Walking SOE London

With the first week of the Easter holidays 2021 still in partial lockdown, we decided to take the opportunity of a quieter London to devise a walk to take our youngest children on (ages 10 and 12) for some historical sightseeing. We’d been feeling the long closure of museums and so took this opportunity to incorporate some parts of London with interesting links to the Second World War, and in particular the role of the S.O.E (Special Operations Executive). Lara exercised her History teacher skills making a little workbook for the kids to help engage with what we were seeing.

It is a walk based mainly around the Westminster area and can be adapted to include more, or cut some out (as we did with our tired youngsters!)

As our main London line station is Waterloo we started from there, but a good starting point is the South Bank by the London Eye – easy to find and arrange a meeting point with friends.

  1. From the London Eye follow the South Bank path towards Westminster Bridge. You have great views of the Houses of Parliament across the river and will go past the big attractions of the London Dungeons and Sealife Centre. Continue past Westminster Bridge towards Lambeth Bridge (currently this wall dedicated to Covid victim remembrance – a wall of hearts) and you will come to the SOE Memorial (POINT 1 on the tour).

The memorial features a beautiful bust of SOE agent Violette Szabo and information about the role of the SOE in WW2.

2. The next part of the tour was the part we were most excited about. We had heard there was a road in Westminster where all the original bomb shelter signs remained. Known as ‘ghost signs’, there are many old advertisements and signs on buildings all over the country which were originally painted directly onto the exterior of buildings, and what remains today becomes a faded ‘ghost’ sign. We found an amazing website called Traces of War that gave directions to where these signs could be found, and we could incorporate them into our walk https://www.tracesofwar.com/sights/10863/Where-is-Signs-Air-Raid-Shelters-Westminster.htm

So to find these signs, leave the memorial and cross the river on Lambeth Bridge turning right to follow Millbank until you reach Dean Stanley St. on the left. Follow the road round right (past an incredible building) and then right again onto Lord North Street. The ghost signs are on this street. (POINT 2)

Time seems to have stood still here and we tasked the children with finding the signs – it wasn’t difficult as there were so many!

3. The next stop on the tour (POINT 3) is to see the statue of Winston Churchill – the Prime Minister from 1940 who saw Britain through the war. It’s easy to find by turning right at the top of Lord North Street onto Great Peter St then left up towards Parliament Square –  The Churchill statue is top right of Parliament square garden.

4. The next stop is to head to the secret headquarters of the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) and SOE. so leave Parliament Square gardens by the statue of Nelson Mandela (passing some incredible statues on the way) and take the main road towards Victoria (A302) and turn right when you get to Tothill street,

Turn left when you reach Broadway, and then quite soon turn right onto Caxton St – to the St Ermin’s hotel (POINT 4).

This hotel played an important role during WW2, housing the SOE after the historic meeting held by Churchill in 1940 when he asked a group of remarkable people to join him in ‘Setting Europe Ablaze’

Two floors above were MI6 and standing outside this hotel, you can imagine all the pinstriped gentlemen and suitably attired women dashing in and out of the building.

Apparently in the hotel Lobby there hangs an original SOE agent’s printed secret coded silk. (It was still closed due to covid on our visit). Agents secret coded messages were printed on pieces of silk as silk had the advantage of being easily hidden in the lining of clothes.

5. From the hotel it is a short walk to Buckingham Palace(POINT 5) (just walk to the end of Caxton St and turn right towards Buckingham Palace). Standing outside the palace you can picture the jubilant scenes in May 1945 when the royal family stood on the balcony and waved to the cheering crowds on VE Day!

6. Following the Mall from the palace you will pass a few minutes walk down, the statues of King George VI and his Queen Elizabeth (POINT 6) – the monarchs that saw Britain through the war – and behind them is Carlton Gardens.

7. We didn’t get a chance to explore further on our first visit, but if you turn left at Marlborough Road, (before the statues of George and Elizabeth) then left following Pall Mall (right) to turn down Carlton Gardens you will come to number 4 Carlton Gardens – the HQ of the Free French during WW2. There is also a statue of Charles De Gaulle here and it is interesting to discuss the link between the British F Section and the French resistance.

8. The final stop on the tour is the Battle of Britain Memorial on the Embankment. (we didn’t make this with tired children!) at the end of the Mall when you reach Trafalgar Square – take Northumberland Avenue on the right towards the river. Turning right at the river, the memorial is a short walk away.

By doubling back and heading across the Jubilee bridge, the circular walk is complete!

If you do follow this walk, please let us know how you got on – and tag us in any photos so we can see your favourite parts of the walk!

We plan to map out a few more walks like this, so stay tuned!

Until next time,

The VTs xxxxxx

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