Visiting the Churchill War Rooms
Tucked beneath Whitehall opposite the pelicans of St James's Park is an astonishing time capsule from a crucial period of London's history: Winston Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms. Here, during the Blitz and throughout WWII, Churchill and his cabinet planned and ran the British war effort from deep underground. Once victory was declared in 1945 and the politicians returned back above ground to the Houses of Parliament, the lights were turned off and the top secret warren of rooms and corridors were left as if in hibernation.
In 1984, the Imperial War Museum took over the site and opened it to the public, and it remains incredibly well preserved, like stepping back in time. One particularly "sweet" find was an envelope containing three sugar cubes belonging to Wing Commander John Heagerty: particularly precious during war time rationing, Heagerty had stashed his sugar supply in a desk drawer where they remained hidden for 40 years. You can see them on display in the Map Room.
What to see at the Churchill War Rooms:
Once you've collected your audio guide (included in the admission cost) your visit begins beneath a very large, very real bomb suspended from the ceiling, a reminder of the threat London was facing during the Blitz and the reason why the War Rooms were built.
The first room you see if the Cabinet Room, left intact as if the people had just stepped out for a break. Churchill's chair, with red box and cigar on the table, is central, and a large map of the world is on the far wall. You have to keep reminding yourself that this is the very room where momentous decisions were made by Churchill and his cabinet. What makes this museum special, along with the other IWM sites HMS Belfast and Duxford , is that unlike somewhere like York's Jorvik Viking Centre or Belfast's Titanic Museum where you walk through reconstructed historic dioramas in a purpose built building, these museums are the actual, real locations, preserved for visitors. That blows our minds, to be walking where it actually happened.
The maze of corridors are dimly lit and narrow - it must have been very claustrophobic working down there, not to mention the cigarette smoke! At various points you could see rifle racks where civil servants would have been expected to grab a gun and defend themselves in the event of German invasion.
Other highlights you'll see include Churchill's secret transatlantic telephone, disguised as his private toilet, where he would phone President Roosevelt (the scrambling device was located in Selfridge's basement!), the bedrooms of the many people who lived and worked beneath the streets of London, from typists to government ministers, military strategists and Mrs Churchill herself, Winston's beloved Clementine, the Broadcasting Room which allowed Churchill to broadcast his speeches from his bedroom underground directly onto the BBC, and the grand finale at the end of your visit: the Map Room and Churchill's Bedroom.
The Map Room was the nerve centre of the British War Effort, staffed 24 hours a day by one officer from each the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force. Here is where you will see Heagerty's precious sugar cubes, scrambler telephones, and the huge maps where friendly and enemy movements were carefully plotted - if you look closely you'll see that they are absolutely peppered with tiny pinholes. Again, it's hard to believe that this is the very room where key moments like the Battle of Britain were monitored. The calender on the wall reads 16th August, the day after Victory in Japan, when the Second World War officially ended and the lights were switched off in the Map Rooms for the first time in 6 years.
Churchill's Bedroom is the largest and most comfortable in the complex. It's also the only room with wall to wall carpet! Here, the Prime Minister would take his afternoon naps, entertain guests such as King George VI and General Dwight Eisenhower and sit at his desk to record his famous speeches for the BBC.
The Churchill Museum
About two thirds of the way through the visit, the War Rooms give way to the impressively in depth Churchill Museum, before continuing to the Map Room and Churchill's bedroom. This large room covers 5 chapters of Churchill's 90 year life- while most people know the almost caricatured personality of the cigar smoking, "we will fight them on the beaches" British Bulldog, here you will learn about his lonely childhood, war correspondent adventures (including escaping from a Boer prisoner of war camp), 56 year marriage and astonishing political career. We hadn't realised that immediately after the war ended, Churchill lost a general election. That must have been so hurtful!
As well as extensive multimedia (you can listen to Churchill's speeches, watch footage of him visiting the front and of his epic state funeral in 1965), exhibits include Churchill's hat and cigars, his medals, love letters to and from Clementine, his paintings and the original black door from 10 Downing Street, which Churchill would have walked walked through in 1940 when he became Prime Minister. This wooden door dates from the 1770s and was replaced in 1991 with a blast proof steel version following an IRA attack.
How long does it take to visit the Churchill War Rooms?
While the IWM website recommends 2 and a half hours to visit, we would recommend 3 and a half. The Churchill museum alone took us 2 hours, there is so much to read and look at, and the Cabinet War Rooms will take you about 90 minutes, especially if you listen to every point on the audio guide (which you should!).
Any Covid precautions to know about?
Like with the other IWM sites we have visited, the Churchill War Rooms has hand sanitiser available regularly throughout the exhibit. Compared to the wide open spaces of Duxford, the War Rooms are much more contained and narrow, and we would recommend wearing a mask at places where you can't socially distance. There were a couple of pinch points in some of the corridors where it got a little busier as people stopped to listen to the audio guide around the staff's bedrooms. I think ticket numbers are being limited in time slots, in order to keep congestion down.
The route is planned out in a one way system with easy signage, and audio guides are cleaned between uses.
Planning your visit to the Churchill War Rooms
Opening hours: 9.30am – 6pm daily, with last entry at 5pm
Ticket Prices: Adults £25 , Children aged 5 - 15 £12.50 , seniors aged over 65 and students with ID £22.50. You can also get 50% off with an Art Pass.
Closest tube station: Westminster or St James's Park (both around 5 minutes walk).
Be aware that due to security reasons (the museum is underneath working government buildings), there is no cloakroom/luggage storage available, so be prepared to carry whatever you bring, and leave suitcases at your hotel!
To pre book your tickets on the IWM website, click here
Disclosure: the Imperial War Museum invited us to the Churchill War Rooms for a free visit in return for writing this blog and posting on Instagram, but as always all opinions are our own and this is an accurate and honest account of our day!