Six less than obvious tales from the Churchill War Rooms

I’ve done so many tours of the Churchill War Rooms recently (né Cabinet War Rooms, né Central War Room) that I’m half-expecting them to give me my own office there. In March alone I did six tours, and there are another half a dozen already slotted in for this month (april).

The place is – quite rightly – a key site, particularly for US visitors, and the bounce back of small group and family tours from the USA is manifesting in the repeated requests I get to show people round. We are though, still in that happy state where although visitor numbers are up, they are not anywhere near as overwhelming as pre covid. (Shortly after The Darkest Hour came out the queues could be three hours or more long for those who hadn’t booked a timed slot.)

It’s fortunate then that I still get a kick out of the venue, both the historic rooms and the attached Churchill Museum. There’s a video I made early in lockdown about the cabinet room itself, and rather than use this blog post to give you the ‘grand tour’ of the museum, here are some of the smaller details that it’s easy to miss, but which tell some deep tales about life in the rooms and about the war.

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Recent Reading – books about Winston Churchill

I’m about to start several tours for (mainly) Americans who are following in the footsteps of Winston Churchill. We’ll be doing Chartwell, Blenheim, Bletchley Park, the Cabinet War Rooms, and various Winston-related sites in the capital.

I’ve been prepping like mad by reading a whole bunch of biographies and commentaries, some of which are listed below.

There are millions more, and if I read any others I’ll add them to this list. Recommendations from you, dear reader of this blog, are welcome.

And of course, don’t forget Boris Johnson’s biography of Churchill. I say ‘don’t forget’ so that you remember never to buy it or waste your time reading it – “bears about as much relation to a history book as an episode of Doctor Who does to a BBC4 documentary” is one of the politer reviews.

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The Opening Ceremony at the Tower of London

You’ve probably heard of the Tower of London’s ‘Ceremony of the Keys’ that takes place just before 10pm every day. This is when the Tower is officially locked up for the night, and the Ceremony has taken place every day since the 1300s (or 1500s – as with so much to do with the Tower, the stories differ). The Chief Yeoman Warder (“Beefeater”) is escorted by four guards from the Tower detachment and locks the outer, Middle and Byward gates.

As this group returns they are challenged by a sentry: “Halt! Who comes there?” he shouts.

“The keys” replies the Chief. “Whose keys?”. “Queen Elizabeth’s keys!” “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s keys and all’s well.”

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Map of London’s Churchill Locations

I’ve been adding a few more Churchill locations to my map (see below) as well as doing a bit of housekeeping and categorisation. You can now see the houses where Churchill lived in the capital, places where he’s memorialised and some establishments that are associated with him.

If you know of places that should be added, please do drop them into the ‘comments’ below and I shall update the map again shortly.

Stockwell’s concrete cathedral for buses

stockwell bus garage interior

Fall asleep on a Go-Ahead bus and you might just be lucky enough to wake up in the depot – the soaring, concrete cathedral that is Stockwell Bus Garage. (It’s 100m or so from Stockwell station.)

Opened in 1952, at the time it had Europe’s largest unsupported roof span, the vast space inside (6,800 sq metres, or roughly ten football pitches) able to house 200 buses.

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Westminster Abbey’s Hidden Highlights Tour

I am a jaded old cynic, a London Blue Badge Guide who has taken people round Westminster Abbey what, 200? 300 times? Pre-covid, some weeks I was taking tours three or four times a week, desperately trying not to sound like a man on autopilot as I talked about (yet again) Scientists’ Corner or the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

But the Hidden Highlights tour I went on this morning… Oh man, my socks have been blown so far off they’re probably halfway to the USA.

This is a £15 add-on to the normal entrance fee* and is worth every penny and more, showing you parts of the Abbey that are generally not things that any visitor sees. 

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An Elizabethan Prisoner’s Graffiti

The Tower of London, famous though it is for prisoners, had no dungeons as such: the incarcerated would be held in rooms in different buildings throughout the Tower’s 12 acres (5 hectares), and one’s treatment depended a great deal on how wealthy or how well-connected one was.

So Hew Draper, a Bristol innkeeper, is unlikely to have had a luxurious time when he was sent to the Tower in March 1560, at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I. The Tower was not a prison for ‘common criminals’, but for those who beliefs, actions or existence were a threat to the state, and so it is with Draper, accused of ‘practising sorcery’. (Draper claimed that although he had been interested in magic, he had destroyed all of his magical books.)

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“Exquisite Pain” in St Bart’s

The church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield is one of the jewels of London. A breathtakingly beautiful architectural gem that has occupied its site for 900 years.

It is one of the capital’s oldest parish churches, founded as it was in 1123 by Rahere, a courtier (some say the jester) to Henry I, the son of the Conqueror. Rahere had been on a pilgrimage to Rome when he fell ill, promising God that if he were spared he would build a hospital for the poor on his return to London. After his recovery he had a vision of St Bartholomew who told him the place where the church should be founded, just outside the City walls in Smithfield.

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