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STS Trip! War Rooms & Banquetting House 

25 March 2014

By Raquel Velho

Continuing our department’s recent trend (having visited Bletchley Park in November), the first sunny weekend of March had us walking around Westminster in the City of London to visit the Churchill War Rooms and Banqueting Hall. Each place holds a fascinating place in British history in general, and in the history of science particularly. 

War Rooms (clockwise from top-left): an electric cigarette lighter, weather signs, Chiefs of Staff conference room, a wax figure of Churchill on the phone in the Transatlantic Telephone Room.

The STS party (twenty-or-so people) met, in keeping with the theme, in front of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square and headed off to the War Rooms (a branch of the Imperial War Museum). Going down an ominous flight of stairs, the group was sealed off from the sunny Saturday morning and confronted what life had been like beneath the London streets during the Second World War. We walked through narrow corridors, inspecting rooms where military officers slept, Churchill’s kitchen, to less ordinary and domestic items: the Map and War Cabinet Rooms. Some simple technologies were used daily (an electric cigarette lighter, or simple wooden boards to indicate the weather above ground), but it was also host to advanced technologies - this was, after all, the place where Churchill was in direct contact with President Roosevelt, using the Transatlantic Telephone Room to conduct strategic phone calls. In the claustrophobic setting, gas masks and chemical toilets are displayed as a reminder that this was life for approximately 200 people who could be accommodated in the bunkers (according to one video display, some of which preferred to risk the raids and go home rather than spend a night there). The gigantic maps on display, however, are striking. Riddled with strings, pins, and holes tracking war fronts and convoys around the world, they stood in contrast with our lunch experience: a few touches on the phone to find the nearest spot for food on a digital map with GPS. 

The Banqueting House (clockwise from left): a mock-up of stage design for a masque, Prof Joe Cain uses the mirror to inspect Rubens’ panels, a chandelier contrasts with the panels on the ceiling.

A few macaroons and a brief session lounging in St James’ Park later, our group crossed Whitehall to enter the Banqueting House. The sole remnant of Henry VIII’s Palace of Whitehall, it went through multiple transformations in over four centuries of existence. It was under James I that it was properly established as a permanent building (only to succumb to a fire shortly thereafter, and reconstructed following the architect Inigo Jones’ vision). Walking through wooden doors, the sheer size of the hall is a lot to take in, made even more imposing by the gigantic ceiling panels painted by Rubens (commissioned by Charles I). Rubens’ vibrant colours illustrate the glory of the Stuart dynasty, particularly the reign of James I and the union of the Scottish and English crowns. The Banqueting House was the backdrop not only to Charles I’s decapitation, but during his reign for royal receptions and lavish masques - theatrical entertainment which used allegory and mythology to praise the royal family. These spectacles made use of costumes and intricate scenery to illustrate the enlightened era that had been brought with the Stuarts. 

As we are wont to do, a slightly smaller STS party continued on to a pub to soothe aching legs from the day’s hard work. We would like to thank the department for organizing the trip, and look forward to the next one!

Page last modified on 25 mar 14 12:32 by Jo E Pearson

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