Bletchley Park lipspeaking tour: breaking the code

Today I went on a fascinating lipspeaking tour of Bletchley Park with my wife and friend Andrew, organised by the National Association of Deafened People (NADP). It was an amazing insight into the secret lives of the thousands of code-breakers working at Bletchley Park during World War 2.

The tour was given by a volunteer from Bletchley Park, assisted by two brilliant lipspeakers, Sara and Lynne, who belong to the Association of Lipspeakers. While Lynne used lipspeaking to interpret what the guide was saying, Sara used a mixture of lipspeaking and sign language. I found it easier to follow Sara as I find lipreading really difficult to follow, so I found Sara’s additional signing in combination with her lipspeaking really helpful. I read a very interesting blog on ‘Limping Chicken’ yesterday about lipreading written by Ian Noon where he describes the energy involved in lipreading and being attentive all day long. He compares processing and constructing meaning out of half-heard words and sentences, making guesses and figuring out context to doing jigsaws, Suduku and Scrabble all at the same time. I thought that his analogy was really relevant to the hugely important work that the code-breakers did during the War years at Bletchley Park, although clearly the work that they did was incredibly complex and took brilliant minds to be able to break the codes that the Axis powers thought were impenetrable.


The guide told us that there were an incredible 10,000 people working at Bletchley Park during the war years and they were code-breaking on an industrial scale day and night. They intercepted, decrypted and relayed the meaning of thousands of encrypted messages sent by the Germans, Japanese, Russians and Italians back to the Allied Forces. According to historians, their work shortened the Second World War by two years, thus saving many lives. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. referred to the code-breakers as the “geese that laid the Golden Egg that never cackled”.

The thousands of people who were brought in to work at Bletchley Park were a mixture of brilliant mathematicians, scientists, linguists, debutantes, Egyptologists and cryptographers, all working under the Official Secrets Act. They also employed people who were good at complex jigsaw puzzles and Suduko. Many of them were brought in without knowing where they were going and what work they would be doing. The guide told an interesting story about a 21-year old girl, who applied to a job at a government department. She was interviewed by a Major at a nearby church. He placed a revolver on the desk between them, which completely intimidated her, and he told her that she would have to sign the Official Secrets Act and that if she divulged anything about the work at Bletchley Park to anyone at all, even family members, he would personally shoot her. Because of the 30-year rule of the Official Secrets Act, it wasn’t until 1974 that ex-Bletchley Park staff were able to reveal anything about their wartime work there. Many took their secrets to their graves.


One of the most important and famous activities that the codebreakers did during the Second World War at Bletchley Park was breaking German Enigma codes. The German military used Enigma cypher machines to keep their communications secret and impenetrable to the enemy. The Enigma machines would scramble plain text messages into incoherent cyphertext. They used a series of rotating wheels and they could create billions of combinations of code to scramble the message. However, with the help of Polish mathematicians, who had managed to acquire an Enigma machine prior to World War 2, the brilliant British code-breakers Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, devised a machine called the Bombe, which managed to break the Enigma cyphers and gave the Allies a major advantage in the War, saving many lives. On Winston Churchill’s instruction, all the Bombe machines were destroyed after the War, so that the one you can see today at Bletchley Park is a reconstruction.


After the talk, we went into one of the code-breakers’ original huts, which are currently being restored. There was an exhibition there, which told the fascinating story of Ian Fleming, the famous author of the James Bond spy thrillers, who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and was involved in secret espionage. He worked as a Personal Assistant to Rear-Admiral John Henry Godfrey, who set up the ‘Special Branch’ intelligence there and who is widely believed to be the inspiration behind ‘M’ in the James Bond stories. While working there, Ian Fleming had access to top-secret intelligence documents and codes and he went on important espionage missions such as ‘Mission Goldeneye’ on Gibraltar, which he later named his home in Jamaica after. The Ian Fleming connection is fascinating and well worth a visit to Bletchley Park to find out more about it.


We all had a brilliant day in the gorgeous sunny weather today at Bletchley Park. I hadn’t realised the huge significance of the code-breaking work that they did there until today, or the scale of the operations involving thousands of people, including brilliant geniuses such as Dilly Knox, Alan Turing, William Tuttle and Tommy Flowers, who worked on the Bombe computer, which could crack any Enigma code. Also, the first ever electronic digital computer in the world, called Colossus, was developed at Bletchley Park by British code-breakers during WW2.


This was the first lipspeaking tour that I have been on. I am hoping to go on more in the future. I’ve studied lipreading for over a year now at the City Lit. I really enjoy it, but I find it very difficult. To be honest, I don’t think I’m a very good lipreader as I find it a really difficult puzzle to crack. It makes it easier to solve if someone signs a little too, or uses some hand gestures, i.e. directional signs. My lipreading tutor at the City Lit has told me that lipreading is classified as a leisure pursuit, like pottery, for example. When I lost my hearing three years ago, I found that learning to lipread was a real life-saver for me. It wasn’t just learning to lipread, but I also found that being around like-minded deaf and hard of hearing people and learning deaf awareness and new communication tactics were all really important to me, all tactics I use on a daily basis. I feel like with all these new acquired skills, lipreading is slowly becoming less of an enigma.



Disability Awareness Week at Holy Trinity Primary School: enthusiasm for deaf awareness

Last Wednesday morning I gave a talk at Holy Trinity CE Primary School in Dartford, Kent on behalf of Action on Hearing Loss. This was part of a series of talks and events that the children had been having that week as part of the school’s Disability Awareness Week for all its pupils and staff. The purpose was to make pupils aware of the daily obstacles that disabled people face and how they overcome them, and to help pupils think about other peoples’ feelings and needs.

Throughout the week, there were visits from representatives of lots of different disabled charities such as Kent Deaf Children’s Society, Diabetes UK, Sightsavers and the Stroke Association. Pupils were shown an adapted car for disabled drivers and they tried out wheelchairs hired from the British Red Cross to see how accessible the school was for wheelchair users. They also had a lot of fun during their Disabled Teddy Bears Picnic, were taught wheelchair dancing lessons and wheelchair fencing lessons, as well as seeing a magic show given by a children’s entertainer in BSL. They also had inspirational talks from 15 year-old Paralympian wheelchair fencer Gabi Down and Steve Brown, captain of Team GB’s Paralympian wheelchair rugby team.

First I spoke in the school assembly to an audience of around three hundred pupils. I talked to the children about how I lost my hearing and about the things I miss most since losing my hearing such as listening to music and not being able to go to the cinema when I want and watch the films I want to see as I am restricted to the few subtitled films that are shown at my local multiplex. I explained about how I have to lip-read people to understand them and how difficult it is to follow people’s conversations, particularly in a noisy environment.

I also told them about some of the other barriers I face such as trying to get around on public transport and ask for directions, and how I rely on my smartphone and emails for directions instead of asking people. I also explained that how well I communicated with other people depended on how patient and deaf-aware other people were with me too. I explained that hearing loss was becoming much more common as the population is getting older, so it is really important to know how to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people. I think it is really important to teach schoolchildren good deaf awareness from an early age so that they can communicate well with older people who may have a hearing loss.

I finished my talk in the assembly by teaching the pupils some basic BSL fingerspelling. I really enjoyed this as they were really receptive and engaged by it. They seemed to learn from me really quickly and easily. Also, when I showed them the photo of my dog Jake and the one of me watching my favourite football team, Manchester City, I could tell they were really engaged. I could see from their reactions that they responded well to visual images and their enthusiasm was infectious.

I then gave talks to smaller classes of pupils. The children were also really engaged and keen to learn fingerspelling. They asked me to teach them some animal signs in BSL. Since my first language is English and my knowledge of BSL is still pretty basic, I found it easy to sign simple animals’ names such as ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ etc. but then I was really put to the test when they asked me more complex animal signs such as ‘koala bear’ and ‘kingfisher’. I think they were testing me on purpose, and when I tried to sign ‘kingfisher’, for instance, I made the sign for ‘king’, then ‘fisherman’, followed by the sign for ‘bird’. I hope that is right, but I’m still not sure. If anyone else could help me out with this, please let me know!

I really enjoyed myself that day at Holy Trinity Primary School. The whole day had been really rewarding, although I felt tired by the end of it. I came away with a real buzz, so pleased that I had been a part of the school’s Disability Awareness Week and that I had been able to teach the pupils something new about deaf awareness. I also felt I had learned from them about their enthusiasm and responsiveness to learn new things. I found this totally refreshing and it gave me a sense of joy and purpose.








The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Voluntary Award reception: a royal celebration of voluntary work


A while ago, I received an email asking me if I would like to meet the Queen as a volunteer representative from Action on Hearing Loss at a reception to be held at St James’s Palace. This was to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Voluntary Awards, with sixty voluntary organisations across the UK, including Action on Hearing Loss, being recognised for their voluntary service during the Queen’s sixty-year reign. When I read the email, I immediately thought that it couldn’t be true. It must have been sent to the wrong person by mistake. Why would they want a hard of hearing person from Essex, who does voluntary work in his community, to represent them at such an auspicious event, even if I do feel passionate about it?

A couple of weeks later, I received a beautiful formal invitation sent from the Queen’s Master of the Household inviting me to the Reception to be held on the 29th May. I couldn’t believe it! When I had got over the initial shock, I started to feel really excited, but also incredibly nervous. I started to worry. What would I wear? What was the etiquette on an occasion like this? How do I bow to the Queen? Do I address her as ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Your Majesty?’ I wasn’t exactly used to meeting the Queen, so I really didn’t know how to act.

I was also really worried about my hearing loss and communication problems at such a big occasion. I was concerned that I might not be able to hear people and that I might not be able to hear what the Queen said to me. How would I be able to respond to her if I hadn’t heard her? I really didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I started to become more nervous at the thought of this as the day approached. I also thought that I would become really tired after struggling to lip-read people for a couple of hours.

When the big day arrived, I put on my wedding suit, my newly polished shoes and my brand new shirt and tie, which I’d bought especially for the occasion. I felt really excited, but nervous. As I sat on the tube into Central London, I felt around for my hearing aid batteries and I realised I couldn’t find the spare ones. Oh no. What would happen if my hearing aid battery went flat and then I wouldn’t be able to hear the Queen at all? I started to panic at the thought of that. Thankfully, I rummaged around and found them to my great relief.

When I arrived, I met Peter from Action on Hearing Loss beforehand, and he completely put me at my ease. As we strolled up the Mall, I saw some crowds of tourists watching the Changing of the Guards, and I thought to myself ‘Oh my goodness, I will actually be meeting the Queen in person in about five minutes time at St James’s Palace’. I had to pinch myself to remind me that it was really happening.


When we arrived at St James’s Palace, we were ushered into the reception room, where we were handed a glass of champagne. The reception itself was to be held in the Throne Room. There was a long queue of people waiting to go into the Throne Room to shake hands with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who was also present. I glanced around at my surroundings in awe. The reception room was absolutely beautiful and incredibly opulent. The carpet and walls were covered in red and gold and on the walls hung portraits of the Queen’s royal ancestors, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. I felt completely overwhelmed by the grandness and beauty of it. I had never been anywhere like this in my life! St James’s Palace was built by Henry VIII and it is the senior palace of the British monarchy. The Throne Room is still used today for official Royal occasions and it is where the Queen receives visiting Heads of States on State visits. I couldn’t believe I was actually in such an important, historic place.


In the Throne Room, I stood in line and waited for my name to be called out as I was introduced to the Queen. She smiled at me, reached out her hand and greeted me warmly. I shook her hand and bowed to her, relieved that I hadn’t fainted at that moment or had not been able to hear her. I smiled back and acknowledged her kind greeting. Then I met the Duke of Edinburgh and I shook his hand too. I was so incredibly happy and proud to represent the volunteers of Action on Hearing Loss at that moment.

After this, I chatted over a glass of champagne and canapés to some of the other volunteers from across the UK who were also there to celebrate receiving their Awards. I was amazed that there were so many volunteers present, representing a wide diversity of voluntary organisations, from the large national charities and the Olympics-related groups to much smaller voluntary organisations. I spoke to some volunteers from Guide Dogs for the Blind and the Sea Cadets. I also spoke to a man who told me he had volunteered for forty years for the British Red Cross, which I found really inspiring. He told me that they do a lot of voluntary work in the UK helping vulnerable, elderly people, which I had no idea about before.

I thought it was incredible that so many thousands of people around the UK give up so much of their time and are so passionately committed to helping others in their local communities. I felt immensely proud to be part of that. It was tiring trying to lip-read people and communicate in a noisy environment, but it felt very rewarding to be there amongst these dedicated and compassionate people that day.

On a personal level, I feel that the voluntary work that I have been doing over the last few years on the ‘Hear to Help’ programme run by Action on Hearing Loss has given me back my self-confidence and a great sense of purpose and desire to help other people in my local community with hearing loss, who may be experiencing similar hearing and communication problems as myself. I also really enjoy the social aspect of being with my fellow volunteers. To me, this is worth far more than money. It has helped me rebuild my life after being deeply affected by my hearing loss.


I was so proud and humbled to meet the Queen and the other volunteers at St James’s Palace that day. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me – one that I will never forget!

