Westminster at War

Westminster at War


Just how well do you know London? As a Londoner of more than 50 years’ standing, I thought I knew the capital inside out. One of London’s leading guided walks companies proved me wrong.

At a loose end on a quiet Sunday in August and needing some gentle exercise, I rediscovered London Walks http://www.walks.com/ and chose pretty much at random a walk entitled ‘Westminster at War’; it was brilliant with the main thrust the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. I discovered so many new facets in a well-trodden area, even though I thought I knew the route backwards

 We started by Embankment Tube station at 13.45pm for a two hour tour. Our first stop was Cleopatra’s Needle and the Sphinx where we saw damage in the plinth from the  First World War caused by fragments of a bomb dropped close by, in the first raid on London by German planes a few minutes before midnight on 4 September 1917. The damage was deliberately left unrepaired as a tribute.

We then went to the Savoy Hotel which has a flat roof with a balcony where journalists holed up in the Second World War. It was an ideal viewing point for them as German bombers on moonlit nights would follow the contours of the River Thames which reflected the moonlight and enabled the bombers to find their way around, despite the total blackout and total darkness. As a hotel on the riverfront, what could be a better viewing station? The overseas journalists were even briefed on the progress of the Second World in the Savoy’s American Bar. Incidentally, the guide told us, there was a huge increase in traffic accidents in the war as a result of the blackout which you never hear about. 

 We learnt dozens of other snippets such as the site of the first Headquarters of the RAF in the Strand in the former Hotel Cecil where there is a plaque to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the RAF in 1918.

The guide also told us that the Blitz spirit was sometimes a bit of PR. We walked at a steady pace to Piccadilly Circus where an underground dance hall (Café de Paris) supposedly the safest dance hall in London was hit by a bomb on 8 March 1941. 34 people were killed and around 80 injured. Our guide told us of an eyewitness who said, as the ambulance men were treating the bomb victims, thieves would steal  the jewellery from the glitterati, in a couple of instances even chopping off the victim’s fingers to steal their diamond rings.

We also learnt about Edward Murrow;  a famous American journalist who did outside broadcasts from St Martin’s Le Grand as the bombs fell. He put his microphone on the ground to record the sounds of people calmly walking to bomb shelters, “like ghosts with steel shoes.” He wanted to show there was no panic in London. He was also instrumental in bringing America into the war. 

We passed Eisenhower’s headquarters in St James’s Square and de Gaulle’s headquarters of the French Government in exile; the Vichy Government passed a law to guillotine him for treason. Near Carlton Gardens we  saw the Foreign Secretary’s fabulous perk of a grand private mansion in Carlton Gardens; must be worth £200m, at least!

Off the Mall, we saw statues of the Queen Mum and George VI and brand new friezes of the Queen Mum which I have never noticed before; one depicting her in among the bombs with St Pauls in the background, and the other more recently at the races surrounded by veterans. Just near the Mall we  saw the filming of the next instalment of ‘The Crown’ with dozens of vintage cars which put us all in the right spirit.

The lecturer aged about 50, Joanne Lee, was brilliant- a former criminal barrister, who brought the whole period alive. At the end of the walk, I was the only one with enough stamina left to go to the Churchill War Rooms. Joanne took me there, and she said that judging by the queue I would get in in about 20 minutes’ time, but if I booked online, there would be no queue. As I was quite tired after the walk and the guide said you needed 2 hours in the War Rooms, I decided to call it a day.

Joanne was so good I wanted to give her a tip, but had no change so gave her a tenner. She was really over the moon with that. I think I made her day as people generally do not tip the guides. I enjoyed the walk more than a film which in central London costs about the same.

There were about 30 to 40 people on the tour with an average age of about 50 to 60, although there were three young men in their 20s and a couple of children. One third was American, one third from London and the other visitors did not say where they were from.

This is the fourth walk I have done with London Walks, and they are all exceptional with the most well prepared and knowledgeable guides. One walk includes the Old Jewish Quarter around the East End, which incorporates a visit to the historic Bevis Marks Synagogue, Literary Bloomsbury and Brunel’s London with a bonus of a short river trip and a couple of tube rides. 

These urban walks, which take place every day of the week, throughout the year, cost £10, £8 for concessions;  just turn up and pay. They are far from the usual banal tourist fare. More details are available at http://www.walks.com/ 

Stephanie Hawthorne is an award-winning financial journalist

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