There’s a million things to do in London. Most people tick off locations on their top 10 lists like the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. But you can’t appreciate modern London without realizing how the Blitz changed what you see today.
I wanted to know more about the Blitz, so I contacted my friends at Context Travel. There isn’t a blog post long enough to tell our readers how much I adore Context Travel. We’ve taken walks with Context all over the world and each is small and full of unique information. There’s nothing I loathe more than a hundred people trailing behind an umbrella. But at Context you get a small group, usually less than 6 people, lead by an expert.
My friend and I met Philippa, an Oxford educated expert, outside the Museum of London, a free and often overlooked museum close to St Paul’s Cathedral. Going on Context’s Blitz Tour was one of my top-to-do’s on my recent girls trip to London and I was anxious to meet our guide. I’ve been fascinated by the Blitz and had watched a documentary on Netflix called, “The Blitz: London’s Longest Night” and wanted to walk and talk to an expert to learn more.
Our tour began with us ducking quickly into the Museum of London. Philippa wanted to give us a solid understanding of the risk of fire in London. This is one of the many things I like about Context Travel; they live up to their name. They provide context to their tours with educated guides who actually know what they are talking about and they usually live in the city where they work. You don’t get shallow tour guides, who are more interested in playing comedians and who can’t answer questions.
We walked quickly through the Museum to the Great Fire of 1666 Exhibit. “Part of what I love to teach children when I go on tours is to teach how to look,” she rattled happily, “It’s a life skill. When you look for layers in buildings it reveals the past.”
The Great Fire began in a bakery when someone forgot to put out the daily fire. Fire was one of the greatest fears, explained Philippa, “Even the word curfew originated from the couvre-feu or to cover your fire.” The city was largely made of wood houses some with thatched roofs that spread the fire like a terminal disease. The result was almost the entire city burned to the ground, including St. Paul’s Cathedral and more than 80 other churches. The Great Fire had a dramatic effect and changed how London looked and worked in the future. Almost 300 years later, the Blitz would have the same history altering effect.
We followed Philippa out of the Museum onto the London Wall where she painted the scene of London 1940. We stood looking at the high rises, condominiums and churches. The area looked differently 75 years ago. It was working warehouse district with a few shops, and almost no tenants.
British citizens hadn’t been targeted by the German Blitzkrieg or lightening war. That changed in September 1940. Just before 5 p.m. on September 7, close to 1000 German bombers flew across England and started bombing London and it continued consequently for months during both the day and night. It wasn’t just London. Other cities like Liverpool, Portsmouth, even the historic city of Bath were bombed.
“This changed the British experience,” Philippa remarked. “The British knew about what the Germans could do in cities like Guernica in the Basque Country which were absolutely destroyed,” she paused. “In preparation, the government ordered a million coffins. Children were being evacuated from the city with a toy and only a few clothes…a million children were sent to the countryside. Some children didn’t see their parents for five to six years. People would go to the Tube Station to sleep.”
We walked further across the London Wall, enjoying the sunshine, but also trying to wrap our heads around the gravity of the London war experience. Over the course of the war, a million houses in London were destroyed. Miraculously, despite the constant bombardment, the death toll never reached the expected seven digits. Although, 20,000 people died in London and another 20,000 died in other areas of England due to the Blitz.
Philippa stopped. “One of the things the bombings did was uncover London’s history.” Looking down from our perch, she pointed out pieces of Roman Wall, unseen prior to the bombings. “Remember, London was the utmost region of the Roman Empire. It was a strategic area. Suddenly through the rubble, you could see these old, ancient walls.”
Not only were scattered pieces of wall to the human eye, but also as London began to be rebuilt more pieces were found. We snaked our way down to a parking garage where Philippa enthusiastically showed us another part of wall that was visible wedged between parked cars and motorcycles.
As we walked to our various tour points, I found Philippa both gracious, and easy to talk to. I felt like she was someone I would be friends with. As a life-long Londoner, she was able to give a unique perspective on the diversity of the city, the ever-rising real estate prices, and where to find the best curry.
We darted across a few narrow streets to a quaint park. It was framed between a narrow road and a tall building with some stacked stones throughout the garden. College students were sipping java. It was quiet for London. Philippa lead us to a plaque at the end of the patch of grass.
“The Blitz was a deliberate attempt to smash British morale. But it didn’t work. The Government tightly controlled the images of the devastation to show courage, not to show people in pain. Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” Philippa said.
Where we were standing once stood St. Mary Aldermanbury Church. It was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt by famous architect Christopher Wren and gutted again in the Blitz. What was left of the church was shipped to the America, to Fulton, Missouri and rebuilt in honor of Winston Churchill. It also happened to be the place where Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech.
We ended our tour at the overpowering St. Paul’s Cathedral. Churchill was determined to save the famous and symbolic symbol at all costs. On the night of December 29, on the 114th Blitz, the area around St. Paul’s was the target. As a warehouse district without a lot of people, fires could spread easily without humans living nearby. The Germans dropped incendiary bombs to light their targets. Then another wave of bombers would drop the bombs,” explained Philippa.
Remarkably, St. Paul’s survived, despite bombs falling all around it, including a bomb that dropped right in front of it, but didn’t detonate. “Once it was detonated outside of London, it created a 100 foot crater,” said Philippa.
I started the tour with the knowledge I had read on the Internet and what I saw on a documentary. I ended the tour having walked the Blitz, felt inspired by the resilience of the British population and having learned to recognize Roman remnants throughout the city. I was educated about a topic that my generation can’t relate too, but certainly sees the relics in every corner of London.
The next time you are in London, understand the past so can appreciate the present by taking Context’s Blitz Tour. Context also offers 40 tours from architecture and gastronomic walks, to drawing workshops to history tours including family tours.
This tour was complementary by our friends at Context Travel.