. The Bletchley Park Trust was formed and in 1994 opened the site to the public as a museum. With financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and from commercial and private sponsors, the museum has gradually grown to become a major attraction – and is continuing to expand and develop additional parts of the site.

Introductory displays

As soon as we arrived, parked the car and started to walk towards the building housing the entrance and visitors centre we were left in doubt where we were, as the stylish signage echoes the coding theme.

We exchanged our pre-purchased online tickets for actual paper ones at the desk and were given a map of the site. The obvious place to start was with the exhibits in the visitor centre, where we watched a short introductory film tells the story of the part played during WW2 by those working at Bletchley Park. There was one of the famous German Enigma machines in a display case (we were to learn much more about these during the course of our visit) and an overview of the processes followed in deciphering enemy messages.

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Enigma machine

The Enigma machines used a system of rotors to scramble the 26 letters of the alphabet. Its settings were changed daily, based on secret key lists, while some other settings were changed for each message. The receiving station needed to know and use the exact settings employed by the transmitting station to successfully decrypt a message. Much of the work at Bletchley Park focused on identifying the encryption settings each day in order to decipher and translate the messages sent by the German army, air-force and navy.

After exploring these displays, we took a break over a coffee in the café here and studied the map we had been given. It was already clear that we couldn’t see everything on this first visit so we determined our priorities and set off to look around.

The lake

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View of the Mansion from the lakeside path

Walking around the small lake in the centre of Bletchley Park you can get a good overview of the layout and see how a family estate was transformed into a top-secret base. The mansion lies across the water, looking every bit the small-scale stately home it once was, but scattered on either side are the many huts, wooden and brick, that were built to house the various operations – first just a couple, then growing in number as the war progressed and the work carried out here became ever more critical to the war effort.

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Brick huts by the lakeside

Information boards at intervals describe daily life for the staff working here – the hardships (long shifts, spartan conditions (especially in the winter months) and the impossibility of telling anyone, even close family, what you were doing) – but also the small pleasures of games of tennis, skating on the lake in winter, forming friendships and romances.

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The lake with heron and bluebells

The Mansion

The ground floor of the Mansion, as the old house at the heart of the estate is known, is open to visitors and has a number of rooms of interest. We were welcomed on entering by a docent who told us that photography was allowed, if not for commercial purposes, and recommended that we look up at the ceilings as they are quite varied and attractive – he was right!

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The ceiling of one of the Mansion's rooms

The office of Commander Alastair Denniston, head of the British Government Code and Cypher School (known as GC&CS), has been recreated in great detail in the Mansion, and was our first taste of the way in which the atmosphere of those war years has been so effectively captured here. In-trays are full, piles of papers lie on the desks, pencils at the ready, typewriters with sheets inserted. On the notice board are announcements of a dance and a concert (social activities were seen as very important in keeping morale high), and a reminder to ‘carry your identity card always’.

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Commander Alastair Denniston's office in the Mansion

A sign describes a historic meeting which took place in this room in February 1941, which it credits as ‘the beginning of the United Kingdom / United States special relationship’. Four US military personnel came to Bletchley Park to discuss an exchange of information on Japanese and German codes and cyphers. This was some months before the US was to enter the war, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even those working here were unaware of the visit, apart from Dennison, his senior team and his personal assistant, recruited to the meeting to ‘pour glasses of sherry’.

The library at the other end of the hallway is similarly recreated to show as it would have looked when in use as a Naval Intelligence office. There are cigarette stubs in the ashtrays and empty, coffee-stained cups beside them. Hats and coats hang on the coat-stand and a cardigan is draped over the back of a chair with a handbag carelessly left on its seat. As elsewhere, the re-creation is based on old photographs and accounts of those who once worked here.

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In the library

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Other rooms in the Mansion are used for exhibitions, one of which is devoted to the Roll of Honour which lists all those believed to have worked in signals intelligence during World War Two, both at Bletchley Park and at other locations. There are photos of a few of them, sound recordings of the memories of just a handful, and an online resource which relatives can use to search for information on ancestors who worked here.

There was also a special temporary exhibition on the work of one of the most significant of the codebreakers, Bill Tutte, whose research in the field of graph theory was of enormous importance in the development of the techniques used here. I have to say though that the explanations of his work and its application to codebreaking were well over my head! I therefore quote Wikipedia on the significance of his achievements:
‘During the Second World War, he made a brilliant and fundamental advance in cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher, a major Nazi German cipher system which was used for top-secret communications within the Wehrmacht High Command. The high-level, strategic nature of the intelligence obtained from Tutte's crucial breakthrough, in the bulk decrypting of Lorenz-enciphered messages specifically, contributed greatly, and perhaps even decisively, to the defeat of Nazi Germany.’

The garages

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Stable block, and Sunbeam Tourer detail

Behind the Mansion are the garages in what was once the stable block, which house several interesting vehicles. They include a Sunbeam Tourer used in the 2001 film ‘Enigma’ starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott, which we hadn’t seen but which sounds interesting – I plan to look out for it.

