Bletchley Park: Background information when reading The Amber Shadows

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The Amber Shadows

by Lucy Ribchester

The Amber Shadows by Lucy Ribchester X
The Amber Shadows by Lucy Ribchester
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    Aug 2017, 464 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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Bletchley Park

This article relates to The Amber Shadows

Print Review

Bletchley Park MansionBletchley Park, the setting for Lucy Ribchester's The Amber Shadows, is situated about an hour's train ride north of London. The estate has been turned into a heritage museum open to the public since 1993.

Bletchley was originally a manor house on about 500 acres with rural outbuildings, but by the 1930s had fallen into disuse. The Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, scouted the estate as being a safe distance from London, yet on a direct train line for those in the know to be able to come and go. Here, the British "Government Code and Cipher School" staffed up in relative secrecy. Personnel numbered in the thousands during the war, of which about 75% were women. Enemy messages were intercepted on wireless then decrypted and translated at Bletchley. The information was then disseminated on a "need to know" basis to strategic commanders. Security was top priority, and people assigned to work at one of the temporary "huts" were discouraged from interacting with those from other units. Personnel were forbidden to discuss anything connected with the site or their jobs with outsiders, and incoming personal mail was directed to an anonymous post box in London. All of these details are portrayed with vivid accuracy in Ribchester's novel.

Codebreakers at WorkFor decades after the end of World War II, the actual crypto-technology, as well as Bletchley itself – which went by the code name: "Station X" – remained top-secret. Bletchley Park is now known as home to mathematician Alan Turing's groundbreaking team that cracked the Enigma cipher, shortened the war, and blazed a trail for today's computer industry. With its self-contained setting (complete with dining huts, park-like grounds, and convergence of bright minds), it foretold the tech-campus ambience and teamwork evident in many contemporary Silicon Valley companies.

First ComputersBletchley Park's grounds and buildings are open to visitors. In The Amber Shadows, Honey and her friends devote long hours working Typex machines. These are on exhibit in the museum along with other artifacts like uniforms and personal effects. Enigma machines, vintage telecom/radio equipment, and a replica of the clattering "bombe" machine are also displayed. Visitors keen on computing and codes can learn more at the National Museum of Computing, housed at the site and open by separate admission. The Bletchley Park Trust leases office space to tech startup enterprises and sponsors many educational opportunities. In these ways, Bletchley Park Trust is building bridges from the past to the future, ensuring preservation of a fascinating chapter of history.

Alan Turing's HutSome areas of Bletchley Park remain on restricted access, due to active building restoration work, but some secrets still hide in the shadows: At least one unsolved mystery received much publicity in 2012 when a coded message attached to a carrier pigeon's skeleton was found nearby. The code has not yet been cracked, apparently because the original cipher book had been destroyed to maintain secrecy.

Bletchley Park
Code breakers at work, courtesy of
A Mark 2 Colossus computer. The ten Colossi were the world's first (semi-) programmable electronic computers, the first having been built in 1943.
Hut 8, where Alan Turing worked, courtesy of

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Karen Lewis

This article relates to The Amber Shadows. It first ran in the September 20, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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