London’s Churchill War Rooms and Museum.
I’ve been walking about London for the last 30 years, and I find something fresh in it everyday.
So wrote Walter Besant, who died in 1901 – well before the Churchill War Rooms existed.
Like many who live in London I feel much the same and when Context Travel invited me to try one of their guided tours I picked something that I hadn’t done before – and something I might otherwise never do.
With a knowledge of Churchill that leapfrogs from what I learnt at school through to what I know about his preferred Champagne (Pol Roger), a guided tour of the Churchill War Rooms and Museum seemed the ideal opportunity to fit more pieces into the jigsaw and learn about more about one of the most influential characters of the 20th century. Run by the Imperial War Museum, I had a vague idea of what kind of things might be on display, but no real knowledge of what to expect.
Context Travel offers a range of private and semi-private tours not just in London but around the world. Their aim, as their name suggests, is to create an ‘atmosphere’ for travellers who want to learn. Our group, blue badge guide Sean and two charming American ladies were all Context travel regulars. Sean told me that he only worked for Context and it was clear from the start of our tour that he had a real passion for the story he was about to deliver.
Before we went into the museum and the War Rooms we took a short walk to see both Number 10 Downing Street and the suite where Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine spent much of the latter part of the war, known as the Number 10 Annexe. We learnt that Churchill had actually spent very little time in the Cabinet War Rooms, despite serious damage to number 10 itself and to the surrounding area. And that while he spent much time in the Number 10 Annexe, those who worked there were sworn to secrecy.
Work on The Cabinet War Rooms as they were first known started almost immediately, creating a set of offices and rooms under what was then known as the ‘New Public Offices’ but what is now the Treasury offices. The idea was that not only would there be somewhere the government could work safely if London was being bombed, but that if the country was invaded, the Cabinet War Rooms would be a stronghold. In fact, we now know that had there been a direct hit on the building, the Cabinet War Rooms would not have survived.
But, set up as it was, it provided not just office space but rooms where Churchill, Clementine and essential members of staff could stay overnight, albeit in a space which was damp, dark and uncomfortable. Churchill reputedly much preferred the Number 10 Annex and particularly enjoyed sitting on the room watching the planes flying overhead at night.
The War Rooms themselves are a series of beautifully preserved rooms which really do show the workings of the British Government and military during the Second World War. Once the war was over, much of the labyrinth was simply left untouched from 14 August 1945 until in 1948 Parliament announced that what survived would be preserved and would eventually open to the public.
So, now as you walk around, you can see some incredible detail, from maps and charts in the main Map Room to the Transatlantic telephone room where Churchill would sit for hours talking in secret to the US president.
Churchills own room has all the original furniture. He was known to work until late into the night and the walls of his space were lined with maps. But, for privacy, those maps could be hidden behind full-length curtains.
The room of Brendan Bracken, at the time the Minister for Information and Winston Churchill’s political aide and confidant, is still intact. Bracken, who was known to his staff as ‘BB’ was the inspiration for Eric Blair, who later wrote under the pen name George Orwell. Thus, in 1984, BB became Big Brother and the Ministry of Information became the ministry of truth.
And, there are some poignant reminders of rationing including sugar lumps that were found hidden in Wing Commander John Heagerty’s drawer in the Map Room, carefully shaved away at the edges to make them last longer.
The typewriters were specially ordered from the United States – Remington Noiseless typewriters to help maintain the quiet working environment that Churchill insisted on. And, there’s an extra layer of concrete reinforcement which is clearly visible at certain points in the War Rooms. Apparently, Churchill himself was not convinced the steel reinforced basement would be strong enough to withstand a bomb and ordered the alteration – although it’s now known that it would have made little difference in the event of a direct hit.
The Churchill Museum is a more recent development, added in 2005 at which time the Cabinet War Rooms were renamed the Churchill War Rooms.
There’s a comprehensive section on the history of the Second World War, including an interactive timeline which I could happily have spent hours playing with. More significantly perhaps though, most of the Museum is dedicated to Churchill himself, starting with his childhood and school days – he was, apparently a less than brilliant student and much-preferred playing war games with his lead soldiers.
I knew very little about Churchill’s own history and was fascinated to learn that not only had he been an Army officer (though it took him three attempts to get into Sandhurst), but that he’d been First Lord of the Admiralty, a post which he held for part of the First World War.
We learnt that thanks to his extravagant way of life he was constantly short of money. His political career was complemented by work as a writer and journalist. He published many of his speeches as a way of making more money.
And, by the end of the Second World War, the bills were so high that it was only the support of friends and a move to give Chartwell, his home, to the Country on condition he could continue to live there, which helped him avoid bankruptcy.
When we went into the museum part of the Churchill War Rooms I was cynical about Sean’s comment that we could easily have spent the whole day there. By the time we left, I understood exactly what he meant.
After a quick stroll around the area to see some of the war memorials, I left the group and headed home.
My first context tour and I hope not my last, I was genuinely impressed with Sean who was engaging and enthusiastic. As we were going around, the other guides kept telling us how lucky we were to be with him – and I couldn’t help but agree. It turns out that after a career in financial services, Sean trained as a blue badge guide so he could focus on his passions and share some of his knowledge with visitors to London. Our two American companions were both Context regulars and they both confirmed that their choice was due to finding that the quality of Context tours was consistently outstanding. For me, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from Sean and I found myself inspired enough to buy the book he recommended for further reading.
Context offers a range of tours across a variety of interests, from history and architecture through to food and special tours designed for kids. You can choose private tours or join a small group like the one I enjoyed, with a maximum of six people. For more about their tours in London check out their website
For more about the Churchill War Rooms and all of the Imperial War Museum Venues, check their website
And, do check my short feature for information about more places to see in London that you might not have come across before.