Leaving Paris on the earliest Eurostar out of Gare Du Nord, we embarked on the four hour breeze from Paris to London. The next day, our transatlantic ship would be raising anchor in Southampton, a port on the English Channel, for New York City. That gave us less than a day to explore London, the capital of the UK- and for some, the world.
At the height of the British Empire, the United Kingdom, with London its administrative center, ruled over a quarter of the Earth’s surface. This city was a Roman settlement that morphed into the craziest, most cosmopolitan city anywhere. Riding in one of London’s black cab taxis (which have a large amount of legroom able to easily seat four) we crossed paths once tread by Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, Dickens, Victoria, and Churchill. From St. Pancras Station, the terminus of the Channel trains with a glamorous barrel-vaulted glass ceiling, we took a taxi to Trafalgar Square, a large square bordered on the north by the National Gallery, and pointing out of the center is Nelson’s Column, representing the famous Admiral Horatio Nelson, a war hero killed while preventing an invasion of Britain by Napoleon. And for you Despicable Me fans out there, yeah, this is where the climactic fight in “Minions” occurs. Ugh.
Trafalgar Square was abuzz with black taxis and bright-red double-decker buses as we checked into our hotel, then walked southwest under Admiralty Arch, on the long boulevard extending from Trafalgar Square westward to Buckingham Palace. This walk, much longer than expected, brought us to the Palace- but to my confusion, there were no fancy guards with furry hats or anything. We soon learned why: on this day, President Donald Trump was coming to London, and the Changing of the Guard was canceled for them to practice security measures and ceremonial stances. That was alright, though; we hardly could have planned for that. At least we could see the palace and the Queen Victoria Monument in the center.
Next we took a black cab to the Churchill War Museum. The line was out the door, but it moved fast and soon we descended into the underground bunkers used by the British. The Churchill War Rooms, used during the Second World War as the center of British intelligence. Originally intended to be built out in the country, the war came fast and the British government had to hide underground, headed by Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. An array of underground tunnels were converted into a command center where the British war cabinet could plot against the Nazis.
“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end.”
-Winston Churchill, 4 June 1940
It was underground, seemingly impenetrable, and people believed it to be safe from Nazi aerial attacks. The site itself was, as the official guidebook says, “It wasn’t until after when people learned that had a bomb landed on the war rooms, the place would have crumpled like wet cardboard. A sign in the War Rooms describes the government control center as “an easy target that was never hit.” In fact, several Nazi bombs struck the area fairly close to the rooms. It’s astounding to think that had a German pilot dropped his payload a few seconds before or after, Churchill could have been buried alive under a pile of rubble.
But the War Rooms survived the Blitz, and through Churchill’s efforts the Nazis were demolished. Only reopened to the public decades later, the War Rooms are now a great place to experience World War Two history. First you see the Cabinet Room, where Churchill would consult his War Cabinet. Then you could see the halls, where a sign on the wall posted the weather. When the Nazis were performing air raids over London, the sign would read “windy” as an inside joke. From there you walked past the chambers, Winston’s bedrooms, the typewriter rooms, and quarters. A highlight was a secret chamber in which Winston would have confidential telephone conversations with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the guidebook, available for purchase and recommended, it explains that Churchill held a meeting with Roosevelt while taking one of his twice-daily baths.
But the best part was undoubtedly the Map Room. In this wall, blocked off by transparent glass barriers, is an underground room with exposed pipes, desks, an array of push pins, and a paper map of the world covering the entire surface of a wall. Here, you can view tables representing Allied-controlled ports from Aden to Kingston, as well as tens of thousands of puncture holes from push pins, each one representing an Allied convoy. A crew of Brits in here charted the movements of supplies, which ones were sunk by U-boats, and the progress of the forces in every theater. Intelligence was key, and these were the people to provide that to the cabinet.
It’s standing in front of these maps with the thousands of holes when you think about how global the scale of the war was, occupying every sea lane in the world.
From the Churchill War Rooms, we went north to Forbidden Planet, a great comic shop with merchandise and an entire basement of books and board games. Then we ate pizza at Homeslice Neal’s Yard, a nice Italian-style pizzeria. Next, we took a taxi up to the highlight of the city: the British Museum. I’m doing a whole article on that, so let’s skip ahead.
Big Ben was obstructed by scaffolding, but that didn’t put us in a foul mood. We ate some fish and chips, checked out the LEGO Store in Leicester Square, and went to a West End show: the limited-time performance of Young Frankenstein, written by Mel Brooks himself.
This wonderful, innuendo-laden, well-cast masterpiece was the best play I’ve ever seen. After I came back stateside, I watched some of the Gene Wilder film and appreciated the faith to the source material. The cast did a great job and I was impressed by my introduction to the theatrical district in a country frequented by the greatest playwrights, from Shakespeare to Marlowe.
Returning to our hotel, we saw a notice on the concierge desk. Apparently, due to Donald Trump’s arrival in Britain, Trafalgar Square would be swelling up with thousands of protesters, right outside our room! We definitely didn’t want to be involved in that, so we resolved to flee the scene early the next morning. Cruising south through Whitehall that evening, we passed 10 Downing Street and saw a group congregating outside the famous front steps. I thought these anti-Trump protests were strange, because during our rides in London’s ubiquitous and spacious black taxis (very nice,) once the drivers saw we were American, they asked us about the political climates, and said rather complimentary things about him. In fact, they were frustrated at the protesters for blocking off the streets and making their fares more difficult. I’m not taking any sides, to be clear; I thought it was interesting to note these perspectives.
Anyhow, to avoid getting caught in political upheaval, we bought our tickets at Waterloo Station for the following morning. The people were helpful, and we settled in for the night, preparing for a long voyage at sea.