Churchill, Church and Charm


They were the best sliders I ever ate. Smoked to a moist perfection, the brisket slices draped off the toasted bun, dripping barbecue sauce onto my plate. No doubt about it, Beks knows how to serve up sumptuous fare, inside the warm ambiance of this charming restaurant in the historic Brick District of Fulton.

Beks stands across the street from Well Read Books. The bookstore, a comfy-couch addition to the eclectic mix of this college town and its history, fills its 120-year-old space with book smells and good light, easy chairs and cats. Somewhere on that bookstore’s shelves, author Henry Bellaman’s torrid-for-its-time novel King’s Row is loosely based on his home town of Fulton. And even though Ronald Reagan appeared in a sanitized version of the novel, the book is considered the blueprint for Peyton Place, and every soap opera since. Fulton tells a good story.

Rising a few blocks away, the elegant lines of Sir Christopher Wren’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, rose from the ashes of the 1666 Great Fire of London, only to be destroyed again during the blitzkriegs of 1941. But it survived enough to jump the pond and plop at the edge of Fulton’s Brick District. Before the old church made its big leap, before the tragic fire, and the awful bombs, it was the place where William Shakespeare kneeled to pray for good reviews.

Shakespeare would have loved to claim credit for the character Winston Churchill, whose speech on the campus of Fulton’s Westminster College set in motion the American visual of the cold war, which consumed the attention of an octet of presidents, including Reagan. Beneath the church is the National Churchill Museum which, “through the imaginative and innovative use of technology, brings to life the story of Winston Churchill and the world he knew.” This collection of fascinating displays and artifacts, along with its programs and events, was formally designated by Congress as America’s National Churchill Museum.

It’s only fitting, then, that Oscar buzz filled the air at the old church, dressed up to host the red carpet debut of Darkest Hour, an intimate peek into Winston Churchill’s mind as he faced the menace of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi aggression. The film is a tour de force by actor Gary Oldman as Churchill, a riveting study of the many sides of Churchill, and the camera rarely strays from him as he transforms from a doubt-ridden has-been into Britain’s leader against tyranny, repeating the now-familiar mantra, “Never give up.”

This personal glimpse of Churchill by director Joe Wright is not an action adventure film. Star Wars junkies may squirm in their seats, hoping for more pyrotechnics. But it’s a good thing Oldman didn’t squirm during his hours in the makeup chair, transforming into one of the greatest historical figures of any time. Oldman captures Churchill’s deeply conflicting moods during Britain’s struggle with its own resolve at the beginning of the war. Oldman becomes Churchill: his depression, his humor, his voice and mannerisms as he spars with Parliament, King George V, and his own family while wrestling with the impending catastrophe at Dunkirk.

Like a fine wine, this movie pairs well with Dunkirk, the movie about England’s dramatic civilian armada that braved the English Channel to rescue 300,000 British soldiers from certain death at the hands of Hitler. It’s interesting that both movies came out within months of each other.

Before the old church made its big leap to Fulton, it was the chapel where John Milton got married. I think Milton talks about his marriage in his autobiography, Paradise Lost. Maybe not. During an earlier visit to Fulton, I searched in vain throughout the college for a Paradise Lost and Found. No matter. Darkest Hour is a plot worthy of Shakespeare. And the movie and museum are worthy of your time.

Read more road tales in John’s two books – A Road Trip Into America’s Hidden Heart and Coastal Missouri – available at Left Bank Books. And more of his stories are available at