If you should come into the Abbey through the West Door and into the nave, you will walk over the memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, but everyone, whether commoner or Queen, walks around the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
This is the last resting place of a British soldier, “known only to God” and is a commemoration of British war dead, conceived in the aftermath of WW1. The red flowers around it are paper poppies, a symbol of remembrance from a First World War poem – “In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row”. Poppies thrive in ground that has been churned up, so the bombed out land and the grave sites away from the front line encouraged their blooms.
Even with the recently announced lockdown relaxation it seems unlikely that there will be many guided tours, or indeed visitors, over the next few months.
That’s why a few friends and I have got together to offer virtual tours and talks, so that we can show you the best of London and the UK through the magic of the interweb. (See our trailer below)
You’ll find a complete list of what we have scheduled here. Some of our regular tours include the British Museum, Churchill War Rooms, the National Gallery, Bath and Roman London, and we’ll be adding more over the coming weeks.
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.
During the war the London County Council surveyors chronicled the devastation caused by enemy bombing on the capital. Hand colouring street level OS maps, they plotted the buildings damaged; generally speaking, the darker the colour, the more the devastation – black was “total destruction”, purple “damaged beyond repair”, right through to yellow “blast damage: minor in nature”.
Take a look at the example above, the area around St Paul’s cathedral showing the destruction caused by ‘the second great fire of London’ on the night of 29/30 December 1940, when huge swathes of the City burned and the firefighters struggled to contain the conflagration.
Generally speaking, the further east one goes the more the damage, the docks being a strategic target for the Luftwaffe, but there is hardly a district that didn’t have some bombs falling, regardless of whether they were close to ‘legitimate targets’ or simply the rows of residential terraces. (The ‘Bomb Sight’ project maps these.) As well as the damage caused by the main Blitz of 1940/41, the LCC also recorded the impacts of the V1s and V2s in 1944 and 1945, these terror weapons falling genuinely randomly across the capital.
The maps have been available in book form for some time, and each visit I make to the Cabinet War Rooms I leaf through a copy and wonder how to justify the thick end of fifty quid. However, today those lovely people at Layers of London made the map available online, but it’s even better than that.
Because the whole concept of Layers of London is that one can superimpose historic maps on those of the present, or merge two multiple old maps together, making the historic relatable to the present or to another period. So one can look at the bomb damage on a modern map, the maps of the 1960s, or even (should you wish to try it – and I have) in relation to 18thC maps of the city. Below is a screen grab of my street, with the bomb damage superimposed on the modern map (there is infill housing in both places).
This is a stupendous and wonderfully generous piece of work, and I for one will be wasting several hours on the map over the next few days.
75 years ago George Orwell, the author of 1984 wrote, “as I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead trying to kill me”.
He was talking about the Blitz, the WW2 bombing campaign by the German airforce that attempted to destroy London’s industry and infrastructure and shatter the morale of the population. Between September 1940 and May 1941 over 18,000 tonnes of high explosive was dropped on London, up to a million and a half homes were damaged or destroyed, and nearly 30,000 people killed. It seems almost impossible to us, living here in this cosmopolitan city, that all this horror and destruction took place within a human lifetime.
And this monument commemorates some of the people who helped London survive: the firefighters – professionals and auxiliaries, men and women – the “heroes with grimy faces” as Winston Churchill called them.