Unless you’re a historian, a Churchill buff or a descendant, I defy you to visit Chartwell and not learn something new about the great man. For me, there were several interesting titbits that struck a chord, for example:
1) His poor efforts at school led his father to express the view that he wouldn’t amount to much! Ah, the benefits of hindsight…
2) Churchill was awarded honorary American citizenship during his lifetime, which is apparently very rare. I think they just wanted to be able to say he was American and add more credit to their claim that they won the war!
3) Later in life, Churchill owned racehorses and even a stud farm; he was said to have loved to watch his horses race and especially when they won (not sure those last few words were entirely necessary!).
4) Churchill liked classic literature and once sent a letter to his wife saying that Wuthering Heights was a great book… a man after my own heart.
These were just a few little gems gleaned from the wealth of information available to Chartwell’s visitors but I’m sure every single person who goes into the house will come out with something different that they will remember.
Certainly, Chartwell is very much all about Churchill but don’t let that deter you if you have no interest in the man. The grounds are worth seeing in themselves, even if you don’t explore the house. The views down to the lakes and across the Kent Weald in the distance are spectacular and the more formal gardens around the house also have a huge amount to offer. I was particularly blown away by the Kitchen Garden, which is overflowing with a vast variety of different produce, including such unusual items as hops and Japanese wineberries (wineberries? No, I didn’t know either; they’re related to the raspberry and just as easy to grow, with the Chartwell example growing up a wall). The Kitchen Garden also has a thriving section for flowers, presumably for use as cut flowers in the house, and if you visit in August like me, you’ll be blown away by the display of dahlias. Another interesting fact about the Kitchen Garden is that Churchill himself did some of the bricklaying on the surrounding wall (reports vary as to how much!) and was also single-handedly responsible for the building of Marycot, a one-room brick building in the corner of the garden used by his daughters to play house in. No ordinary Wendy house for Winston’s children!
Another highlight in the garden at this time of year is the Butterfly Walk, whose buddleias were completely aflutter. There is a little building alongside the walk where Churchill bred butterflies himself for a while and the National Trust is in the process of reintroducing this custom so there will likely be caterpillars and pupae to be seen at other times of the year.
There is a lot more to see in and around the grounds, including a water/rock garden, a rose garden, the pool where Churchill would sit and feed his golden orfe, and woodland walks over the other side of the lake. Mind you, grazing cows meant that we couldn’t follow a neat circular walk and had to go a long way around to reach the woods. All in all, it was a nice walk and there were great views back across the lake to the house but it seems that the woodland space is very much geared towards families, with a couple of wild play areas for kids. Mind you, the walk also took us past Oscar Nemon’s statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill at the foot of the lower lake and that is well worth a look (although if you want a photo you may have to wait for mountaineering children to make their descent before snapping it!).
Churchill’s painting studio is also worth a visit in its separate building down near the Kitchen Garden. He was certainly a prolific painter and while a number of his creations are displayed in the house, there are a lot more to see in the studio. He wasn’t a bad artist (although I’m probably not the best judge of that kind of thing) and the pictures are an interesting reflection of the places he had travelled to and loved enough to put down in paint. However, some of the nicest pictures were those much closer to home, showing aspects of Chartwell itself, including one of the black swans, a pair of which is still resident on the lakes today (although signs warned us that they were a little grumpy at the moment and to stay clear).
As ever, I was on the lookout for the animal stories attached to the property and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. As well as the black swans, Churchill’s passion for golden orfe is also maintained today with a healthily stocked pool, while the gravestones of several of his pets can be seen near the Top Terrace, including memorials to his two brown poodles (Rufus and Rufus II) and his marmalade cat called Jock. The guidebook says that there remains a tradition to have a marmalade cat at Chartwell, but the current incumbent either didn’t get the memo or was in deep disguise as he (or she) was a huge black ball of fluff, basking on the sun-warmed flagstones just waiting for the fusses of the visitors as they came by. I didn’t disappoint him!
A couple of other animal-related delights can be seen in the Drawing Room. These include a painting of Colonist II, Churchill’s most successful racehorse, by Raoul Millais, who was the grandson of John Everett Millais – artistic talent certainly ran in that family. There is also a Lalique glass figure of a cockerel, a (very French) gift to Clementine from President de Gaulle.
Gifts appear to have flowed in the Churchills’ direction with remarkable regularity and the Museum Room upstairs is chock full of examples. It seems to me that if you’re a well-known Statesman, people just give you ‘stuff’ all the time. And not just stuff but positions and titles as well. There is a cabinet in another room that is full of medals, some earned the hard way but others just handed over because he was Churchill. He must also have had the freedom of most British cities at one time or another – never a freer man lived in this country! There is also a third display room filled with uniforms and robes that Churchill was entitled to wear, ranging from military garb to the robes of a university chancellor. He must have needed an adviser just to tell him when and where he should wear each outfit. The highlight of this room though was a velvet version of the so-called siren suits, or all-in-one jumpsuits, that Churchill was renowned for. One of my party commented that it was an early example of a ‘onesie’. Next time I see someone wearing one I’m going to ask them if they know that they’ve taken fashion advice from Winston Churchill!
On a more practical note, visits to the house are by timed ticket only and it can get extremely busy so an early start might be advisable. Also, anyone visiting Chartwell should receive fair warning that the only toilets are the ones behind the shop at the complex near the car park and it can be a fairly long walk back if you’re taken short while wandering the grounds. Mind you, on the way back from our walk, we found evidence that this may change soon. We discovered a hidden path near the croquet lawn which led through a small, slightly derelict, hedged-in glade and then became slightly overgrown on the other side. Ploughing on regardless, we then found we had to climb over a rope to get out where a sign said that the Urn Garden was closed while the Trust decided what to do about building new ‘facilities’ on the site. I assume in layman’s terms this means toilets? Anyway, the man sitting on a nearby bench, somewhat surprised at the sight of three women climbing out of the undergrowth and over a rope, probably thought we had been testing out the new ‘facilities’ before they were even built!
PS: And a final piece of official business: the fridge magnets have had their day. Having failed to buy them at the first two properties and then having to buy an odd one at Hatchlands that didn’t match the set, I then found that Chartwell had sold out and that I would have to call and order one to be posted to me once the delivery had come in. So, that’s it. From now on, the guidebooks alone (and this blog of course) will have to serve as evidence of my visits.
Highlights: Views, Kitchen Garden and Churchill information
Refreshments: Redbush tea and a slice of Scotney tea bread; Cream of broccoli soup, crisps and apple juice; Tea and a slice of Victoria sponge
Purchase(s): Guidebook, some birthday cards
Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets book group