Churchill War Rooms review (Mar 2014)
This is an old review Read my most recent review here
I quite like World War II. It seems like a lot of fun. But obviously I say that as someone who has never fought a fight in his life. The closest I've come to war is watching Rambo on the telly. The Churchill War Rooms did a very good job of transporting me back in time to how it was in the Blitz, evoking nostalgic thoughts of things I never did. I could almost smell the army issue fags and hear the tring tring tring of Bakerlite telephones. It doesn't take much imagination to see the ceilings shaking and dust flooding the tunnels as a bomb drops on Whitehall.
The whole place is a portal back to the 1940s with cramped tables and chairs stuffed up against stacks of maps and old fashioned equipment. They've got little ashtrays littering the table tops (no health and safety back in those days -- when you've got bombs dropping outside you may as well smoke where you like!) and pss-pots in the corner. Lamplights swing down off the ceiling with creamy yellow bulbs on a bare black wire. Very gloomy. It must have been very foggy with all the fag ash. The long brick corridors are brutally plain, with no pictures or paint-job, just a warren of wooden doors and an artery of iron pipes running up and down the passage. Dull bulbs drop down at regular intervals and I can see them flickering on and off when a bomb hits, dust choking up the place coughing and !@$% up your lungs.
As you stalk the gloomy corridors you have the guide playing in your ears, describing each room in detail with dramatisations of cabinet meetings and famous phone calls done by actors. The acting is pretty good too, they've got a decent Churchill and a succession of plummy voiced generals and Air Force attaches. Some of the lowly nobodies get a look as well, with diary extracts and interviews from secretaries and staff. The guy who does the commentary is straight out of history, like a kindly old narrator reminiscing about his youth.
The first room on the tour is the best of the bunch -- the War Cabinet Room where Churchill directed the war. It still has the same arrangement of tables and chairs in it, and you wouldn't believe how cramped it is. These guys weren't sitting in splendour whilst the public shuffled up in the streets. They are all wedged in as many as can fit, big blokes in military uniforms, peering around each others shoulders to get a glimpse of the big man.
The tour stops off for a detour at this point, through the Churchill Museum. This is basically a big warehouse room all done up in blacks and greys, with glass cabinets and displays filled with computer TV screens and memorabilia. They've even got some touch-table tops with maps and battle plans from the war. They've got some great objects in here -- like one of the captured Enigma machines, and Churchill's bowler hat and cigar. They've even got his watercolours, paints and paintbrushes, and one of his man-baby romper suits. You can see everything from his bow-tie and bottle of Pol, to his old army uniforms and automatic pistol. One of the cabinets has got all of his medals on show -- 37 of them (I counted), all the way back to his wars in Africa.
When you leave the museum you'll head back onto the tour and past the pokey little bedrooms of the detectives and generals. They don't look too comfy... more like a prison cell. They are all kitted out with steel tubular bunk beds and scratchy blankets, with a tin !!@$%$% in the corner, candle stubs and shaving mirror. There is invariably a gas mask stashed away somewhere too, if you take the time to look. If the inhabitant was important then they'll get a little threadbare bit of carpet too, to brighten up the bare brick walls and the hot bright bulb swinging from a lone wire on the ceiling.
The Prime Minister's Dining Room is another sorry excuse for a room, with a table and plates and a few watercolours on the wall. It's the kind of decor that will make the food taste sour. It's set up for two -- him and Clemmie. I wonder what they had for tea. Clemmie's bedroom is probably the nicest room of the lot. She gets a pink bedspread, comfy plush armchair and a dressing table too, to fix up her posh lady's perm. Winston sure knew how to treat the ladies.
The little kitchen nearby is very evocative of the times. It's kitted out with a tin sink and copper pots and plates. Big metal stoves and bread bins stacked up high in the cupboards, with plunger pumps and floor wax propped against the pipes. They've got a crate of suds in the corner too, underneath the fire blanket -- hidden away for when no one's noticing.
The Chief of Staff's Conference Room is quite well appointed, and much nicer than the War Cabinet Room. It's got a long table with green felt cloth, glasses and beakers and candles on the top table. There are also some huge campaign maps pinned on the wall like wallpaper. Lots of little pinprick in them, where they've been hatching their plans.
It was at this point that I had a little sit-down and a rest, because they've turned one of the rooms into a little cafe selling 'Churchill's mash' and cups of tea. It's worth a look inside just to listen to all the old wartime tunes playing out the radio. It's all Dame Vera Lynn and We'll Meet Again, with some barbershop quartets and Glenn Miller too -- the kind of stuff that your granny would love. They are also lots of wartime posters pasted on the wall, imploring you to grow your own vegetables and "Dig for Victory!". It was while I was in here that I noticed my phone didn't work -- I couldn't get a signal. So maybe we were deeper underground than I thought.
After that comes the BBC broadcast room (full of audio equipment) and the typist's pool. Most of the rooms from this point on are staffed by waxworks acting out the different roles, beavering away at the switchboards, answering phones, and tapping out letters on the their clapped-out typewriters. The typing pool is interesting because amongst the typewriters, pens and pencils are two dolled-up young ladies fixing their make-up in the mirror, and a gas mask on the table. It makes you wonder what this place was really like all those years ago.
When you see a room like the 'Advanced Headquarters of the Home Forces' then you'll be amazed that we ever won the war. Because this so-called 'Advanced HQ' is nothing more than a few small rooms with four desks in it, a few phones and a fire bucket, held up by three big wooden beams.
The last room on the tour is the Prime Minister's bedroom. It's just got a single bed in it, a big map on the wall where posters of pop stars are supposed to be, a pss-pot on the floor, and a big desk with a mike and telephone. He's also got a load of terrain maps dotted around the place so he can go to bed dreaming of troop movements and fighting fronts. Sweet dreams, Winston.
Guest – Hi, i loved your post about the tourists talking about the sherlock holmes museum as if he was real. I am wondering if you would suggest us visiting the Imperial War Museum before or after the Churchill War Rooms. Or if you think only one will suffice for a 5 day visit to London. (with teenagers) thanks, appreciate all your candid reviews. elana
Craig – I think i would probably do the imperial war museum first. Simply because it is a little bit further away from the centre of town, and you can use that wasted hour before it opens at 10 AM to get there. (PS. the imperial war museum is closed until the 19th July for refurbishments.) the churchill war rooms is closer to the centre of town, so it will be easier to do stuff after if you do it second Both of the them are good and worth a visit. But if you've got very young teenagers then maybe just do one of them, because they will probably find both a bit boring. Older adult/teenagers will be okay. The churchill war rooms is basically just you looking at a load of historic rooms through plates of glass — boring for kids, especially if they don't know who winston churchill is (I'm sure that doesn't apply to your kids!) The imperial war museum is more varied and has got some "rides", if you like, like the blitz experience and the trench experience.
I’ve been here before…
Events at Churchill War Rooms…
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