In Churchill's footsteps
A biographer of Winston Churchill leads a private walking tour of the statesman/author's haunts.
LONDON — On Wednesday, May 9, 1945 - the first real day of peace in Europe after nearly six years of war - Winston Churchill stepped onto the balcony of what was then the Ministry of Health in Whitehall and addressed the crowds swelling the streets.
"London, like a great rhinoceros, a great hippopotamus," he boomed, "... (is) saying, 'Let them do their worst, London can take it.' " England's war-weary capital, he concluded, proudly, "could take anything."
London was a city Churchill both knew and loved. "He was a Londoner. He was a total Londoner," says Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill's highly respected official biographer. Although Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, the 18th-century country estate in Woodstock just outside Oxford, which belonged to his grandfather, he spent most of his life in London.
Curiously, however, as much as Londoners venerate their great war leader and prolific author, and, more generally, highlight the houses of famous people with blue plaques and places of historical interest with bronze plates, Churchill's homes and haunts in London remain largely unmarked.
To discover Churchill's secret London, therefore, requires a guide, and there is arguably none better than Sir Martin. An Oxford historian, he was knighted by the queen for his contributions to international relations and his comprehensive historical work, which includes eight hefty volumes recounting the life of Churchill, 12 volumes of Churchill documents, and one "concise" biography of the statesman that runs to just short of 1,000 pages.
So what follows is a cut-out-and-keep version of a tour of Churchill's London that Gilbert took me on - 3-1/2 hours spent weaving through the streets of Mayfair, Whitehall, and St. James on a cold, blustery January morning.
The starting point is the top of Primrose Hill, just north of Regent's Park (nearest Tube station: Chalk Farm). It is one of the best vantage points in London, providing a panorama that stretches from the modern buildings of the city in the east to the silhouette of the Battersea Power Station (now home of the Tate Modern). Below the hill, on the northern edge of Regents Park , is the London Zoo, where Churchill would often stop to pay a visit to "his" lion - Rota - a gift presented to him by a visiting African dignitary.
In September 1940, after the German bombs had begun to fall on London and the British Parliament was sinking into despair, recounts Gilbert, Churchill went for a walk on Primrose Hill, to visit the lion, and to ruminate before making a speech to the House of Commons. (In those days, a prime minister could walk undisturbed, trailed only by a detective and one or two of his personal secretaries.)
That evening, Churchill gave a famous speech to Parliament, which roused the spirits of despondent MPs. "Take a walk up Primrose Hill, and look over London," he advised. And then he confided, confidently and teasingly: "It's still there."
From here, we set off toward central London, where Churchill lived and worked most of his life. It is possible to do the whole tour on foot, leaving Primrose Hill and walking counterclockwise around the perimeter of Regents Park - passing the US ambassador's house on the left, reaching the top of Baker Street (the home of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes is at 221B), and finally hitting Grosvenor Square, the heart and soul of the tour. (The nearest Tube station is Bond Street.) The walk will take more than an hour.
Grosvenor Square was the home of Churchill's paternal grandmother and also was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's headquarters during the war. Churchill's first bachelor pad was around the corner at 105 Mount St., just across the road from the Connaught Hotel.
Today the Connaught is one of London's most prestigious hotels, but then it was a residential hotel. Waiters would serve meals to residents in the nearby apartments, including Churchill's across the road, where he lived during his first few years as a member of Parliament, from 1901 to 1905.
Leaving Mount Street, we walk toward Berkeley Square - passing Davies Street on the left, which is where the young Churchill, a Freemasonuntil he entered the government, would stop by for meetings at his Masonic lodge. Then wandering through Berkeley Square we come to Charles Street. No. 10, just opposite what is now the English Speaking Union, was Churchill's home until he was 5 years old.
We will come to his later childhood home shortly. But first, take Charles Street back toward Berkeley Square, take a sharp right into Curzon Street, and you'll come to Bolton Street on the left. No. 12 was the first home Churchill owned in London. It is now home to several offices.
