With Gary Oldman Oscar nominated for his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, the UK’s war-time leader is in focus. Churchill was a frequent visitor to Western Approaches, the secret bunker under Liverpool that has been reopened by Chester-based social enterprise group Big Heritage. It was the nerve centre to coordinate the Battle of the Atlantic and staffed mainly by Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, (WAAFs). The bunker is in the basement of an office building in Moorfields, Liverpool’s business quarter, but is just five minutes from Pier Head and the waterfront. Combine it with a visit to the Terracotta Warriors at the World Museum, opening on 9 February, for a thoroughly educational day out.
Western Approaches houses the original Gaumont Kalee Dragon projector Churchill used to watch secret war footage. Newsreel controlled by the Ministry of Information was then shown to the public in cinemas to boost morale.
It captures the bulldog spirit of the times. The self-guided trail goes through a labyrinth of rooms, including the central Operations Room with its giant battle map and the Cypher Room, where secret coded messages were exchanged with Bletchley Park. The tour ends at a recreated 1940s Liverpool street scene, where families can dress up in period clothes before hitting the sweet shop. There’s a new room for half-term devoted to children’s games, such as hopscotch, cup and ball, and pitch and toss with genuine old pennies. Grandparents will no doubt enjoy beating the kids at their wartime favourite.
At the low-key Naafi (canteen), a cup of tea or coffee costs 2p – as it did in 1940 – making it the cheapest cuppa in the city, perhaps the country. While sipping you can peruse wartime history books, or watch the video about Merseyside during wartime. Speaking after the Liverpool blitz of May 1941, Churchill said, “I see … the spirit of an unconquered people.”
A small shop in reception has souvenirs on a wartime theme, including Morse Code kits (£17.50) and Chocolate Edition Battleships games (£9). Our family favourite was a Churchill-style rubber duck – complete with cigar and victory sign (£5.50) – to remember the night the former prime minister coordinated strategy from the bathtub.
It is walking distance from Liverpool Moorfields and Lime Street railway stations, both served by the Merseyrail network. If driving, there’s pay-and-display parking on Rumford Street, opposite the museum.
It’s still a bit work-in-progress but the ticket is valid over six months for repeat visits: £10.50 adults, £9 concessions (senior citizens, students, serving personnel and children aged 5-16), under 5s free, family ticket (2+2) £30. A guided tour of the site for groups or individuals costs £20 per hour.
Open 10am-5pm (last admission 4.15pm, closed Wednesdays).
8 out of 10. The Churchill War Rooms in London is more famous but Western Approaches is well worth a supporting-role nomination.