- Historic Sites
America In London
Within the city’s best-known landmarks and down its least-visited lanes stand surprisingly vivid mementos of our own national history
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
On a recent pilgrimage to Abilene—that epic little town on the Kansas plains that briefly marked the uttermost frontier of the Western world —I stepped into the old timber-frame homestead of the Eisenhowers and felt that part of my life had completed a circle. There, in the cluttered formality of the tiny parlor with its dainty drapes and edifying literature, so bravely genteel compared with the dusty cattledriving life outside, Dwight David Elsenhower was raised for leadership in the greatest military adventure of the twentieth century. It was an adventure that brought the two of us, unwittingly, very close together.
During the Second World War, I was a boy living at Hampton Court, a pleasant suburb of London noted for the vast red palace of Henry VIII and its spacious parklands. “Ike” was a neighbor. He was then Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (AEF) preparing for the invasion of France, and although he would not have known me, I certainly knew him. His staff car (now at Abilene), driven by the elegant Kay Summersby, was a daily sight on the local roads. Sometimes I ventured a wave and received a wave in return. Once, if my memory is right, I was given a lift to school. Years later, in adult life, I remembered the grin.
The Elsenhower residence in those days was a secluded house called Telegraph Cottage on the hill at Kingston-upon-Thames. The name probably came from a signal station in the Napoleonic Wars. Telegraph Cottage is still there, but hard to find and politely private. But Bushy Park, where the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) was located, is open to all. Only a small commemorative stone where the deer graze under the chestnut trees recalls the thousands of American servicemen who were based in the park, doubtless unaware that it was also the former home of Lord North, the British prime minister who “lost” the American colonies.
More troops were based on a nearby racetrack called Hurst Park. A modern housing development now occupies most of the ground, but until quite recently a few of the motor-pool buildings were still intact, taken over by children as hay barns for their ponies. Some prophetic, long-forgotten GI in 1944 had scratched “Ike for President” on the bricks, and 1 regret the bulldozer that removed it.
So it was in Abilene that I completed the circle, crossing once again the path of the man who had filled a particular moment in my own receding childhood. For Americans, London is full of circles of discovery, requiring the shock of personal surprise and recollection. No city on either side of the Atlantic is more poignantly involved in the American story than London, and thanks to London’s unique respect for its own past, there has survived much that anywhere else would have been destroyed.
Craven Street, for example, was never the grandest address in London. When Ben Franklin found lodgings there in 1757, it was a homely terrace running from the busy Strand to the river Thames, just as it does today, squashed between offices and the gloomy bulk of Charing Cross Station. Although Franklin’s house at No. 36 is presently derelict and closed to the public, plans are under way to restore it and turn it into a museum.
That Craven Street, like the rest of London, is regularly swept by the public sanitation department would give Franklin immense satisfaction. He once met a “very pale and feeble” woman brushing the sidewalk outside No. 36 who explained that she got no wages, only an occasional tip. Franklin promptly devised a plan for the more “Effectual Cleaning and Keeping Clean the Streets of London and Westminster,” adding that it might be useful “to some of our towns in America.” It was the start of modern highway supervision and garbage disposal- possibly the most valuable, though one of the least recognized, of Franklin’s odd ideas.
Actually, London could do with a Franklin statue. The bicentenary of his death in 1990 would be an opportunity to fill the gap. Meanwhile, the statues of three Presidents will have to suffice: George Washington in front of the National Gallery; Abraham Lincoln in Parliament Square; and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the middle of Grosvenor Square, facing the U.S. Embassy with its gigantic (some say gargantuan) thirty-five-foot eagle and a few blocks from St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, where another Roosevelt, Theodore, married Edith Carow in 1886.
But even these public tributes by the British to great Americans are modest when contrasted with the breathtaking magnificence of the U.S. War Memorial Chapel in St. Paul’s Cathedral. No American visiting London should miss it, yet all too many do. The gorgeous east window containing the emblems of every state of the Union is enough to bring a lump to the throat, and when the morning sun blazes through the glass onto the roll of honor (containing the names of the twenty-eight thousand U.S. servicemen who lost their lives while based in Britain during World War II), the effect is awesome.