Much news coverage here last week about the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death – completely coincidentally we spent an afternoon in the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms on our London weekend – in hindsight good timing. A labyrinth of offices, map rooms and sleeping quarters deep under Whitehall which are in exactly the condition they were at the end of World War II. This is the very place where Churchill convened his war cabinet and (occasionally) spent the night. Husband and I had visited years ago, utter fascination was our lasting memory, so we decided to return with Son in tow. We fancied the double whammy of culture – learn all about Winston Churchill and tour the one-time secret bunker.
Entrance fees are fairly steep – £18 for adults but I had stumbled across the fact English Heritage members get 2 for 1 on adult tickets. It’s not made clear at the entrance but definitely worth knowing. In need of sustenance before we tackled those tunnels we made our way to the cafe first of all. Fighting against the tide somewhat – it is in the middle of the museum meaning you have to follow the tunnel half-way along and dodge people already on the self-guided tour. Worth the slight hassle though, we found it blissfully empty at midday – later in the afternoon it was horribly packed. The food was delicious, definitely worth a visit and it set us up nicely for the next couple of hours.
Fed and watered and raring to go we headed back to the entrance, picked up our audio guides and set off. The whole place is like a very powerful time capsule. It was the inner sanctum of the British government in World War II, the doors were locked on 16 August 1945 and everything is pretty much as they left it. The atmosphere is slightly eerie and ghostly – you really get the sense this is no reconstruction but the actual secret warren of bombproof rooms.
Quite gloomy and bleak throughout we really got a great sense of how awful it must have been for the 500 or so people who worked here and rarely saw the light of day. There were signs around which told them weather conditions above ground, we even found a sun lamp they used as many suffered from a Vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunlight.
The sleeping quarters were fascinating, Son was fascinated by the chamber pots under every bed. All those people lived here but there were no flushing toilets. We saw the kitchen, the private dining room for the Churchills and even their bedrooms. A broom cupboard, pretty innocent looking from the outside had a telephone with a direct line to the White House.
Churchill’s bedroom was where he addressed the nation. There is a BBC microphone in the room, this was the very spot where many of those stirring broadcasts took place. Beside his bed was the metal box he used to put out his cigars.
I found the Map Room particularly intriguing – two original maps on the wall are covered in pinholes marking the positions of mines, U-boats and there was a pencil drawing on it of Hitler.
Midway through the bunker is the (relatively) new Churchill Museum. This is all very modern and takes up 10,000 sq ft to tell the story of Churchill’s life and personality. It covers five key chapters in his life starting with the war years. Most intriguing for me was his childhood and having never seen the TV coverage of his funeral before, I was engrossed. The video footage of this was unmissable.
Lots to read, speeches to listen to and so many personal items on display – everything from his bow tie to his bowler hat, his siren suit and the coat he used to paint in, they even have the original front door to No 10 Downing Street. Son wasn’t so interested in all of this but he did enjoy the centrepiece – a 50 foot interactive table covering every month of Churchill’s life. Touch a date and the file opens with pictures, documents and lots of information. This kept him more than busy.
A fascinating and incredible museum – I loved the thought of being able to explore a place most never knew existed until the late 1970’s. The fact everything – including the rationed sugar cubes in one of the desks is still there, more or less as they left it when the lights were turned out in 1945 makes it even more intriguing. We spent about four hours in the bunker and the museum. Thoroughly enjoyable but we were very glad to go above ground and see daylight. Renewed admiration for those who in the bunker who saw it so rarely.