With the richness of the 21st century city on offer and our ever-busy lives, it’s easy to understand why. Yet the spirit and the shape of this great city are so inseparable from its times at war, and there are so many opportunities to see and find out more, it can be really rewarding to spend a little time learning about the experiences of the city during wartime.
Most people have visited the IWM at some point – I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been impressed when they did. It’s free, it’s huge, and pretty awe-inspiring. The Blitz experience begins to give some tiny sense of what it would have been like… particularly for kids where the intensity of the exhibits would seem greater. Beyond London, the Victoria and George Cross galleries and the Holocaust exhibit are deeply moving and not one to go to before trying to enjoy yourself somewhere – but a history always worth understanding.
Make a day of it and take a boat ride down the Thames to see HMS Belfast (have you ever been on a warship, seen the engine rooms, seen what the view from the bridge would have been?), and the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, with its fair share of information on the naval campaigns of the first and second world wars, and much beyond. Or take a stroll off the King’s Road and around the National Army Museum in Chelsea, where you can learn everything from the days when marching armies took their wives and families with them, to the reality behind ‘War Horse’, to the modern-day experience of Afghanistan – and check out the lectures, fitness and music special events! It’s also near the Royal Hospital, itself worth a tour around.
For anyone interested in aviation, the RAF Museum in Hendon is not to be missed. A little outside central London but accessible by tube, and free entry, the experience of standing underneath a Lancaster Bomber, dwarfed by its enormity, or entering a hangar full of the planes that would have filled our skies seventy years ago, can be a moving experience.
Check out the Churchill War Rooms, imagining the scurrying feet carrying vital papers along the corridors; the intensity of the Cabinet meetings taking decisions that would change Britain’s future; the maps plotting the battles across the world that shaped all of our histories; the scratch marks on the arms of Churchill’s chair bearing testament to the pressure of the real lives of our country’s leaders at the time. They often have great evening events like dances and lectures too, which are well worth a look.
Smaller but with unique appeal (and probably best if you don’t mind looking at lots of memorabilia) the Britain at War Experience on Tooley Street shows a few of the real life realities of war that we sometimes forget – the struggle for ladies to find good underwear (!); the looting that people found had happened after their homes and shops had been bombed; the reality of the social impact of GIs and so many others from different countries arriving in Britain.
And beyond the museums, just take a look around.
Have you noticed those pock marks from bomb damage, as you walk along Waterloo Bridge? (Itself constructed by a largely female workforce during the Second World War – and subsequently known as the Ladies’ Bridge). On the buildings of Whitehall? Tate Britain, or Cleopatra’s needle, or St Clement Danes in the Strand?
Look out on Lord North Street in Westminster for the stencilled signs pointing to the public bomb shelters. And there’s a good few, pretty conspicuous, deep level bomb shelters still around – the one in Stockwell notably brightly decorated as a war memorial.
Occasionally, particularly in outer London and along the river or railways, you can spot pillboxes, for holding off invasion and sometimes to hold anti-aircraft defences (presumably designed to be so indestructible it’s not worth trying).
London Walks does a good number of tours showing some of the things we never notice or imagined about our familiar street and buildings – including The Blitz, and Westminster at War.
For those who want to appreciate the ‘live for the moment’ side of wartime, events like Blitz Party and occasional charity dances enable us to experience some of the glamour of the 1940s. Treat them with respect – it’s easy to romanticise the glamour and the abandon and forget about the realities. But at the end of the day, the sacrifices of war were borne to enable a better future, and are part of why we’re lucky enough to live the relatively carefree lives many of us have now. So, take the time to be thankful every now and then, learn a little more if you’re interested – and be sure to make the most of this wonderful city we’re so lucky to be able to enjoy in peace and freedom.
Author: Ann Griffiths