Hadrian’s Wall Marathon Walk: veni, vidi, vici

Last weekend my wife Joanna and I did a 26-mile trek over two days along the only remaining sections of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, from Lanercost Priory to Brocolitia. We had planned to do this trek for several months before this. Joanna had done various sponsored runs before, but we wanted to find a challenge that we could do together, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to run. Also, we wanted to raise money for the charity Hearing Link, which has really supported me and other people living with acquired hearing loss and their families. Joanna comes from the North East originally and knows the area quite well, so it seemed an obvious choice for us to trek along Hadrian’s Wall.

ImageAs the weekend drew closer, I began to feel increasingly worried about it. I had done some training with Joanna and my dog in Epping Forest, but it is very flat there compared to the steep hills of Northumberland. I was also worried about camping in wet weather and if I would be able to hear what people were saying to me on the walk. I was also concerned about my poor balance, particularly on uneven ground and steep hills. To be honest, I was also worried about my level of fitness, being a bit overweight and whether I would actually be able to make it or not.

When we arrived at the campsite in Haltwhistle, the weather was surprisingly sunny and warm. I kept thinking that I just hoped it would last and not rain, particularly when I saw the size of our small tent. Before dinner, our guides for the weekend explained what the trek would involve and what to expect. I was really worried then as it suddenly dawned on me just how strenuous and tough the next day’s walk was going to be. I started to doubt my ability to do it again.

That first night, I didn’t sleep well at all in the tent. I kept tossing and turning and I just couldn’t make myself comfortable. When I woke up the next morning at 6.30 am, I felt pretty rough, but I was keen to get going. There were about fifteen of us in the group and we all set off together. However, we started off on a really steep hill, and halfway up, as I was completely out of breath, I thought that if it was going to be this hard, I doubted whether I’d be able to finish it.

As the day went on, I started to relax and enjoy it more. There was a real sense of camaraderie and human spirit in the group as people were helping and encouraging each other along. I was struggling to keep my balance on the hills and so a kind fellow walker lent me his walking pole to help steady me. This made a big difference to me and helped me to keep my balance. I also found it difficult to hear what people were saying when we were walking along, as it was very windy, but it was great that people wanted to talk to me. They helped me along with their words of encouragement and patience, although I couldn’t really hear what they were saying.


At the end of the first day’s trekking, I felt really tired with sore feet and aching limbs, but I was really pleased that I had made it. After dinner at the campsite, a rather charismatic and eccentric local man dressed in a Roman tunic gave us a highly entertaining talk about life as a Roman legionary in the Emperor Hadrian’s time and the various weapons that they used and armour that they wore to go into battle with their enemies such as the Ancient Britons. He asked for three volunteers from the group to wear some of the Roman legionary costumes and helmets that he’d brought along with him and re-enact battle scenes with various swords, shields and arrows while he explained how they marched against and killed each other in battle in rather graphic and gory detail. 


That night, I had no trouble sleeping after walking all day. Out of sheer exhaustion, I slept like a log. In fact, I snored so loudly I was told that I had kept most of the group awake. The next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed and raring to go, despite my aching limbs and sore feet. The second day was really strenuous but well worth it. It was tough climbing up those hills but when we reached the top and took a breather, the views were breathtaking. The sun was shining brightly and I could see far down the valley and across the fields filled with sheep and newborn lambs.

I could see Hadrian’s Wall stretching for miles ahead of us along the tops of the lush green and purple hills like a giant curvy and sinuous backbone. I thought about what an amazing feat of engineering the Romans had achieved two thousand years ago. They spent a decade and involved thousands of men building the northernmost frontier of their empire and then defended it for nearly 300 years.  It was a truly vast and spectacular sight.


The people Joanna chatted to along the way talked about why they were doing this challenge and how much it meant to them. They had all been personally affected by cancer or other serious medical conditions and disabilities among their families, their friends or themselves. They were all a truly inspiring and wonderful bunch of people. There were also some real characters in the group, who entertained us all along the way singing songs and telling funny stories.

Towards the end of the trek, I was really struggling to keep going but Marco, one of our guides, was very patient with me and encouraged me to keep going at my own pace. I was lagging at the back by this stage, but I knew that I was so close now to the finish I was determined to conquer it.


At the finish, we all felt an amazing sense of personal achievement as a group and we all congratulated and hugged each other. From my own personal perspective as a hard of hearing person, I felt that even though I had doubted my own ability to do this, I had pleasantly surprised myself that I could do it, through sheer determination and by believing in myself. For my next challenge, watch this space!