Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:55 am
Winston Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) was one of the greatest Englishmen that ever lived, and a brilliant man. Now, before anyone gets all hot and bothered about him being an imperialist, racist, capitalist, aristocrat, enemy of the working-class, opponent of women’s suffrage, self-publicist, reckless adventurer, glutton and all the other dreadful and unfashionable characteristics he may or may not have had, let’s firstly accept that he had a few faults – even I have one or two; and, secondly, he was a product of his time and place – as we all are. The fact is that, whatever you think you know about Churchill, whatever you might find objectionable about the man, the free world can learn from his vision, determination and leadership. When all’s said and done, most of us owe Churchill big time. And you can visit Chartwell, his home for 40 years, and his little piece of England.
There are places where history was made and places where you get a sense of the people associated with them. Chartwell is a little of both, but mostly the latter. It is no grand estate, no Blenheim Palace: indeed, it is relatively modest, the house itself comfortable, in many ways unremarkable. But Churchill’s presence fills the place like a jelly in a mould; his possessions are everywhere and it’s easy to imagine the man himself, frozen in his later years, rising from a chair, or rumbling into a room wondering who on earth all the fawning people are. In some ways, there is something of the shrine about Chartwell. It does have an earlier history – there was a medieval estate here, originally called Atwell, which had changed to Well Street by the 16th century, when Henry VIII is said to have stayed in a house on the site whilst courting a saucy-eyed Anne Boleyn just down the road at Hever Castle. But Chartwell’s previous story fades into insignificance compared to the brief chapter during the mid-20th century when it belonged to the Churchills.
Churchill was a famous, and often controversial, figure long before he stumbled across Chartwell. He had served in the army, taking part in one of its last cavalry charges at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, had become a published writer, a high-profile escaped prisoner of the Boers in 1899 and Conservative Member of Parliament in 1900. Switching to the Liberal Party in 1904, he became President of the Board of Trade and a member of the reforming Liberal Cabinet in 1908. Somehow, that year, he also found time to marry Clementine Hozier, and subsequently allowed her to have five children. Churchill was appointed Home Secretary in 1910, First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911 and resigned from government in 1915 in the furore over the failure of the Dardanelles Campaign, of which he had been the chief advocate. He served as a colonel in the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front for six months – bizarrely insisting on wearing a Poilu’s steel helmet, which is on display at Chartwell – before returning to be appointed Minister of Munitions and then, in 1918, Secretary of State for War and the Air after the election of 1918, and Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1921. Tragically, also in 1921, the Churchills’ young toddler Marigold contracted sepsis, and died. Suffering from appendicitis when a general election was called in November 1922, Churchill’s Dundee seat was one of the casualties of the Liberal defeat and collapse and he later wrote, “In the twinkling of an eye, I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party and without an appendix.” However, by that time he had acquired Chartwell.
Chartwell was put up for auction by its then owner, Major Colquhoun (coincidentally a contemporary of Churchill’s at Harrow), in 1921, but the house was in a poor state, running with damp, riddled with dry rot, and failed to reach its reserve price. Churchill stepped in and bought it for £5,000 the following year. The Churchills had long sought a place in the country, far enough, but not too far, from the political rough and tumble of Westminster. In 1917, they had purchased Lullenden, a Tudor manor house outside the village of Dormansland in Surrey, near East Grinstead, but had to sell it after just a couple of years, because they could not afford it. Chartwell was a gloomy, neglected, place that required a great deal of work, the cost of which appealed not a jot to Clementine, who had an eye to the family’s frequently fragile fortunes. Churchill, however, was enchanted – mostly by the setting. The largely Victorian house nestled – as it still does – on the side of a hill above a small, attractive, valley. At the bottom of this was a large pond fed by the Chart Well that gives the property its name. But what really sells it, even now, is the stunning view to the south over the Weald of Kent; and it was this, by all accounts, that Churchill found particularly captivating. He drove his three eldest children to look round Chartwell in September 1922, specifically to ask them what they thought of it. They urged him to buy it – but he already had, without telling the long-suffering Clementine.
