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A day with Winston Churchill

By Paul Knowles

Churchill's home, Chartwell, is alive with the spirit of Winston, himself. The great man is everywhere - in his studio, his breakfast room, and his gardens.


"Great Houses" abound throughout the United Kingdom, impressive mansions dating back centuries, today filled with museum-quality furniture and paintings. Lines of paying guests tour their rooms and corridors.

Less common are houses that offer "great personalities" - the kind of place where, not only do visitors see historic architecture and heritage furnishings, but where it also feels as though you actually meet the larger-than-life person who once occupied the house as a home.

The best of these ­ admittedly, a somewhat subjective opinion ­ is Chartwell, the long-time home of Sir Winston Churchill, one of the most revered, quoted, and discussed people in the history of western civilization, the British leader named the "Man of the Century" in many polls and publications at the end of the 20th century.

There are plenty of places in the UK where one can catch glimpses of Churchill -­ his birthplace, Blenheim Palace; Dover Castle, with its secret war-time tunnels; Parliament. But he is most present at Chartwell; this is where visitors in search of one of the greatest leaders in the history of civilization can reach out and touch the life of Winston Churchill.

Chartwell is not the most impressive "Great House" in the land ­ in fact, it is a stretch even to include it in that category. But what is impressive is the overwhelming sense of Churchill's presence there, from his dining room where he drank champagne with most meals and debated the issues of the day with the leading figures of his time, to his study with its writing desk built so he could work standing up, to the separate building that served as his artist's studio, still replete with dozens of works by the man who was a good painter and perhaps the best national leader ever born.

Winston Churchill's hand is everywhere upon Chartwell, his passionate interests on display throughout the property. Here are the ponds he engineered and supervised ­- and worked in, up to his waist in water. Here in the gardens are the walls built by this amateur bricklayer. Here are his paintings, art being his beloved retreat from the thrust and parry of a very public life.

Were it not the home of Winston and Clementine Churchill, Chartwell would not be of much significance, at all. The architecture of the house might best be described as 'unique', and while there are historic connections, they are subtle at best. It was here, for example, that Henry VIII stayed while courting Anne Boleyn, whose home was nearby Hever Castle. However, the actual room his roaming majesty allegedly slept in is now gone.

So the ancient history is of little importance; what remains is the presence of Churchill, and the panoramic views of the Kentish Weald which Winston so enjoyed. That heady combination makes for a memorable visit for any traveller.

Churchill bought Chartwell in 1922. It says something about the whimsical side of the great man that he took his three eldest children (then aged 7-13) to visit the house, asking them if they thought he should buy it as their country home. The idea was enthusiastically received, and only later did the children learn that the house had already been purchased.

The Churchills, aided by architect Philip Tilden, set about to completely alter the house. It truly became theirs, with little evidence left of any preceding history. And while the architect and workmen dealt with the house -­ with every detail supervised by Churchill, often to the architect's dismay -­ Winston also took on the landscape, single-handedly. He directed the excavation of a series of lakes, he restored the gardens that had become wildly overgrown. As an enthusiastic bricklayer (Churchill was a member of the bricklayers' guild), the man who would lead England spent hours building garden walls. There is also a photo of him tiling the roof of Orchard Cottage, cigar clamped in his teeth, ever-present fedora atop his head.

The Churchills occupied Chartwell until Winston Churchill's death in 1965. With the exception of the years of World War II, when it was felt to be too obvious a target for German bombs, this was their place of retreat, of socializing (guests were ubiquitous at Chartwell), of the pursuit of leisurely activities such as swimming, and games. This was also a hub of professional activity for Winston ­- only an hour from the heart of London, it was the location for many important governmental meetings, as well as his 'factory' at which he produced millions of words published in newspapers and books and spoken in some of the finest speeches ever heard in the English language.