From Bolton Street, head up the road toward Piccadilly. The tour takes you to the left, but it is worth making a quick diversion three blocks to the right. Just past the Athenaeum Hotel is Down Street.
In 1940, as the bombs fell nightly on London, people in the prime minister's office were fretful about how to ensure Churchill's safety. The board of the London Underground suggested that perhaps Churchill might take cover in a disused underground station at Down Street.
When Churchill got there, having been driven through a city undergoing an aerial assault, he found about 100 people drinking champagne in the shelter below ground. He marveled at the relentless spirit of the British people, recounts Gilbert - only to be told, to his further amazement, that it was, in fact, the wedding reception for the daughter of the chairman of the London Underground.
Churchill subsequently stayed at the Down Street station only one night, arguing that he was uneasy "hiding" from the bombs by becoming "a mole."
Back on Piccadilly, walk toward the Ritz, a favorite of Churchill's. Once, when his wife, Clementine, was in the doldrums he suggested she go cheer herself up at the hotel: "Pig it at the Ritz" was his precise advice, relates Gilbert.
Turn right just before the hotel, go down the path at the farthest end of Green Park, and - halfway down - you'll find on the left, a narrow path that leads through a tunnel and comes out just next to St. James's Place. At No. 29 Churchill spent many years of his childhood.
From St. James's Place, cross the road and go down King Street, and you'll come into St. James's Square. It was from here that Eisenhower and the Allied command worked out the plans for the D-Day landings.
Exit St. James's Square on Charles II Street and in a couple hundred yards, you'll be in front of the Haymarket Theatre. Churchill was a great lover of the theater and went to see as many first nights as possible, says Gilbert.
On the Haymarket, go down the hill and at the bottom you'll see a tall, modern building on the right, New Zealand House. It used to be the Carlton Hotel, a favorite dinner spot for politicians. On the wall is a plaque noting that Ho Chi Minh, as a young man, once worked there as a vegetable cook. What it does not say, adds Gilbert, is that he worked there the night Churchill and David Lloyd-George, later prime minister himself, came to dinner at the outset of World War I.
Turn right back down Pall Mall and then left onto Waterloo Place, and you'll come to a staircase that runs down to the Mall and St. James's Park below.
Head down the steps across the Mall and, keeping St. James's Park on the left, to Horse Guards Parade, a large rectangular stretch of gravel that Churchill crisscrossed countless times: It was one of the main arenas of his political life. On one side is the grand Admiralty building, where Churchill had his office as First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I.
Next door is Admiralty House, where Churchill lived at the time, although he could not move in for the first six months he had the job because his pay would not cover the cost of the large staff of servants. (He petitioned the prime minister for more money.)
On the other side of Horse Guards Parade, a small black door leads into the garden of the prime minister's residence, No. 10 Downing Street. It was through this door, explains Gilbert, that politicians trooped on the day of the German invasion of France, the Netherlands, and Belgium to suggest to Neville Chamberlain that he step down to make way for Churchill.
Turn left into Parliament Square, and you will see Churchill's statue - slightly more hunchbacked, it is said, than the man was in reality.
When, during World War II, Churchill was asked about a statue for himself, he replied, as documented in Gilbert's "Churchill, A Life": "If I had any choice in such a matter, I should prefer a children's park and playground on the south side of the River - where all the houses have been blown down. But these are matters for years which I shall not see."
Gilbert's tour ends across the street from the Horse Guards Parade, beside the lake in St. James' Park, where Churchill often came to think. There Gilbert reads from a letter Churchill sent to his wife on the eve of World War I.
"My darling one and beautiful, Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am geared up and happy. It is not horrible to be built like that? The preparations have a hideous fascination for me. I pray to God to forgive me for such fearful moods of levity. Yet I would do my best for peace, and nothing would induce me wrongfully to strike the blow.
"Two black swans on St. James's Park lake have a darling cygnet - gray, fluffy, precious and unique. I watched them this evening for some time as a relief from all the plans and schemes.... Everything is ready as it has never been before. And we are awake to the top of our fingers. But war is the Unknown and the unexpected."