Travel UK: Where the city still swings

Feeling nostalgic? Buzz round London and relive the days when cars and skirts were mini.
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The Independent Culture
Parked somewhat impertinently behind the two large naval guns guarding the entrance to the Imperial War Museum, the neat little Mini looked a prime candidate for a Lambeth Council parking ticket. For once, though, an improperly parked car was right on cue. Launched in 1959, the Morris Mini-Minor was one of the classic signs of that time and here was the very first one off the production line, pulled up in front of the Museum's new exhibition, `From the Bomb to the Beatles - a celebration of post-war British life'.

The decades between 1945 and 1965 marked a period of immense social and economic change in Britain, affecting everything from the way that people dressed to the way that they worked. The exhibition, designed by Terence Conran, makes use of an immense collection of memorabilia - it includes posters and TV advertisements, one of Marilyn Monroe's dresses and a reconstructed coffee-bar - to help bring the era bursting back to life.

An interest in post-war London needn't begin and end at the Imperial War Museum, however. After Labour won the general election in 1945, the country went into a frenzy of construction and many of the resulting buildings still stand. One that doesn't is the Dome of Discovery, built on the South Bank as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain, but it has inspired two of London's landmark edifices. The Millennium Dome, under construction at Greenwich, and the South Bank Centre, now Europe's largest arts centre, both owe their existence, at least in part, to the 1951 Festival.

At the time, tower blocks and estates were seen by many as glamorous and exciting, if not entirely successful. Built in 1950, the high-rise flats "The Lawn", just outside the capital in Harlow, were the first in England and still stand. A survivor within the Greater London boundary is HMP Holloway, where Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, was incarcerated in 1956.

Heading east, the Geffrye Museum (Kingsland Road, London E2, 0171-739 9893) contains a series of well-researched period rooms, including one that covers the years from 1955 to 1965. Further south, rock around Big Ben and stop to admire the Houses of Parliament, today maintaining the same scandalous profile they did in 1963. That was the year that Christine Keeler's liaison with the secretary of state for war, John Profumo, emerged.

Ten years earlier, on 2 June 1953, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned across the road in Westminster Abbey, the day after Sir Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Everest. From here, it's a short hop to the Tate Gallery (Millbank, London SW1, 0171-887 8000), currently hosting the Jackson Pollock retrospective and his post-war action paintings. During the Fifties, abstract prints became popular on fabrics, wallpapers and china, and one of the main designers in this field was Terence Conran. Stop off at the Conran Shop (Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3, 0171-589 7401) to pay homage, or take the Tube up to 20th Century Design in Islington (274 Upper Street, N1, 0171-288 1996) and invest in some classic post- war designs to take home.

By now, you'll probably be in need of refreshment. Get into the milk bar spirit at Jerry's Home Store (163-167 Fulham Road, SW7, 0171-225 2246). The highball glasses on sale are perfect for Fifties-style ice-cream sodas, but cost the very Nineties price of pounds 7.95 each. Not far from here is the Victoria & Albert Museum (Cromwell Road, SW7, 0171-938 8438). Celebrate the end to sweet-rationing that came in 1953 with a jar of traditional sweets (pounds 5.95 for old-fashioned dolly mixtures and jelly beans) from the museum shop.

In lifestyle terms, the Fifties saw a huge boom in labour-saving devices such as washing-machines, spin-dryers, refrigerators (for keeping those Babychams cool) and - as showcased in the 1956 Ideal Home House of the Future - hostess trolleys. Today's supermarkets still stock many of the brands these machines called for (Persil, Palmolive, Vimto, Typhoo, Black Magic chocolates, Twiglets and cocktail sausages, to name but a few) but an Aero chocolate bar today costs 29p - 10 times more than it did when commercial TV began in 1955.

House and home fully stocked, dress for a night on the town with a trip to the Pop Boutique (6 Monmouth Street, WC2, 0171-497 5262) and the Sixties favourite Mary Quant (3 Ives Street, SW3, 0171-581 1811). Then, for an evening of post-war-inspired entertainment, make your way to Frith Street in Soho and seek out two legendary hangouts. Bar Italia is at No 22 (0171- 437 4520). Rebels looking for a cause would sit here in 1960 discussing Lady Chatterley's Lover, just published, controversially, by Penguin. At No 47 is Ronnie Scott's (0171-439 0747) jazz club. Despite the death of Ronnie himself and a move from its original premises, the club still attracts the top names in modern jazz and this week celebrated its 40th birthday.

Finally, drive yourself back into the Nineties with a visit to the Design Museum (Butlers Wharf, Shad Thames, SE1, 0171-403 6933). Mini: 40 Years of a Design Icon is on here until 9 May and includes cars that look remarkably similar to the one parked outside the Imperial War Museum. Thanks to their customisation by the likes of Paul Smith and Kate Moss, however, these vehicles are worth a little more than the pounds 537 asking price for the first Minis.

From the Bomb to the Beatles runs until May 2000 at The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ (0171-416 5000). Open 10am to 6pm daily, entrance costs pounds 5 for adults, (pounds 4 concessions) and pounds 2.50 for children