diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Excursion 4a: Cabinet War Rooms
Sixty years ago the lights were turned out in this top secret bunker beneath Whitehall which had been home to Britain's alternative seat of government throughout World War II. Today the subterranean corridors are crawling with American tourists, here to view the room where cabinet meetings were held during the darkest days of the war, the maps on which officers charted the loss of Allied convoys and the desk from which Churchill made some of his most famous radio broadcasts. There's also the secret broom cupboard inside which Churchill used to talk on the phone to the American President, disguised on the outside as an engaged toilet. The bunker has been perfectly restored to look just as it would have done in October 1940 (apart from the obligatory cafe and gift shop) and the whole experience gave me the feeling that I was walking through history. See also: Paddock in Neasden.
Excursion 4b: Churchill Museum
Halfway round the tour of the Cabinet War Rooms there's a new attraction, a spacious underground gallery opened by the Queen just two months ago. The museum celebrates the life of Winston Churchill, cunningly starting in 1940 and charting the years leading up to his funeral in 1965 before rewinding to tell the rest of his story from the beginning. Every modern multimedia trick is used to make the exhibits interactive and engrossing, and I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and variety of material presented. This is no propaganda whitewash, this is a fitting tribute to the former MP for Woodford. And they sell chocolate cigars in the gift shop.
by tube: Westminster

Excursion 5: Sir John Soane's Museum
Here's a rare treasure hidden behind the busy streets of Holborn. When Sir John Soane became Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806 he set about transforming his town house into an inspirational museum for his students. Today's curator permits only 20 visitors inside the house at one time, so I was forced to queue out on the pavement before being admitted to see the delights inside. The library and drawing room looked almost normal compared to the bizarre collection of marble busts, classical casts and ancient antiquities that covered the walls of the rooms behind. Throw in a genuine Egyptian sarcophagus, some noteworthy timepieces and a few prime Canalettos and this is a truly eclectic experience. I was most impressed to stumble upon Hogarth's Rake's Progress, eight evocative canvases depicting the gradual decline of of a young landowner from money to madness. Who'd have thought that this art classic was tucked away in a small house overlooking the green oasis of Lincoln's Inn Fields?
by tube: Holborn

Excursion 6: Dr Johnson's House
That splendid episode of Blackadder III featuring Robbie Coltrane as Dr Johnson is being repeated on BBC2 tonight. Yesterday I visited the real Dr Johnson's House, perfectly preserved in a small square off Fleet Street. I was the only visitor, which at least gave the charming lady on the front desk someone to talk to. I enjoyed having this historic house to myself, complete with creaky floorboards, winding stairs, several portraits and all the original door handles. High up on the third floor I found the garret room where Dr Samuel compiled his famous dictionary, precisely 250 years ago. I wish I'd visited last Friday, the day of the actual anniversary, because I'd have saved £4.50. A display case showcased the special fifty pence coin which has just been issued by the Royal Mint to commemorate the event and which I shall now be looking forward to receiving in my small change. I can also confirm that Dr Johnson's so-called comprehensive masterwork leaps straight from 'peninsula' to 'penitence', so I doubt that it was a great hit with the teenage schoolboys of the day.
by tube: Chancery Lane


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