An imperialist who is still venerated

Churchill-mania is such that people will pay £6,000 for his slippers. Andrew Roberts visits the rest

The heritage cult of Sir Winston Churchill continues apace; but for how much longer? On 8 April, Gordon Brown officially opened the long-hidden chambers used by Churchill's wife and staff at the Cabinet War Rooms in Whitehall, and announced that the Churchill Museum would open there in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. But will it?

Although the Treasury has not contributed anything to the £13.5m project, and although people like Churchill's daughter Mary Soames were also present at the opening, the Chancellor was chosen for the honour because the government is granting the museum a 29-year lease on reasonable terms. He pointed out that this would be the first museum in Britain dedicated to the life and work of a political leader, that the terms showed the Treasury's "prudence", and that the War Rooms were an invaluable historical resource "for every school in our country and beyond". Yet such is the ambition of this magnificent project that it still needs a tremendous amount of help.

So if your attic contains any Churchilliana, please do contact the War Rooms, because they are currently collecting items of memorabilia - with an emphasis on the non-documentary kind, as the Churchill Archives in Cambridge are providing papers aplenty - to fill the vast, 8,643-square-foot area situated deep below King Charles Street. As the museum aims to cover Churchill's entire life and work, these don't have to relate to the Second World War.

Although Churchill died 38 years ago, his cult is being burnished as perhaps never before. The opening of the last part of the Cabinet War Rooms - including his private dining room and Clementine Churchill's bedroom - represents merely the latest stage of a phenomenon that is growing the further we get from the momentous life it commemorates, and whose manifestations are legion. The numbers visiting his home, Chartwell in Kent, have been increasing steadily since it opened to the public the year after his death; a US warship was named after him in 2000, the first Englishman to be so honoured since the 18th century (although he was an honorary American citizen); more prosaically, a pair of his bedroom slippers fetched more than £6,000 at auction. He repeatedly and easily won many of the Man of the Century contests conducted in 1999, and last year was voted the Greatest Briton of all time by 444,000 people in a BBC2 poll.

Why should this be, considering that John Strachey identified Churchill as "a Victorian who was ambushed at the Khyber Pass and lived beyond Hiroshima, a complete anachronism - a royalist, an Imperialist, an Elizabethan thrust upon the stage of the 20th century"? Is it just a reflection of our softness for romance, adventure and atavism, or does the continuing Churchill-mania point to something deeper?

Dr John Ramsden, whose Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and his legend since 1945 definitively examined the Churchill cult and its iconography, argues that it has strong and continuing political relevance, which has been hugely strengthened since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Showing that there is also something psychologically satisfying for people in the veneration of Churchill, Ramsden quotes an American leadership guru straying wildly into psycho-babble when he argues that "by living the present in terms of the eternal, Churchill achieved a greatness that death cannot destroy".

In memorialising that greatness, the Cabinet War Rooms pride themselves on the rigour of their historical research, and this is very evident in the new rooms that have been opened. The research team has been highly attentive to the minutiae of the reconstruction of the newly opened area. In the prime minister's detectives' bedrooms, for example, are placed the boxes of anti-louse powder and asbestos cloths (helpfully marked: "For Use in Case of Fire") that were actually present when the rooms were photographed and then mothballed after V-J Day in August 1945.

Here are the tiny bedrooms and offices used by several of those people closest to Churchill in the darkest, most perilous days of the Second World War. Nor is that mere rhetoric, because when the war was going well and bombs weren't falling on London, the nerve centre moved away from the War Rooms, which were fetid and reportedly much disliked by Clementine Churchill. Today's air-conditioning makes them comfortable to visit, but what the Chiefs of Staff meetings must have been like in the 1940s, with almost everyone smoking, and in those days before extractor fans, defies imagination. In all, no fewer than 10 per cent of all war cabinet meetings were held down there, mainly during the Blitz of 1940-41 and the V-bombing campaign of 1944-45.

The newly opened area also contains the spare, functional, yet evocative rooms occupied by such intimate Churchillians as his intelligence liaison man Major Desmond Morton, his information minister Brendan Bracken, his bodyguard Commander "Tommy" Thompson and the deputy secretary to the war cabinet, Norman Brook.

Lia Cramer, the museum curator in charge of finding the furniture and items for the project, has done a meticulous job. The old cut-throat razors, the original dirty cream colour on the walls, the hairbrushes, shaving soap, screw-down trouser presses, Swan Vesta matches and Senior Service cigarettes - all are redolent of the rooms just as they were when sealed up back in 1945. The Spartan dining room has the original dinner service, complete with the King's "G VI R" insignia on the plates, and the original sideboard. The plate-warmer in the kitchen came from the Queen Mother's house at Windsor Great Park.

At the end of the war, Clementine Churchill's objects were boxed up, right the way down to the half-brick she used to keep the door ajar, and were not unboxed until Cramer crowbarred them open in January this year, at the RAF museum at Duxford in Cambridge. The sheets and pillowcases had disintegrated in the meantime, but objects such as Mrs Churchill's black Bakelite telephone and white porcelain water jugs were all intact. With her unerring eye for period detail, Cramer managed to find precisely the same patterned bedspread as in the 1945 photographs.

Anyone walking around these rooms - the last of this great subterranean labyrinth to be uncovered - will appreciate the professionalism involved in their restoration. The high point comes at the end of the corridor in the large Chiefs of Staff conference room, where the huge maps on the wall were never taken down, and which have been lovingly restored in sterilised and vacuumed conditions against a half-century's damage from damp. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on one of these maps, some anonymous wartime hand has doodled a cartoon of Adolf Hitler. As the war progressed, and one theatre of war took over from the next in importance, new wall maps were simply glued on top of the old ones. Simple for the wartime planners; a restoration headache for today's conservationists.

Despite a very generous 11th-hour donation of £2m from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the museum is still about £5.5m short of the target it must attain before it can open in January 2005, the 40th anniversary of Churchill's death. Robert Crawford, the director general of the Imperial War Museum, which runs the Cabinet War Rooms, is confident that the rest of the money can be raised if the public profile of the project is raised, although the whole project would certainly have collapsed had not emergency capital financing from the Halifax Bank of Scotland been made available at the last minute.

The Cabinet War Rooms receive 300,000 visitors each year - almost a 50 per cent increase in the decade since the dynamic present director, Phil Reed, took over. It would be little short of a national tragedy were this superb museum not also capable of mounting a world-class exhibition about the life and times of its own most famous inhabitant, and our Greatest Briton.

Churchill's private wartime quarters, Cabinet War Rooms, London SW1 (020 7930 6961)

Andrew Roberts's Hitler and Churchill: secrets of leadership is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson