The Town That Knew Too Much: Enigmas

Enigmas. Things that cannot be understood; things that must be unravelled and unriddled. Things that are not what they seem.

This series is, in many ways, about enigmas, but here we’re talking about a literal one: the Enigma machine. This is the story of the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, including Alan Turing, who broke the German cypher and helped to end the war. But it is also the story of what we can and cannot know, and how little secrets beget bigger ones…

Bletchley Park combines my interest in British intelligence with my interest in Milton Keynes (about which I have written professionally, as a scholar of the New Towns). But above all its a human story, about how people did something incredible but in total secret, having to wait their entire lives (and often long beyond their deaths) for anyone to know and appreciate what they’d achieved.

Bletchley Park and the cracking of the Engima machine also typifies the movement of espionage away from direct human-to-human interaction, and towards the sort of surveillance, intercept and decryption that we see in the present day. So that’s why it’s part of this series — not because it’s directly about Cheltenham but because this is the story that lays the ground for the eventual creation of GCHQ.

For this episode I was able to speak to historians of Bletchley Park, even if, due to covid-19, I was unable to visit the site, as I’d hoped back in 2020 when it looked like things were moving in a better direction. I decided to mix in the story of Gustav Holst — one of Cheltenham’s greatest sons — because it flowed naturally from the discussion of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and that also meant that I was able to speak to George Jennings (the composer on both this series and The Town That Didn’t Stare) about his amazing original score for this series. Definitely worth checking out, it’s on YouTube in its entirety and should — Swedish gods willing — be on Spotify shortly. Here, below, is Neptune (The Mystic) to give you an idea…

Contributors to this episode: Michael Smith, Sir Demot Turing, Colin Matthews, George Jennings, and Jenny Radcliffe.

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Nick Hilton

Nick Hilton


Writer. Podcast entrepreneur. London. Interested in technology and the media. Co-founder Email: