London History: Churchill War Rooms and St. Dunstan in the East

Just last night, Jeff and I were talking about all the things we would miss about living in London when/if we move back to the states. One of things I mentioned was all of the random little things you can do in this city. Two of those things are intrinsically unique to London and brimming with serious history: The Churchill War Rooms and a bombed out church in the middle of the city: St. Dunstan in the East.

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The Churchill War Rooms is one of the five branches of the Imperial War Museum and is situated right around the corner from Big Ben and Westminster. In the heart of downtown, you walk in this tiny tunnel of a doorway and follow the stairs underground into an expansive bunker used to hold the former Prime Minister and his team during all of WWII.

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In preparation for the brewing war, the space began construction in 1938 and was fully operational on August 27, 1939, just one week before England declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939.

You’re given a free audio guide at the ticket counter, and you’re ushered through the first of several tiny hallways left in full 1940s fashion. Some of the documents and furniture are in the same position as they were when the lights were turned off on August 16, 1945, when the war ended.

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One of the things I loved seeing was three, lonely sugar cubes on the desk of Wing Commander John Heagerty in the Map Room. Heagerty had hidden the cubes in his desk drawers because there was a harsh ration on sugar during the war, and he didn’t want them stolen. They were found when they re-opened the bunker in the 1980s, and now they sit as a vintage memorial to wartime sugar.2015-10-18 12.17.28

Some of the museum was campy with wax figures and audio sounds being piped in through ceiling speakers. As we enjoyed the museum for almost two hours, the same whistling tune repeated over and over to express how loud the echo could be and how much Churchill valued silence. But it felt like a Twilight Zone episode as it was the same tune over and over again. I can completely understand how and if anyone went a little nuts down there.

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Repetitive tune aside, the museum was quite extraordinary. Name placards still hung above the various bedrooms, and documents were put on display (including recipes) in the small hallway of artifacts. Videos and pictures of workers were encased in glass telling us about life in the bunkers. There were times where these people wouldn’t see the sun for days on end.

Another tidbit of information and artifact were the signs depicting a “weather report.” When it said, “Windy,” it signified a bombing raid going on outside. That’s one way to try and keep a sense of humor during the darkest days in the war.

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In the middle of the historical pathway is a proper museum about Winston Churchill. This massive room is divided into the three major sections of his life beginning with the war years moving to his birth and then his young adult life.

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Last year, Jeff and I had learned quite a bit about the man and the legend in Oxford as we toured through his childhood home: Blenheim Palace. But here we learned that he was an artist and a writer as well as a fierce politician. It would be easy to spend an hour in this room alone looking at all of the documents and interactive screens detailing the war.

The whole museum was worth the price of admission, and we are glad we went, even if it did take us almost two years. You can a full day of it since Big Ben is right around the corner, and down The Mall is Buckingham Palace. When in London, it’s a perfect trifecta of history and royalty.

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If you feel like going off the beaten path deep in the financial district of London, there is a fabulous bombed-out church to visit. Buried in a series of back alleys and hidden behind massive skyscrapers, the ruin of St. Dunstan-in-the-East sits proudly as a remnant of the brutal bombing London sustained during The Blitz.

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The church was originally built in 1100 with improvements happening in 1391 and then again in 1631. But it sustained serious damage in 1666 when the Great Fire swept the city. It is right next to The Monument that stands as a memorial for the same fire disaster. But it was only patched instead of fully repaired. It took almost 150 years for it to finally come completely down and be rebuilt. It had made it through disasters and history, but it was the weight of the building that finally forced the hands of the architects.

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The church was reopened in 1821, but a little more than 100 year later, it would sustain more damage thanks to the Second World War. The famous steeple designed by Christopher Wren and north and south walls are all that remain. The Church of London decided to not rebuild and opened it in 1971 as a public garden.

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When you finally find it in between Tower Bridge and London Bridge, it does have a magical and quiet quality. Much like Postman’s Park near St. Paul’s Cathedral, it’s a hidden Eden with green moss spreading on the walls and sunlight pouring through the empty windows. You can sit in the former church aisles and imagine what it must have looked like centuries before.

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It is a shame the church sustained such heavy damage, but I am actually quite glad London has kept the ruin as is without trying to repair it. It’s actually quite nice to see this city embrace its scars instead of putting gold leaf or a modern skyscraper on top with only a plaque saying where the church used to stand.

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The entire city of London is a living monument to the Second World War. You can’t walk down a street without seeing a memory of the painful past. I love that about this city, and I will miss it when we move, but it just spurs on the curiosity to find the history wherever we are.

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