Despite Churchill's success as a politician, a national leader, and a writer, his love of the expansive life generally threatened to outstrip his income. Good champagne ­- always and daily his drink of choice ­- and fine cigars don't come cheap. Clementine had worried initially about the cost of Chartwell and continued to fret over the Churchillian cost of living. That anxiety was finally alleviated 24 years into their occupancy of the house, when a group of friends purchased Chartwell in 1946, and presented it to the important heritage group, the National Trust, on the condition that the Churchills could continue to occupy the house as long as they lived.

However, after Winston's death in 1965, Clementine left Chartwell, and the National Trust began welcoming the steady stream of visitors that continue to this day. From time to time, Mrs. Churchill was among those visitors, returning with pleasure to observe the public's fascination with all things Churchillian.

Today, there are two philosophical approaches to visiting Chartwell. Each is to be recommended, and both would have a certain appeal to Winston Churchill.

The first is to plunge into the visit with the enthusiasm of Winston Churchill dictating a memoir, building a pond, or planning an invasion. The visitor should tour the house, noting both the major features ­ the wonderful dining room, Churchill's baronial study, Lady Churchill¹s bedroom ­ and the smaller details ­ the collection of Winston's walking sticks, the assortment of gifts presented to the great man. Then, the visitor should stride purposefully down the hill to Churchill's studio, to see the place where he worked, and many of the works he produced there, still on display. Finally, a visit must include a tour of the grounds, to appreciate the hands-on abilities of Churchill, evident in the landscaping, the ponds, the walls, the excellent gardens.

That's the first way to carry out a visit. Churchill would understand.

The second strategy also echoes his approach to his beloved Chartwell ­- see it at leisure. In his latter years, especially, Churchill was known to sit and contemplate the view for hours at a time. There are highly inviting lawn chairs set about at Chartwell; a leisurely visit might even allow time for a visitor to count the number of butterflies on the towering butterfly bushes -­ a habit of Churchill, himself.

The gardens and the landscape invite visitors to peaceful strolls; the paintings take on new life when seen at leisure; and the house contains so many intimate details that it needs a second, leisurely tour.

That's the perfect way to see Chartwell ­- once through with purpose, a second time with whimsy. Champagne is, sadly, not available. Good ice cream is.

Plan to look for some specific details along the way, that might otherwise be missed: in the studio, Churchill's paintings are presented en mass, covering the walls. It is worthwhile to take a moment or two with several of the pieces, focusing on each one individually. In the studio and in the house, you will find several painted right on the grounds of Chartwell; Churchill's subjects included the house, itself, the fish pond, as well as a very special self-portrait. Also in the house are other paintings of note, including a wonderful Monet (offering some clue as to Churchill's Impressionist influences). Displayed in the dining room is a unique collection of art ­- 'The Golden Rose Book', containing watercolours by important artists of many of the yellow and gold species of roses in the Chartwell rose garden. The roses, and the book, were a golden wedding anniversary gift from the Churchill children to their parents, in 1958.

Art of another style can be found in the Drawing Room; there hangs a painting of a horse, Colonist II, owned and raced by Winston Churchill, a man of infinite interests. Visitors will also enjoy portraits and sculptures of Churchill's contemporaries, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. There are some good portraits of Churchill, including a Lavery, showing Winston in World War I uniform, wearing an unusual French helmet ­- the actual helmet is displayed with the painting, a nice touch.
The studio shows us Winston at leisure. The dining room ­- also portrayed in several sketches by sundry visitors ­- reveals Winston the conversationalist; this was the place where he regaled guests with opinion, wit and invective.

And the study offers a sense of Churchill at work, with a long, open space through which he paced as he dictated his books and articles, reportedly exhausting his secretaries, plenty of well-stocked bookshelves, and the chest-height work tables, laden with reference books.

Winston Churchill lived life large. He led the free world in its time of greatest crisis. He won and lost great political battles. He was a prolific writer, painter, lecturer and debater.

His name is probably one of the most common answers in that old party game, "If you could have anyone to dinner, who would it be?" For visitors to Chartwell, that almost seems possible.