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A London Travel Idea – Visiting the Churchill War Rooms

I was recently in London for the first time in over 15 years…a lot had changed (the city is more diverse, more wealthy, and has an awful lot of new glass and steel buildings) and lot hadn’t (the roads still helpfully tell you which way to look out for traffic, traffic obediently stops at the zebra crossing, exit signs still say “Way Out,” the tube is constantly reminding everyone to “mind the gap,” the Indian food is good, and the pizza is not).

We had a great time, enjoying some rather surprisingly lovely weather, meeting up with some friends, visiting some of the old familiar sites, eating quite well, and drinking more than was strictly good for us. One of the highlights, though, which I’d never been to before, and which was refurbished and expanded back in 2005, was the Churchill War Rooms, one of the branches of the Imperial War Museums.

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Abandoned in 1945, and closed to the public entirely until 1984, this is where Britain’s leaders took shelter from bombing raids, underground in cramped offices. There are colored lights that signified air raids, ashtrays galore, the door Churchill walked through at 10 Downing Street, the tiny transatlantic telephone room (disguised as a toilet, and where Churchill could speak to FDR in strict secrecy), and the famous Map Room (the original maps with pins in them still on the walls). It’s got a claustrophobic feel (as it should). If you’re interested in military history, it’s a must-see.

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If you’re interested in cultural and social history, it’s also pretty good, because the exhibit also features the stories of the men and women who worked in the War Rooms, and what their lives were like there. Sometimes they would sleep in the dormitories (stooping to get into doorways that were only four feet high, using smelly chemical toilets, and encountering rats and bugs)–and sometimes they would choose to risk their lives going home instead. The hours were long and the fear was great. Fortunately, so was the camaraderie.

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There’s also (about a third of the way through the tour) the Churchill Museum, which covers Winston Churchill’s life as a soldier, a journalist, a politician, a family man, a depressive, a wartime leader, and a statesman. He held many strong (and often rather unpopular) opinions, opposing independence for India, supporting Edward VIII during the Abdication crisis of 1936, and criticizing the policy of appeasing Hitler. He described taking over the position of Prime Minster during WWII: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.” After his work helped Britain defeat the Nazis, he coined the term “iron curtain” to describe Communism descending in Eastern Europe. He eventually won the Nobel Prize in Literature in recognition of his historical writing. A fascinating and eventful life of 90 years…it would be easy to spend hours engrossed in the biographical details.

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The whole experience is pretty haunting, actually. The corridors are narrow (you won’t be able to carry much with you…leave your large bags in your hotel), and the lines can be long, but it’s incredibly powerful to see this history up close and personal. Having visited FDR’s Home and Presidential Library & Museum last year, it was fascinating to see what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of anshar / Shutterstock.com