Discovering the Heart and the Hero of Britain

On a recent force development day, members of ISW took a journey through the heart of Britain, before discovering more about the man responsible for saving it.

The day began with a tour of Westminster Abbey and was followed after lunch by a visit to the Churchill war rooms. Together they provided a fascinating context; we saw the entirety of British History laid out before us, from Edward the Confessors’ tomb through to the giants of science and literature buried or commemorated within the abbey’s walls, before observing how Churchill and the war effort ensured that this history was not lost forever.

On a gloriously, and unexpectedly sunny morning, we were taken through the abbey by a guide, Kevin Fuller, who added a great deal of background to the tour and took us in through a side entrance, away from the ever-expanding line of tourists. This VIP treatment began with a talk in the courtyard before we entered the abbey itself, where every stone had a story behind it. Notwithstanding the myths and history however, the building is an architectural marvel in its own right. There is so much to see, so many details carved beautifully into its walls, that we couldn’t possibly take it all in.

Military history featured heavily on the tour. The poignant tomb of the unknown warrior is, in a building containing the likes of Elizabeth 1st and Isaac Newton, the most revered, and the only one upon which it is forbidden to walk. There is a stained glass window dedicated to the Battle of Britain, and the ashes of Lord Trenchard lay here.

We continued along the increasingly busy halls, feeling that our VIP privileges were far behind us as we pushed past other tourists. After observing one of the regular prayers, we saw the coronation hall, where monarchs are wed and crowned, before moving onto the personal highlight of the tour, poets’ corner. Continuing the military theme, there was a dedication to the war poets, including Laurence Binyon, whose poem ‘For the Fallen’ is recited on Remembrance Sunday.

After finishing in the abbey, we took an extended lunch before beginning our visit to the Churchill War Rooms. This highly immersive experience delved behind the icon, painting a picture of the man and what events shaped him into the great wartime leader.

All of this took place in the original cabinet war rooms, which impressively recreated the atmosphere of working in a bunker, something some members of ISW may be able to relate to.

We navigated the claustrophobic tunnels, faithfully recreated to their wartime glory, before emerging into the Churchill museum. This was a vast and comprehensive journey through his life, which didn’t shy away from the setbacks he suffered. You really got a sense of his personality, and saw in vivid detail both why he was such a controversial figure, and what made him a legend in his own lifetime. This culminated in footage of his state funeral and, in a nice link, a memorial stone now commemorates him in Westminster Abbey.

Following the museum, the tour carried on with its detailed and intimate view of wartime command; this ended with a look at the hub of the operation, the map room, as well as an obligatory trawl through the gift shop. We did lose one member of our party as Cpl Steve Monks, perhaps showing a hitherto unknown enthusiasm with history, seemed to disappear without a trace in the war rooms and, despite our best efforts to retrieve him, we were forced to leave him behind in the 1940’s.

A fascinating, and thoroughly enjoyable day of force development subsequently came to a close. Both tours benefited from the feeling that you were walking through history, rather than simply learning about it. To tread on the floor where monarchs are crowned, and then to walk the corridors where the war was won was a tremendous experience which I would recommend to anybody. I felt that we all had a fuller appreciation of Churchill both as a figure and as a man, and also came away with a better understanding of just what he had protected and saved from the brink of destruction.

On our way back to High Wycombe, we also passed through Baker Street, home of Sherlock Holmes, and I found myself wondering if even this great detective could have solved the Mystery of the Missing Monks.