Life in London

Michelle’s Visit: QI, Sherlock Holmes & the Cabinet War Rooms

The day after Mum, Dad and Christine left London, we were heading back out to Heathrow Airport again – to meet my sister Michelle! Michelle’s flight got in earlier than Mum and Dad’s and we were running a bit late – we’d had to get a bus for part of the trip thanks to part of the Jubilee line being out of action – but when we got to the Arrivals lounge I couldn’t see her anywhere so assumed she hadn’t come through border security yet. After fifteen or twenty minutes waiting though, I spotted her over the other side of the room picking up her things to move – it appeared she had just spotted us too. She’d managed to get pretty much to the front of the passport control queue so got through the whole process pretty fast! We got a coffee and a bite to eat in the cafe by the Arrivals area as neither Andre nor I had had breakfast before we left home, then added a travel card to Michelle’s oyster card (which she had from last time the three of us visited London in 2012) and headed home.

A lot of Michelle’s visit was pretty laid back as she has been to London before, so seen all the main sights, and was in town primarily to hang out with us until she joined up with the others at the end of their tour. She came to church with us on Sunday afternoon, then to the pub with a bunch of our friends afterwards. I don’t think we actually went anywhere on Monday, but the next day we had tickets to go watch a recording of QI!

To get tickets to see recordings of QI you basically go into a (free) ballot via the Applause Store. You get notified a few weeks before the recording if you have been selected for tickets. They over-allocate the tickets though, to make sure their studio audience is full, as people do not always turn up. Due to this, you still need to arrive early as it’s first in best dressed. So, with ticket print-out in hand, we arrived at the studios Tuesday afternoon an hour and a half before doors opened. I was surprised – there were only about two dozen people there already. So we sat down and prepared for a long wait.

After a while though, we were notified (first by another audience member, but then by Applause staff) that they had cancelled the day’s filming and that it would happen the next day at the same time. Bummer. Well, we were in the city anyway so we went for a walk along south bank before heading to Oxford St to look for some sunglasses for Andre (unsuccessfully).

The next day we set off again, this time arriving only about an hour before doors opened as we decided to take the bus for some reason and it got stuck in traffic, then terminated early due to the taxi protest happening on the other side of the river, so then we had to get the tube the rest of the way and my shoe broke and I was generally not very happy. And wouldn’t you know it… it already looked like there were about 200 people in line. Ugh. So we made our way aaaaaaall the way to the back, and I held very little hope of getting in. However, more and more people joined the line behind us, and when I saw that we were really only 2/3 of the way down the line, I decided that maybe we did have a chance after all!

After nearly an hour in line… we were issued with wristbands! We were in, hooray! We took another three quarters of an hour to actually get inside though (they say doors open at 3.15pm but apparently it’s perfectly normal for them to actually not be opened til about 4?). Once inside we were lucky enough to get front row seats! We were off to the side a bit, with cameras moving back and forth in front of us, but we still generally had a pretty good view. We were especially stoked that one of our favourite comedians, Bill Bailey, was a guest! I was just bummed that we couldn’t take photos.

We enjoyed the experience, although Bill wasn’t quite as funny as he often is. I was quite surprised that they shot the entire thing basically in one go. I had expected filming to stop and start, but it just kept on rolling. We had to restart almost straight away when Stephen Fry flubbed his intro (which was a tongue twister so you can’t blame him), and then at the very end we had to re-film a spot when they introduced a guest in the audience because in the first go the microphone boom passed over his face, creating a shadow. I was also a bit surprised that the audio in the studio wasn’t fantastic – sometimes people were a bit difficult to hear. It was still lots of fun though and was one of my top “To Do” London things!

Later in the week we decided to visit Regent’s Park which none of us had been to before, and visited Baker St en route. We didn’t go into the Sherlock Holmes museum, but Andre & Michelle posed for photos outside the door to 221B with the appropriate Sherlock paraphernalia and we had a look around their guest shop.

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Andre & Michelle at 221B Baker St

Regent’s Park is quite large (though not as big as Hyde Park) so we only explored a fraction of it. My impression is that it has more gardens than Hyde Park does. We wandered through many flower gardens, saw a waterfall and bought ice-cream from a vendor. On our way back to the tube station we saw a TFL Lost & Found office/store. They had items on display out the front which were lost a long time ago and never claimed which they now keep (rather than sell) for display!

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Regent’s Park

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Some of the old items on display at the Lost & Found

Towards the end of Michelle’s first week we decided to visit Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms. The Cabinet War Rooms are described as follows on the website:

The Cabinet War Rooms provided the secret underground headquarters for the core of the British government throughout the Second World War.

The fear that London would be the target of aerial bombardment had troubled the government since the First World War and in 1938 the basement of a Whitehall building was chosen as the site for the Cabinet War Rooms. From 1940 – 1945 hundreds of men and women would spend thousands of vital hours here and it soon became the inner sanctum of British government.

Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the Cabinet War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when the Imperial War Museum began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible. In 1984 the main war rooms opened to the public. In 2003 further restoration work opened the ‘Courtyard Rooms’, the rooms where staff would eat, sleep and work in safety.

In 2005 we added the only major museum in the world dedicated to Sir Winston Churchill. Its multimedia and uniquely engaging approach provides visitors with a comprehensive overview of Churchill’s life.

Andre and I have been wanting to visit for ages and I’m glad we finally got around to it. You can walk around a lot of the rooms, many of which remain in the state they did when the rooms were closed in 1945 (although they are all behind glass).

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The main room where Churchill and his officers and advisors met.

The displays include videoed interviews with people who worked in the war rooms, now (or rather, when the interviews were done) in their 80s and 90s. People like this helped reconstruct many of the rooms (which had since been re-purposed for storage) from their memories of working there, although some photos were available for reference too.

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This room was thought by most of the employees to be a toilet (one of the few flushing ones which they thought to be reserved for top officials). It was, in fact, the room where Churchill had his encrypted trans-Atlantic telephone for calls to the US President.

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The map room. These are the original maps still covered in pinholes.

The Churchill section of the museum was good but pretty large for one person and I got bored and didn’t finish it. I also couldn’t really find anything that explained how Churchill’s influence won the war, for which he gets a large portion of the credit (when, let’s admit it – and apparently Churchill did too – we wouldn’t have won it without the Americans). If you’re British the section dedicated to Churchill might be of a bit more interest.

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