Chartwell was transformed by a combination of architect Philip Tilden’s vision, and Churchill’s tinkering. He sounds like the client from hell. It took two years, including adding modern plumbing and electricity and creating a stylish new wing. Some features, like the fascinating 18th century front door frame, were purchased from antique dealers. Costs escalated – the final bill was almost £20,000 – but by April 1924, Winston was in. Clementine stoically overcame her public reservations to determine an elegant interior decoration, and the gardens and grounds were remodelled too. The place evolved over the years, as houses do. Churchill was enthusiastic about what he called his ‘waterworks’ and constructed waterfalls, ponds which he filled with golden orfe, a much extended lake, complete with its own island, and an outside swimming pool, heated by two coke-fired boilers. Whilst his own ego, work and interests would always have priority, Churchill’s children would not suffer the same lonely childhood that he had had. He built a tree house for his older children and a miniature brick cottage for his youngest daughter, Mary. Winston was dab-hand at bricklaying – the walls he built in the kitchen garden are still there and he even joined a trade union, the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers.
By October 1924, Churchill had returned to Parliament as MP for Epping and was invited by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post which had been held by his father, in a Conservative administration. He rejoined the Conservative Party he had left twenty years earlier and remained as Chancellor until 1929, when the Conservatives were beaten at the General Election by the Labour Party. His subsequent resignation from the Shadow Cabinet over policy in India – Churchill was ever opposed to independence for India – marked the beginning of his so-called ‘wilderness years’ as a back bencher, from 1933 increasingly warning of the dangers presented by Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
When in office in the ‘20s, Churchill lived mostly at the Chancellor’s official residence of 11 Downing Street, in London, perhaps returning to Chartwell at weekends. More time could be spent at the family home during the 1930s. It was then that the oval swimming pool was dug, the lake further extended, a studio for Winston’s painting hobby constructed and the adjacent Orchard Cottage, probably Winston’s most ambitious project, built. During the war, when Churchill became Prime Minister, Chartwell was considered too tempting a target for enemy bombers and was mothballed. Winston would return for visits, sometimes staying in Orchard Cottage, and the garden became overgrown; his daughter, Mary, accompanied him on one visit and describes waist-high grass in the orchard and brambles mingling with the roses.
After the war, Winston and Clemmie returned to Chartwell and set about returning it to a habitable condition. There was some debate about the wisdom of this. They were older, no longer had a young family, it was a large property, expensive to maintain, and the Churchill finances were still unreliable. However, in 1946, a group of wealthy friends solved the problem by purchasing Chartwell and presenting it to the National Trust on condition that the Churchills could continue living there for the remainder of their days. Clementine gave the property up after Winston died in 1965. The National Trust, with the help of Clementine, daughter Mary Soames and the Churchills’ private secretary, Grace Hamblin, set about restoring the house to its pre-war condition; and that is essentially the property visitors are presented with today. Clementine continued to visit her former home right up to her own death in 1977 and Grace Hamblin became Chartwell’s first administrator, dying in nearby Westerham in 2002, aged 94.
I have been to Chartwell several times now. A good-sized car and coach park caters for curious visitors from all over the world, a large café serves slightly crusty sponge cake and other delicacies, whilst a shop does brisk business in Churchillia, tourist tat and plants from the garden. This is the corporate side of the National Trust, and probably a necessity, though it is worrying that the elderly middle class seem so heavily represented at these places. It is once you venture beyond the ticket office that you realise what a really first-class job the National Trust does at Chartwell. The gardens – not the formal gardens of a stately house, but the coloured scented riot of a country home – are a delight. Here is Winston’s rockery and water garden, with the golden orfe darting about in the pond (at least, I assume that’s what they are); here is Lady Churchill’s rose garden; beyond the house are borders, the croquet lawn, kitchen garden and the magnificent golden rose avenue – a golden wedding anniversary gift to Winston and Clemmie from their children. Below to the east is the valley and lakes, where ancestors of Churchill’s Australian black swans, a gift from his friend, Philip Sassoon, glide gracefully across the water and geese hiss at reckless small dogs. Beyond, to the south, is That View over the Weald, best seen from the terrace outside Lady Churchill’s sitting room – unfortunately, under repair during my last visit.
The main drawback to Chartwell is that it can get extremely busy. The National Trust very sensibly limits the number of people in the house at any time, so entrance is by timed ticket, through the front door. Proudly fluttering overhead is Churchill’s standard of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, New Romney and Hastings), the ancient association formed to help defend the coast of England. Inside, one of the first items on display is the visitor book. Chartwell, particularly in the ‘20s and ‘30s, was Churchill’s court and received a surprisingly wide variety of family, friends, celebrities, acolytes and the very powerful. The most frequent visitor was the brilliant, but sinister, Lord Cherwell, Frederick Lindemann; others included Churchill’s ally Brendan Bracken, his closest female friend Violet Bonham Carter, movie star Charlie Chaplin, TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia, who apparently dressed in Arabian robes for dinner; press barons, movie stars – even royalty and ex-US President Truman. Included in the house tour is the library, which is oddly modest for a man who enjoyed words so much, but which includes an interesting relief model of the D-Day harbour at Arromanches in Normandy – as well as one of WSC’s trademark cigars in an ashtray. Lady Churchill’s bedroom is cool, elegant, and curiously asexual in appearance; on display is a set of Dresden porcelain figures of Napoleon and his officers, a gift, apparently, from Brendan Bracken and surely not every woman’s first choice of bedroom ornamentation. The drawing room is simply beautiful and the wonderfully light dining room conjures up images of long-drawn-out meals, during which copious amounts of Pol Roger, port and brandy would lubricate the conversation. Heaven knows how many famous behinds dined there. Former bedrooms display gifts, medals, awards – including Churchill’s Nobel Prize for Literature and honorary American citizenship – and uniforms and other items of clothing – such as one of his famous ‘siren suits’ – essentially, a large, red velvet, onesie – and a very useful pair of monogrammed bedroom slippers. Clearly, Winston felt the need to have his initials on these in case anyone borrowed them by mistake.
The highlight, though, is the study – Churchill’s main place of work, where he toiled over the nation’s budgets in the ‘20s, dictated speeches and composed some of his enormous body of published material. It was here, too, in the 1930s that he would discuss the worsening European crisis with visitors, some of whom took a risk being there. The desk belonged to Churchill’s father; over the mantelpiece is a painting of Blenheim Palace, the ancestral Churchill home and Winston’s birthplace; hanging over this is a union flag, flown over Rome on 5 June 1944 and the first British flag to fly over a liberated capital. It is an evocative, amazing, room.
Weather permitting, you can easily lose yourself for several hours just wandering around the gardens and grounds at Chartwell, and it’s easy to see why its previous owner felt that a day away from it was a day wasted. On my last visit, I discovered a couple of things that were new to me. Firstly, a mock camp has been erected in woods opposite the house, commemorating Canadian troops that guarded Chartwell during the war. Secondly, in a small play area for children, there’s a replica of Mrs Donkey Jack’s blue caravan. Donkey Jack was a gypsy who lived on public land next to Chartwell. He died in 1933 and the local authorities tried to evict his widow. Churchill said she could bring her caravan, believed to be a converted railway carriage, onto the Chartwell estate, where she lived happily ever after. It’s a nice story, and I’m impressed that the National Trust has gone to the trouble of telling it in that way. For all the things up with which he would not put, and contrary to some of his more outrageous views, Churchill could be very human.
If you’re not out-Churchilled by the time you’ve finished at Chartwell, you can always pop into nearby Westerham, where you’ll find a statue of the Man on the green. Westerham is an attractive town anyway, also famous as the birthplace and childhood home of General James Wolfe (1727-59). His statue’s there too – but that’s a story for another day.