This year, as England commemorates the 50th anniversary of his death, a host of new exhibitions prove his droll prophecy has held true.
Key sites around the country form what might be dubbed “the Churchill trail.” From his labyrinthine War Rooms to the baroque palace where he was born, visitors can take a closer look at the legacy of one of Great Britain’s most revered statesmen—and perhaps still catch an ethereal whiff of his cigar.
Down a discreet set of stairs leading under the government buildings of London’s Whitehall, past a cherubic bust of Sir Winston Churchill, you’ll find the subterranean headquarters where he helped lead the Allied powers to victory in World War II.
Many rooms in this crowded warren were left exactly as they were when the war ended in 1945. Tiny bedrooms equipped with bunk beds and insufficient chests of drawers, an office chock-a-block with piles of papers and perhaps a dozen phones, a map room with graffiti depicting Hitler, arm raised in his typical salute—all are preserved as an eerie time capsule.
At the end of one corridor lies what appears to be a toilet, with the lock reading “Engaged.” Rumor had it this was the only flushing toilet in the bunker and was reserved exclusively for the prime minister. In fact, it was a transatlantic telephone booth with a confidential hotline, established in 1943 in an erstwhile broom closet.
Recordings offer fascinating—and sometimes amusing—reminisces by those who worked here, including one of Churchill’s secretaries. Every morning, she recalled, “Having slept heavily for six hours to the roar of the air-conditioning on a narrow cot covered with army blankets…as one hurried up the stairs heavy-eyed in one’s dressing gown, one always seemed to meet the sprucest, most haughtiest, most glamorous officers coming the other way.”
Next door to the War Rooms, in the Churchill Museum, you’ll find intimate personal artifacts, including one of Churchill’s signature bowler hats, a cigar, and a nightshirt. Wartime footage plays on one screen, while film of his funeral procession troops across another, depicting the devoted crowds who came to pay tribute to one of the most respected politicians in Britain’s history.
Contrary to popular belief, Churchill wasn’t born with a cigar in his mouth, but with a silver spoon. As the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, he spent much of his youth at the sprawling, 18th century Blenheim Palace, which presides over a 2,000-acre estate in Oxfordshire.
A revamped “Churchill Exhibition” featuring the prime minster’s personal letters and photographs reopens on February 14 within the palace walls. In the stables, a separate retrospective examines the parallels between Sir Winston and his ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, for whom Blenheim was originally built as a reward for his own military triumphs.
Also on February 14, Blenheim will inaugurate a new self-guided “Walk in Churchill’s Footsteps Trail.” Leading from the room where he first entered the world on November 30, 1874, it continues outside through the gardens to the spot near the Temple of Diana where he proposed to his future wife, concluding at his grave in St. Martin’s churchyard in the nearby village of Bladon.
Check the website for additional events and talks throughout the year.
“A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted,” Churchill once remarked, expressing his great love of the Kent estate he called home from 1924 until his death on January 24, 1965 at the age of 90. Like the War Rooms, Chartwell has been left largely as it was during Churchill’s lifetime, complete with treasured photos and well-thumbed books, as if awaiting his imminent return.
When the house reopens on February 28, it will reprise its special “Death of a Hero” exhibition, held over from last year. Among the items on display are a sort of “play book” for Churchill’s funeral, arranged years in advance; the flag that flew over Washington on the day his death was announced; paintings by Churchill himself, as well as a painting of his funeral barge by Wilfred Morden; a host of commemorative items, from plates and a pipe to biscuit tins; a photo of Churchill on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on V.E. Day, signed by the Royal Family who stood alongside him; and the final, haunting photo ever taken of this iconic statesmen.
While the world mourned him, Churchill, at least, had no fear of death. “I am ready to meet my Maker,” he had insisted, years before his passing. “Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
“My tastes are simple,” the eminently quotable Churchill once quipped. “I’m easily satisfied with the best.” It’s no surprise, then, that The Stafford Hotel, an elegant five-star boutique property steps from Green Park, is said to have been one of his favorite haunts.
Its casually cozy American Bar was popular with US servicemen during the war, too, and it was here that Nancy Wake, a British agent dubbed “The White Mouse,” exchanged intelligence with an American counterpart. She remained a frequent patron until her death in 2011, no doubt feeling at home among the bar’s extensive collection of wartime and American memorabilia.
There’s more history in the wine cellars below. While the caverns are now filled with 8,000 rare and pricey vintage varieties, during World War II, they overflowed with Londoners desperate to shelter from German bombs, and a few artifacts from the war still remain.
The Stafford Hotel is offering a “Churchill commemoration” package, which includes a one-night stay with breakfast, a complimentary bottle of Pol Roger Brut Vintage 2004, a hardback copy of The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by London Mayor Boris Johnson, a chocolate cigar, a 10 percent discount at James J. Fox cigar merchants, and entry for two people to the Churchill War Rooms in London. From £550 ($832).
Tauck is offering guests aboard two of their 2015 European river cruises the opportunity to hear from Sir Winston Churchill´s granddaughter, Celia Sandys.
An internationally acclaimed author and speaker in her own right, Sandys has published five books and hosted television specials illuminating her grandfather’s larger than life…life. Her most recent book, “We Shall Not Fail: The Inspiring Leadership of Winston Churchill,” outlines the leadership principles that enabled her grandfather to lead the UK to victory in the Second World War.
Sandys will speak aboard the 23-day cruise “Belle Epoch: London to Monte Carlo” and the 14-day journey “Cruising the Seine Plus Versailles, Paris & London.” Both tours kick off with a two-night hotel stay at London’s luxury The Savoy, which frequently hosted Sir Winston himself.
For details, call Tauck at 08008108020 or visit www.tauck.co.uk
More information on Churchill events and exhibitions: https://www.churchillcentral.com
Tourism information: www.visitengland.com