Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Britain At War

Of all the attractions and sights I’ve visited so far on my London Ding Dong rediscovery project, Winston Churchill’s Britain At War Experience is by far my favourite. This enchanting museum is a living, breathing testament to World War Two and really gives you a sense of what life was like for Londoners during the war.

From the moment you step through the door in Tooley Street, you are transported to wartime London with the sounds of popular songs of the era. My London Pass was accepted with a smile and I was handed a ticket. I then exchanged the ticket to take the lift to the underground air raid shelter. This was a recreation of a London Underground station platform where, during the war, literally thousands of Londoners took shelter from the bombings. This fact was nothing new but the way it was presented was so realistic, to the point of being upsetting. Tiny bunk beds with grubby pillows and blankets, a WVS lending library, a very basic canteen and first aid facilities – all set up to keep people safe and as comfortable as possible in these horrendous times.

Sitting in the darkened Underground platform, watching news reels from the period (updated in colour), I was quite overwhelmed by the hardship people suffered and what they endured in order to simply survive. About 25 people sat with me in quiet reflection including several children who appeared quite pensive. This first part of Britain At War is not depressing or overly solemn but the significant disparity between London above ground in 2008 and London under ground in the 1940s is a huge shock. To see how people coped with adversity during the war makes some of the following, more positive, representations all the more incredible.

Moving out of the underground shelter, more displays showed every side of war torn London: the BBC radio studio where war news was streamed across the world; a pub with watered down beer; the dressing room of the Drury Lane theatre; an American GIs club; children being evacuated; women at work in traditionally men-only jobs; clothes and fashion; food rationing… every aspect of life in WW2 is here, presented in an educational yet exciting way. Unfortunately the most effective displays could not be captured by my inferior camera due to the darkness.

A standard survival structure during the war was the Anderson Shelter - constructed in most gardens as a safe haven during air raids. The Britain At War reconstruction is pitch black, accompanied by sound effects so loud and realistic that you can’t help but appreciate how terrified those families huddled in an Anderson Shelter for protection must have felt.

The climax of Britain At War is a recreation of the Blitz in full flow. I admit to feeling fairly panicky as I felt my way through the darkness, taking one careful step after another. The sound, smoke and light effects make this a frighteningly realistic experience and I left, through the gift shop, with a considerably more sympathetic understanding of life during WW2.

The Britain At War Experience is not just a museum. It really does portray the lives of Britons during the most testing of times. Most of us learnt the facts of WW2 at school but now I have a much greater sense of how it affected ordinary people. I wonder, if (heaven forbid) we found ourselves in a similar situation today, whether we would have the same endurance and mettle. I doubt it somehow.

Winston Churchill’s Britain At War Experience is open 7 days a week from 10am to 4.30pm. Adult entry is £10.45 although free entry is included if you are using the London Pass. The entrance is in Tooley Street SE1, located behind the Hays Galleria shopping centre.

No comments: