Parliament is located along the banks of the Thames in the heart of London. On the way to our tour, we pass through security that is not quite as stringent as the airport. It makes me a bit sad to think of this venerable and historic democracy having to arm its entrance, but I later learn some historical facts that give me perspective. Today we are with my auntie and uncle, who have traveled from Needingworth in Cambridgeshire to join us for a day of sightseeing. We enter through the Westminster Hall, the oldest surviving section of Parliament, built in 1097-1099 by King William II. I look up to consider the roof, which dates from 1401, and think about roofs in the U.S. that last 20 years. I stand on a plaque noting the date that the Speaker of the House, Sir Thomas More, was condemned to death in 1535. He also was the Lord Chancellor of England and author of the book Utopia. During the tour I learn that various kings would take a disliking to the activity or opinions in the House of Commons and would send soldiers to storm the doors and haul off hapless politicians. I imagine poor Sir More being in this group. In those days one really did need a serious commitment to one’s political platform!
With the exception of Westminster Hall, all of Parliament burned down in the mid 1800s and a new, larger set of structures were built at that time. Practically new by English standards. During World War II a fire forced leaders to choose which buildings to save – they allowed the House of Commons to burn in order to save Westminster Hall. The House of Lords loaned their chamber to their colleagues and there Prime Minister Winston Churchill made many speeches, thumping his fist on the desk for emphasis, leaving dents in the wood. The emphatic damage to the desk remains to this day. I am intrigued by how the British value their past.
As we walk over to the Churchill War Museum, I remember my grandmother’s stories about the air raids in London, running to the tube (subway) with her children – my mother and uncle – holding a small wash tub over their heads in case the bombs hit before they descended to relative safety. The tube was not always safe, sometimes collapsing, sometimes flooding. My family was fortunate to survive, though my grandmother never was able to stop hoarding food and basic supplies (things that were rationed during the war). When she died decades after the war, the family found an enormous supply of toilet paper in the attic.
Churchill was not only an accomplished leader and strategist, but also an author, ultimately winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. The BBC website has a terrific page dedicated to his accomplishments. I like him most for his eccentric ways (more to come about that in another blog) and his bravery. We are standing in his underground bunker, where he ran the war with a staff of military and civilians. It is just as it was left at the end of WW II – dark, spartan and cramped. The sleeping quarters for all but the PM and high-level staff is awful. The PM had his own room but rarely slept there. He preferred to be above ground and often went on the roof to watch the bombing raids. After one near miss at the front door of the building above the bunker, which was top secret then, he went out to examine the rubble. Churchill also was one of the few in the bunker who knew that the building above them was never completely bomb-proofed.
As I listen to a recording of air raid sirens, still alarming, I think about the determination of this culture, the stoic way they went about surviving month after month of bombing raids. My family, dashing for shelter, with that sound shrieking in their ears. My grandmother had a lot of spunk and I can imagine her yelling to her children to stay close as she railed at the enemy overhead. She talked about the war for years afterward. As a child, I was riveted by her stories and her very colorful descriptions of the enemy.
We pack ourselves onto the tube at the end of the day – another marvel of British ingenuity. The first tunnel opened in 1863, during Charles Dickens’ lifetime, and it was the first in the world. Some parts of it still function today, which is quite stunning to think about as we hurtle down the track.
Tomorrow we head to the British Library – the largest in the world – which holds a vast collection of written records spanning 1,000 years. For now, we sit in the tube train, stuffed with people yet quiet. That British reserve in operation. I feel I understand it, and my own heritage, a bit better.