What better way to spend a sunny summer afternoon than with a visit to one of the most famous addresses in the world? Security is tight as you enter the hallowed enclave, leaving noisy Whitehall behind. I’ve taken this walk before, aged 8, on a school trip to London. Another era; you wouldn’t dream of sneezing outside the house let alone contemplating the murderous mayhem we now fear. On that first trip we stood, awed, across the road – checking out the stern looking policeman standing outside. Our teacher, full of best behaviour, gave us a hushed commentary: “That’s where the Prime Minister lives and next door lives the Chancellor – he’s the man who handles all the money”. The street was hushed then and it was hushed now – only this time I’m walking up to the front door, I’m clocking the railings, the shiny shiniest front door I’ve ever seen, I’m reading the letterbox – “First Lord of the Treasury”, I’m reaching for the doorbell. I see my finger about to press the white ceramic button – it’s marked, ‘press’. Before I can connect with it Presto! The door opens – just like it does on the telly – how do they do that? How do they know you are there? The smiling man behind the door knows my name he knows my name – he invites me inside smiling.
I’m looking around. The black and white checked floor, the square proportions of the entrance hall, the famous portrait of Robert Walpole. So many scenes, so much history, right here and I’m standing here where it happened.
We move into the Soane Dining Room in number 11, tantalising glimpses of the Brown power base – the place where all that money gets handled. The walk to the Dining Room is uphill – unbelievably the floor is not level, a legacy of the marshy site on which the houses were built. Soane is all symmetry and strict geometry. The austere white plaster ceiling a masterpiece of the art. Onwards to the Cabinet Room, passing a Henry Moore, clocking the in-house cafe in the courtyard below. The lobby outside the Cabinet Room, rich red stripy wallpaper, a clear view back through to the front door. A ghostly procession of former ministers fills my mind; Callaghan, Jenkins, Foot, Castle, Lawson, Williams, Whitelaw – I recall the post-assassination gathering here described by Kenneth Clarke when they’d met for the last time under her control – he talked about enjoying a cup of coffee with cabinet colleagues after they’d done the deed. This is where it happened. The room itself is surprisingly small. Light from the many tall windows. A ceremonial sword with ivory handle on a side table – useful when you’re sticking the knife in? – a gift from an arabian royal. The PM’s chair is the only one with arms – it’s out from under the table, at a jaunty angle to the others – like he’s just nipped out. There’s calm, a repressed energy in the room – a sense of what has been said, what has been done – to us – to the World. Every departing PM leaves something for the Cabinet Room bookcase. They’re all there – we look at Macmillan’s and Atlee’s – they’re not in good condition – surprising. She has left two volumes of her autobiography – they seem to be the only ones in bright coloured dust jackets – typical. I’m later struck by how she’s wearing bright red and green outfits in the cabinet photos on the wall downstairs when all the boys are in sober suits. This room, these walls – what tales they could tell.
Karsh of Ottawa photographed Churchill during a visit to Canada in 1941. It’s a magnificent portrait and hangs now at the foot of the Grand Staircase. [ Pictured below ] Churchill is the only PM to have two portraits displayed here – fitting. The others have to make do with one, they get progressively more recent as you ascend. Past the little white door that leads you to his office – upwards to the second floor and a look at some of the superb silver collection within the house.
Part two tomorrow: Bombs, teacups and Blue Peter gardens.
“An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Atlee got out.” – Winston Churchill, on Clement Atlee