We'll meet again

25th September 1998 at 01:00
The Britain at War Experience recreates what it was like to be in an air raid. Chris Fautley reports from his Anderson shelter.

From the arches beneath London Bridge railway station you can start a quite different journey from the one commuters make.

This one goes back in time to wartime London. And a cracking journey it is too; patriotic, flag-waving stuff. The idea of the Britain at War Experience, says its manager, Jessica Lawson, is to present a realistic portrayal of the home front - to bring alive an often overlooked part of the war. Thus the exhibition has been heavily researched through eyewitness accounts.

It's very popular with school parties. Eileen Ellis, a teacher from Britannia County primary school in Ipswich, Suffolk, had brought a group of Year 5 children who have been studying Britain from the 1930s as a key stage 2 history topic. She said: "Rather than just read books, we wanted the hands-on experience. We've had half a term building up to this."

The journey starts in the lift down to the station where the corridors are lined with bunks, most already occupied. A Ministry of Information film extolling the virtues of evacuation sets the mood, with opportunities for handling artefacts and dressing up adding to the atmosphere.

So a group of nine and 10-year-olds metamorphosed into air raid patrol wardens, soldiers and sailors - struggling with gas masks and contemplating the delights of ration books, powdered eggs and clothing coupons.

From time to time guest speakers call in to recount their wartime experiences. On this occasion, evacuee Reg Baker was there, and a mine of information he was too. Other speakers come from the Women's Voluntary Service and bomb disposal team.

The exhibition focuses on a series of tableaux, some of which recreate less obvious aspects of life on the home front - not least that Londoners did their damnedest to carry on as normal. The theatre dressing room is very good, with recordings of artistes of the day that you can listen to by pressing buttons. The BBC Listening Room is next door with knobs to twiddle and buttons to press. Tune in to Lord Haw Haw, Hitler, a front-line reporter and others.

But where the exhibition really succeeds is in its remorseless assault on the senses. The Anderson shelter, for example, is hot, dark and claustrophobic. Huddling inside, you find yourself re-living a terror that, for millions of Britons, was part of everyday life. It even vibrates as bombers mass overhead, followed by a Stuka and, most chilling of all, the drone of a doodle bug. It comes as something of a relief when the "all clear" sounds, and to be able to explore some of the quieter parts of the show, such as the wartime shopping street and the American "Rainbow Club" with its jukebox and GIs.

From the brightly-lit club, a flight of steps leads to the exhibition's cleverly executed climax: a blacked-out and bombed street during the Blitz. "Don't you know there's an air raid on!" a voice barks as you pick your way along a dark alleyway.

You start on the first floor of a row of shops that have just taken a direct hit, then descend to street level. As the air raid sirens wail, the senses are subjected to another cacophonous assault. The sky is slashed by searchlights, the street briefly sparks into dazzling whiteness as bombs crash down and the air is clogged with "smoke". No detail has been spared: "bodies", a burst water main, glowing fires, a bicycle blown up by the blast dangling from scaffolding, a wheel still spinning. But already the WVS has arrived with copious supplies of tea.

Sure to give goose pimples, it graphically demonstrates the war's sheer bloodiness and how it affected everyday life.

The children from Britannia school were impressed. "Exciting," said one. "More to do than I expected," said another. Ms Ellis's verdict was that although not as big as she expected (a view others may share), the exhibition was well put together.

Ms Lawson says that most school groups fall in the nine to 11 age group. This is baffling. With its impressive archive material - letters (some written by Churchill), rations, newspapers and displays, the Britain at War Experience could be used for all stages from primary to A-level.

The Britain at War Experience, Tooley Street, London Bridge, London SE1 2TF. Tel: 0171 403 3171. Open daily, check in advance for details of visiting speakers. Admission: Pounds 2.50 per child. Primary and secondary packs Pounds 5 each.

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