Churchill's Lair, Elvis and the Cutty Sark
IF YOU GO TO A BIRTHDAY PARTY where you don’t know the person, eat two pieces of their cake and drink their gin, is it gatecrashing?
While the rest of the world was popping champagne corks and waving fags for VE Day 70 years ago, a small group of troglodytes crawled out of a bunker, blinking into the daylight. Their war hadn’t just gone unnoticed; as far as London was concerned it hadn’t existed at all. Tons of concrete lay between them and the city pavements, and most had spent weeks on end in cramped conditions with only Mr. Churchill for company.
It was from this top-secret citadel that the British Prime Minister directed everything from overseas manoeuvres to his famous wireless broadcasts, with a few dozen unsung heroes who operated the telephones, decoded the messages and kept mum about the lot.
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To my shame I’d never visited Churchill’s War Rooms, so I leaped at the opportunity to see them at one of their after-hours late openings. They happen on a regular basis and for any excuse—this one was for the Great Man’s birthday, where you got cake and a shot of Winnie’s favorite gin (Boodles) thrown in for good measure. The warren of map rooms, telephone exchanges, corridors, meeting rooms and bedrooms, exactly as left in 1945, lacks the constant fug of cigarette smoke, low buzz of earnest conversation and edgy apprehension of a city under fire, but manages a spookiness I have only encountered elsewhere in the tunnels at Dover.
A FEW DAYS LATER I was on my way to the Royal Albert Hall (for a gig in one of their bars), when I noticed something odd. One side of the V&A Museum appeared to have been demolished. It’s a listed building—they couldn’t just have torn it down? Embarrassingly, I couldn’t quite remember what used to be there, but I was determined to be outraged.
It turns out to be fantastic. The reason I couldn’t remember what had been there was that it was a fake curtain wall. Behind it had originally been the boilers, long since defunct. More recently it had been a jumble of garbage bins and workmen’s huts. The Exhibition Road project will see it turned into a new public square, with a dedicated exhibition space underneath. Not only will it reveal some rare original frescos on walls previously only seen by the bin men, but the piazza will mean the galleries currently used for exhibitions, stunning in their own right, can be enjoyed as rooms again, instead of being blacked out.
Meanwhile, they’ve just reopened the Weston “Cast Court,” which comes from the Victorian fad for collecting superb plaster casts of major classical sculptures. Few remain nowadays, but walking round the refurbished gallery admiring “Michelangelo’s David” at close quarters, I can see this as a great place for a spot of peace and quiet when the museum gets busy in the summer.
SOMEWHERE THAT’S NEVER GOING TO GET ANY PEACE and quiet is a massive new exhibition in Greenwich. Not since Tutankhamun has there been such razzmatazz for a king at what used to be the Millennium Dome, though this one may just top Tut in the bling department. Direct from Graceland, Elvis at the O2: The Exhibition of His Life is brash, exciting and comprehensive, covering his life from romper suit to jumpsuit. I was particularly taken by the costumes. His military uniforms, some early leisurewear and the ’68 Comeback Special leathers are great, but my favorites are the series showing the development of those notorious jump suits from karate two-piece to bejewelled caped crusader. Some of the exhibits have never left Graceland before and the display will change as the months pass. My Elvis-fan friends have already bought season tickets.
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A WALK ALONG THE THAMES PATH from the Dome lays my current favorite pub. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Cutty Sark (built in 1695 and looking like it), but this glorious barrel-fronted riverside alehouse has just got even better. Newly refurbished, it has retained and even improved its intimate feel. In the summer, drinkers spill onto tables on the riverbank across the cobbled street under old-fashioned lamp posts. In winter everyone makes for the giant bay windows looking out over the Thames, or the snug, just inside the entrance, complete with blankets for extra-cozy.
I’ve eaten there three times since it reopened and the food is exquisite. I recommend sharing a whole Camembert, baked with an entire bulb of garlic (once it’s baked the taste is sumptuous and subtle), and the thrice-cooked traditional chips are the crispest I have ever crunched. It’s my non-tourist choice for Greenwich—walk along the river, past the Old Royal Naval College, past the Trafalgar Tavern (the tourist choice), down cute little Crane Street, past the delightful Trinity Almshouses and the less delightful power station, and it will be in front of you. It’s worth booking, though, as it gets packed with locals.
HERE’S A HEADS-UP for summer. The National Trust isn’t well-represented in either London or Essex, so to have a new property in Essex just a stone’s throw from the City is a real treat. The Trust has owned the jewel-like Rainham Hall since 1949, but it was occupied by tenants and closed to the public. This secretive place, originally built deep in marshland in 1729 for a wealthy merchant, is to be fully conserved and opened permanently. I went on a hard-hat tour with a bunch of other nosy locals to see the work in progress—all dustsheets and bare lightbulbs—and fell in love with what feels like a giant doll’s house.
It’s due to open in August, a five-minute walk from a station just three stops from the City. I’ll be returning then, and I’ll let you know what it’s like. But I can already feel it in my gut—this one’s going to be worth a visit.
For More Information
Churchill War Rooms
V&A Weston Cast Court
Elvis at the O2
Cutty Sark Pub