There is also a 1938 Austin Ambulance, used for the same film and also for the TV series ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’, which I have seen. It tells the story of a young evacuee and stars John Thaw. Both vehicles were donated to Bletchley Park by the film company, owned by Mick Jagger, which made ‘Enigma’.

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1938 Austin Ambulance

The cottages

Next to the garages is a row of cottages around a stable-yard, presumably built to house staff when this was still a family estate. These were the location for some of the early codebreaking successes, before the various huts were built to accommodate the fast-growing operations here. It was in these cottages that Enigma was first cracked by an all-British team including Dilly Knox, Mavis Lever and Alan Turing. They aren't open to the public - I got the impression that they are in use as private residences.

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The Cottages

Hut 3

The highlights of our visit for me were the codebreaking huts, numbered 3 and 6. In these huts Enigma messages sent by the German Army and Air Force were decrypted, translated and analysed for vital intelligence. They have been brilliantly restored and presented in a fashion that recreates the war-time atmosphere, bringing to life the world of the codebreakers in a way that makes the huts seem almost haunted by them. The rooms are ‘dressed’ to resemble what they once were when the codebreakers worked there, and as you enter each you can hear the voices of actors engaged in realistic conversations about their work, and also their off-duty lives. In some rooms there are also projections of actors on the walls, but I think I found those where there was only audio the most effective of all.

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Corridor and desk in Hut 3

A sign as you enter Hut 3 explains:
‘You are now standing in one of the most secret areas of BP where deciphered messages were translated and analysed. Early on in the war the resulting intelligence was sent to MI6 and a limited number of senior army and RAF personnel. The evocative sights and sounds will help you to imagine what happened here. The scenes are set in 1940-41, and are based on the words and memories of BP veterans.’

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Teleprinter office, Hut 3

One of the larger rooms is that which housed the Watch, where a sign explains:
‘Work at BP went on round the clock. In this room there were four Watchkeepers on each shift, led by Watch 1. Most were civilian experts on German, able to fill any gaps in the deciphered messages before translating them. As they had no military experience, special Military Advisers helped compile the final reports.’

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The Watch

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In the Watch

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Hut 6

This was perhaps the beating heart of Bletchley Park. According to its sign,
‘Some of the most important codebreaking of the war took place in this hut. Little survives to tell us what it looked like inside, but the hut itself remains a witness to those tense times. Images, props, sounds and words are based on Veterans’ recollections and photographs taken later in WW2. They help to conjure up events here on just one date – 28 February 1941 – the day a crucial enemy cipher was broken.’

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A room in Hut 6

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The corner of an office, Hut 6

To capture the sound, as well the images, of this hut I shot some bits of video in a few of the rooms, which I later edited together:

We took a break at this point to eat a light lunch in Hut 4 which was formerly a WW2 naval intelligence codebreaking hut, but which now houses the café. Then we continued our explorations in another of the restored huts.

Hut 8

While the work in Huts 3 and 6 was focused on German army and air-force messages, Hut 8 was devoted to cracking the even tougher to decode naval messages. It was here that the famous Alan Turing did his most famous work, concentrating on this more complex Naval Enigma because ‘no one else was doing anything about it and I could have it to myself.’ Turing devised a number of techniques to speed up the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the pre-war Polish Bombe method, which used a machine (a forerunner of today’s computers) to work out the settings for the Enigma machine. This work ultimately enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic, and in so doing helped to win, and to shorten, the war. His office in Hut 8 has been recreated exactly as it would have looked in World War Two.

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Alan Turing's office

Other parts of this hut are devoted to hand-on ‘experiments’ illustrating ideas about probability and chance, and explaining how these are critical to an understanding of codebreaking. The codebreakers looked for what they called ‘cribs’ – predictable repeated phrases (e.g. weather reports) which could give a clue to the day’s encryption settings.

Huts 11 and 11A

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In the window of one of the huts

Our final stop for the day was in the huts which housed the Bombe machines, developed by Alan Turing from some earlier Polish ones which had been shared with the Allies at the outbreak of war. The machines featured multiple drums representing the rotors of an Enigma machine, which could whizz through all the different possible permutations for the settings each day. Hundreds of these machines were operated by Wrens, here and in outstations in other parts of the country. It was boring and oppressive work, with the women running the machines during long shifts in dark, stuffy rooms, as the displays here make clear.

By now though the museum was getting busier, including with several school groups, and it was harder both to study the displays and to take photos. We found it difficult to follow the detailed explanations of the technology behind the Bombes, so decided in the end to leave this section and the other remaining buildings until the future visit we had already determined to make.

But if you can’t wait till then to find out more about the Bombes, check out the museum’s website’s description of its Bombe Breakthrough exhibits.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:25 Archived in England Tagged lakes architecture history museum details world_war_two Comments (15)

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