Manufacturing, missions, masterminds, Monet, and machines: Year 11 Colloquium visit the Midlands

As the finale to their year, members of the Year 11 Colloquium have recently returned from a four-day trip to the Midlands. Built around the motto of the Scholarship Programme “Only Connect” the trip built on the themes covered in the regular meetings over the year and sought out themes beyond the obvious as well as links between them.

The Midlands trip began in an industrial park on the outskirts of Cambridge. Here is located the excellent Centre for Computing History. There were displays illustrating the growth in computing technology over time and it was chastening for the staff to see familiar objects of their youth displayed in cabinets as ancient artefacts! What was particularly appealing to the students was the hands-on nature of many of the exhibits, especially the games of the 1980s. This visit perhaps more than any other aspect of the trip highlighted the theme of change, both its causes and impact. The group next moved into the centre of Cambridge, where, following a picnic on Jesus Green, the students enjoyed a walking tour of the city and visits to both the Fitzwilliam and Zoological museums

The visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum also built on earlier work done in Year 10 when the group visited the Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The students were asked to reflect on the nature and purpose of the museum and how it reflected on its own purpose. There were also links in one of the works of art they were asked to reflect on by Nicholas Poussin. Of course, one of the world’s leading experts on that artist was Anthony Blunt. Blunt was one of the Cambridge spies, pardoned following a confession and in the heart of the establishment for many years as Director of the Courtauld Institute and Surveyor of the King’s later Queen’s pictures, exposed by Mrs Thatcher in 1979 and stripped of his knighthood. Much of this is captured in Alan Bennett’s play “A Question of Attribution.” Art, politics, drama, espionage and the uncovering of secrets, many links indeed, especially the Cold War context which was strongly evident in our next visit. Change of a natural kind was of course very evident in our final visit of the day to the Zoological Museum.

From Cambridge, we headed to Stratford upon Avon where our accommodation was. Just in time for England’s great escape in the dying seconds of normal time in the Euros.

Monday saw an exploration of technology old and new as we visited the National Space Centre at Leicester and the Victorian Abbey Pumping station next door. As well as marvelling at the technological advances and facilitating space exploration, the museum was also a history of the Cold War moving from conflict to cooperation over the International Space Station with the future more uncertain than it might have seemed a few years ago. The Pumping Station took us back to the genius of James Watt and the architecture of the building, as for so much of Victorian architecture housed cutting edge technology in Cathedral-like structures.

A day was hardly enough to do justice to Bletchley Park where the group explored the many facets of this Secret Facility dubbed “The Intelligence Factory” and its role in breaking not only the German Enigma Code but also its successor the Lorenz Cipher. The students enjoyed an excellent workshop about the latter, in which they undertook several code breaking exercises following an explanation of what made the Lorenz Cipher so difficult to crack. So many themes intertwine here; the creation of a small town of 9,000 people with all the attendant logistical demands, the cloak of secrecy, the importance of teamwork, the use of machines to defeat machines and the individual genius of those who worked there, most notably Alan Turing, but many others also. It is fitting to see Turing as the face on the £50 note and to read in the display Gordon Brown’s posthumous letter of apology from 2008 for the way the state had treated him in the post war years.

At the end of both these days there was an opportunity later in the afternoon for the opportunity to explore Stratford upon Avon and enjoy the shops and architecture of this medieval market town and the birthplace of William Shakespeare. The home of the RSC theatre, our visit provided the opportunity to reflect on the work of this master playwright.

On our final day we headed, not for the centre, but the outskirts of Oxford. Oxford is a city famous for manufacturing as well as learning (arguably a slightly artificial division) and the morning was spent at the BMW plant in Cowley where the Mini is produced. Watching the automated process in full swing it was easy to believe, whilst knowing it was a programme, in the consciousness of machines; indeed, the nature of consciousness is a theme that will be explored in the Sixth Form Symposium next term.

Our final destination was the city itself, where, following a walking tour led by Mr Cavendish and a short visit into The Queen’s College the students had some time to explore further themselves.

There was time on the coach home to reflect on the many activities undertaken, the themes explored, the range of experiences, and insight into life at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, provided valuable inspiration to the students, many of whom were already begun to consider the opportunities available to them after the Sixth Form.


One highlight of the trip for me was Bletchley Park. It was fascinating to learn how the codebreakers broke the Enigma and Lorenz machines by creating one of the first digital electronic computers, designed by Alan Turing, especially since the Enigma machine had 158,962,555,217,826,360,000 combinations and the Lorenz machine had an incomprehensible higher number of combinations. At the end of our codebreaking workshop where we used the Baudot code to break our own codes, and even getting the chance to use one of about 300 Enigma machines still left. This inspired me to buy my own codebreaking puzzle book in the gift shop. Overall, an amazing experience.


Visiting the BMW factory for Minis in Oxford was an amazing experience, as it showed off incredible applications of modern technology. Production lines were almost completely automated, with huge robotic arms moving to drill, solder or glue different pieces together. I found that the machines’ signal system to be very impressive as well, as no unit of robots would begin work until the previous unit was complete. This allowed for flexibility in timing and manufacturing. Overall, the massive building was greatly inspiring to those among the group who want to pursue engineering or product design.