St James’s Place, which cuts between St James’s Street and Green Park, has the modernist/brutalist Target House at one end, and the vast neo-classical pile of Spencer House overlooking the park at the other. It also has an interesting selection of blue (and other) plaques, demonstrating the range of famous residents that have occupied houses in the street.
First along the way at number 4 is the Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin who, in November 1848, “went to Guildhall to give his last public performance” – a recital for Polish emigres. Shortly after this a very ill Chopin returned to his home in Paris where he died in the autumn of the following year.
At the corner of Love Lane and Aldermanbury, round the back of the old City of London Police HQ, is a ‘pocket park’ that was (on a hot sunny day in May) full of City and building workers eating their lunches and catching some rays.
This is the site of the churchyard of St Mary Aldermanbury, a parish church first mentioned in 1181, destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire, rebuilt by Wren and gutted in the Blitz. The original church was where Henry Condell and John Heminges were buried. These were two actors who were members of the King’s Men, the acting company to which William Shakespeare belonged and for which most of his plays were written. It is Heminges and Condell that we can thank for the ‘First Folio’, the collection of Shakespeare’s plays published in 1623 some seven years after his death. Without the First Folio edition, it is more than likely that many of the plays would have been lost to history. At the corner of the old churchyard is a memorial to the two actors, topped with a bust of Shakespeare, that was erected in 1896.
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.
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.
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.
Wander down the street and you’ll pass blue plaques to Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout movement, to the author Enid Bagnold, Sir Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, both of whom were born here) and the sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein*.
My Instagram Live talk from today about the Cabinet Room in the Central War Rooms and how it was used in WW2.
“This is the room from which I shall direct the war” said Winston Churchill in May 1940. Click on ‘play’ to hear about the set up, the atmosphere, the tense meetings and arguments that took place beneath the streets of Westminster, and to see some of the incredible artefacts that have been preserved in the space.
With us all locked down it’s impossible to do tours at present, so I’ll be experimenting with some online tours. This is the first effort (at the risk of underselling it, I’m hoping they’ll improve with practice) – an introduction to the Churchill War Rooms.
I’ll do a couple more on the Cabinet Room and the Map Room in the next couple of weeks, but this one attempts to set the context for their creation and introduce a couple of characters that you may not have heard of.