Start Churchill War Rooms, King Charles St, SW1
Distance 3.8 miles
Time 2 hours
Total ascent Negligible
Google map of the route
It is a mark of our almost religious obsession with the second world war that the drab underground offices of London’s Churchill War Rooms attract so many visitors. Devotees shuffle around the cramped corridors, squinting in the yellow light at blessed desks and blessed chairs, breathing deeply as if sensing some afterscent of cigar. They hold zealous conviction that £25 is worth it for entry, £7.95 necessary for butternut soup and a baguette, £20 essential for a T-shirt with Winston in pinstripes toting a tommy gun. For me the only lasting image was a photo of the cabinet secretariat, around a quarter of whom seemed to be children.
The best bit was leaving. After an hour or so in dingy confinement, I was released to the grandeur of St James’ Park and turned right to Horse Guards Parade. The gravel square is the best of Whitehall’s architecture. Even the London Eye, which photobombs above Admiralty House from half a mile east, somehow works here, gently mocking all the pomp. The worst is the looming concrete menace of the Ministry of Justice, rearing up from behind the barracks on the south side of the park to spy on those below.
As I crunched through the leaves, I found myself watching people, too. The park has refined pleasures. Standing on the bridge in the middle of the central lake, I looked east to see white pelicans fluffing and chatting on an island in front of the Treasury, and turned west for a hint of boxy Buckingham Palace. In the branches of the bright trees, pigeons chased parakeets in swooping arcs.
But the joy was in the people here: grinning families clutching Union Jack tat, Victorian relics stretching their legs from their clubs on Piccadilly, handsome French couples in flowing coats. The experience called to mind Virginia Woolf’s essay Street Haunting. For her, walking among others allowed an illusion of putting on “briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others”. In this state of empathy, “the shell-like covering which our souls have excreted for themselves ... is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perception, an enormous eye”. I could feel a little of that.
Ignoring the crowds outside the palace, I continued along Constitution Hill, the southern border of Green Park. Here the copper beeches and field maples were clinging to the last of their leaves. But the London planes were the pick, lolloping around the grass, lanky and posh with papery skin, dressed up for Christmas with their jaunty pompom catkins. Plane trees feel as much part of the city as black cabs and red telephone boxes. But the tree only arrived here in the late 17th century – a blend of the oriental plane from south-east Europe and west Asia, and the American sycamore.
Soon, I reached Hyde Park and criss-crossed westward. Many of the world’s great parks were designed as idylls for the rich: Cours-la-Reine in Paris and Central Park in New York were built mainly for carriages and displays of wealth. Hyde Park is different. It may have promenades and horse tracks and the gaudy Albert memorial in adjoining Kensington Gardens, but since it opened to the public in 1637, it has also always held ground for rebels. Speakers’ Corner in particular is an important emblem of the British devotion to public space, of sharing this land.
Behind the Serpentine Gallery I spotted a man tottering in skyscraper heels, desperately trying to stuff pink balloons up his skirts while a friend took photos. Every time he bent down to tie a shoelace, a balloon popped out and he swore loudly. No one seemed to pay him much attention.
As dark descended, I left the park and joined the bustle of Kensington High Street, where a woman was slumped across some railings. Her gathered friends bickered about what this meant for their night. That was enough Woolfian voyeurism. Time for the pub, I thought, cutting through the crowd as quickly as I could.
Every November, the Churchill Arms’ gardener, Ray Diaz, spends three weeks going up and down steepling ladders to take down the pub’s signature baskets and planters. In their place he fits two walls of spruce trees, with lights, from pavement to roof. Once this is complete, the pub hosts a party for the big switch-on; one year, Ray was given the honour, and dressed as mayor for the occasion, complete with three cornered hat and ceremonial chains. It’s Christmas, basically: silly but worth it. The pub looks glorious, a box of simple shining joy.
Inside, the colour is just right, deep oak with flashes of red. The shape is perfect, too, a simple U around a broad central bar and plenty of seats. The crowd is as varied as in any part of London: people young and old, side by side, sipping bitter or prosecco. On one table near me was a group of absurdly attractive young Irish people, as if from the set of Normal People. On another was an old couple, silently playing cribbage. At the bar, a group of bald men in black suits clinked pints after a wake, relieved at being able to laugh again. I wondered if the deceased would be added to the brass plates on the bar that commemorate the locals lost.
I asked the manager, James Keogh, for a little time to talk. He winced and said it would be hard to spare more than five minutes. Three-quarters of an hour later, I knew the history of this 271-year-old pub and James’s part in it. It began as the Bedford Arms and changed to its present name after the war in tribute. There is a link, apparently: Winston Churchill’s grandparents used to come to the pub in the 1800s.
Keogh arrived from County Limerick as a 23-year-old in 1987 and soon started pulling pints. By then the place was already festooned in the maximalist way it is today: chamber pots and lamps on the ceiling, Churchill memorabilia on the walls. James left after two years to run other pubs. When he came back as manager in 2013, he decided the decor would stay. Part of me thinks he couldn’t face the removal job.
I decided against the Fuller’s offerings on tap; James likes his Guinness, so I knew it would be good. It sat heavy in the glass and when I drank it oozed around my mouth and sang songs on the way down. After four pints, I was ready for the house pad thai, of perfect size and saltiness for the hungry boozer. It kept me going until closing time, a traditional 11pm. In a haze, I shook James’s hand and left. “It was a pleasure,” he said. Yes, it was.