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Discoveries in the Midlands, March 2010

Image: The Rollright Stones


Prehistoric stones have a fascination for people. It’s easy to understand why. Their age makes them as venerable as lumps of rock can be. Frequently their sheer size (like the Devil’s Arrows at Boroughbridge) makes one marvel at the labour and ingenuity of the people who hauled them overland and positioned them upright or in crude arches. When they are in complicated groups like Stonehenge their mysterious arrangements spanning thousands of years of construction make them objects of great speculation. They invite everyone to have a theory about their meaning and purpose with little chance of being right because there is – so far at least – no means of proving them wrong.

The Rollright Stones on the border between Oxfordshire and Warwickshire are a good example. There are two groups, known as the King’s Men and the Whispering Knights and a single stone called the King’s Stone. Those names illustrate the folklore that has grown up around them. The oldest are the Whispering Knights (middle picture above) with four tall stones around a fallen capstone. Apparently a burial chamber with the covering earth eroded away, they leaning-inwards stones gave rise to ideas that these were knights plotting against a king. A witch was supposed to have turned them in to stone. The single stone (not shown above) called the King’s Stone was also the work of the witch who is said to have turned the plotted-against king into limestone, and who then went on to do the same for a circle of his knights who were discussing his chances of ruling England. They evidently had different ways of deciding who would run the country in those days. Among the genuine pieces of history connected to the Stones is their name: I always have to remember that it is nothing to do with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones but derives from “Hrolla-landriht” meaning the land of Hrolla.

In reality the stones are of very different dates. Oldest are the Whispering Knights, somewhere between 4,000 and 3,500BC. The 77 King’s Men date from 2,500 to 2,000BC and the King Stone from around 1,800 to 1,500 BC. That circle formed by the King’s Men is, by the way, 33 metres in diameter. There were once 105 stones but many were robbed for other uses. The Whisperers form a group occupying two square metres. There is a large chunk of missing material from the King Stone which is said to be due to people breaking off bits which were supposed to act as lucky charms against illness and injury.

We were at the stones a few days ago when spring was struggling to make up its mind that it should have arrived. The winter had been long, the daffodils were late but the sunshine broke through in between me photographing the stone circle and the two smaller locations. The Whisperers is graced by an interpretation panel, courtesy of the Rollright Trust which now owns and cares for the stones and the patches of land on which they stand. Maybe they will provide similar interpretation for the others. It was late morning and by the time we were completing our visit there had been around thirty others calling in – quite a mixed group of old and young, home-grown and overseas visitors. Some looked like students with a course to be followed. There was a lively family group, possibly from Eastern Europe, who asked me to take their photo with their camera. They came and went quickly but had clearly been excited to make the visit. The two young women in the photo with my wife above were halfway round an AA country walk – the guide book being shown told them which paths to follow and what they were seeing over a walk of several miles. In fact the site is also on the Jurassic Way running for 88 miles between nearby Banbury and Stamford in Lincolnshire.

Back in 1978 Tom Baker was filmed here for a Dr Who adventure in time and space. Visitors can drive and walk to the Rollright Stones and other places nearby for free in their own exploration of history and geography.



Image: Bletchley Park - the Bombe


Bletchley Park was once a state secret but is now an international showcase. Its most famous occupant met his death in depression over what would now be considered an irrelevancy. Yet he was an outstanding pioneer within his field and is now considered one of the computer world immortals.

The house and grounds known as Bletchley Park lies in a town of the same name and is part of the Milton Keynes urban area. During World War II it was Station X, the headquarters of the government’s operation to break German military codes and crack the thousands of messages that were transmitted by the enemy. Several thousand people worked in austere conditions round the clock under conditions of absolute secrecy. The Germans were using a special coding device known as the Enigma machine, first used commercially but then adopted throughout their military forces. Thanks to the Polish Cipher Bureau who had broken codes used by the machine before the outbreak of war the British were able to understand much about the principles of how it worked.

The difficulty that was presented by the machine was that messages could be intercepted by listening stations in Britain but would takes several weeks to decode because of the highly complex variations in settings available on the machine. These meant that the way messages were coded was hardly ever the same, being changed by the operators daily at midnight. So a method of working through the possible permutations at very high speed was needed. The result was the use of an electro-mechanical testing machine – not a computer as such but a device designed to work out which settings had been used by Enigma machines each day. It was designed by a team working under Alan Turing with important principles built in suggested by Gordon Welchman.

Turing was an outstanding mathematician (as was Welchman) who used the Polish ideas as a foundation but rapidly developed a design for an advanced machine that he called The Bombe. The Poles had used a device called a Bomba (‘bomb’) in order to break the codes they encountered from the Germans. Later, Turing devised many other methods for cryptanalysis. After the war he worked at the National Physical Laboratory and then at the University of Manchester. Among many other contributions to his field of work he proposed the Turing Test, which was a measure of the success of artificial intelligence. But Turing was homosexual. At that time that could mean prosecution, imprisonment and social rejection. After investigations and so-called medical treatment Turing took his own life.

Bletchley Park is associated very strongly with Alan Turing, his work, achievements and life story. It has a range of wartime buildings around the late Victorian mansion that is its focal point. A trust has taken on the task of caring for and finding uses for its many buildings. Now, the wartime story of the code-breakers is only one of its main themes as it houses the National Museum of Computing as well. That Museum has a wide collection of main frame and desk top computers plus devices such as slide rules and calculators that were used before modern computers existed. The greatest treasure is probably the rebuilt version of Colossus, the first digital, programmable computer, which also started life as a machine to decode high-level German messages sent by another encoder, the Lorenz machine. There are also exhibitions about Sir Winston Churchill, cinema shows, toys, a period garage and the Bletchley Park post office.

The photos at the start of this posting show a statue of Alan Turing with an Enigma machine and a recently-completed working replica of a Bombe as used to analyse Enigma settings.


Image: Colossus Computer

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