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Chartwell: Churchill's House of Refuge

by Richard Crowhurst

Winston Churchill is regarded by many as the greatest Englishman of all time: a great, but flawed, man. He was often, simultaneously, politician, soldier, writer, historian, artist and some-time bricklayer. This can be seen in the gardens at Chartwell, his home of forty years near Westerham in Kent. To Churchill Chartwell was his refuge, a place visited at his lowest ebb during the Second World War, and one that he loved as much as any other in his life. Yet, even as he saw out the later years of his life, Chartwell belonged to the British nation, ordained to become 'a shrine to his memory.' Churchill was delighted, and his spirit inhabits the house to this day.

Chartwell House

When Winston Churchill first saw Chartwell in 1922, it was a modified Elizabethan Manor House, heavily Victorianized and in need of substantial work. The aspect over the Weald of Kent initially enchanted both Winston and his wife Clementine. However, as the costs of refurbishment became apparent, Clementine's initial enthusiasm turned to resentment. Churchill commissioned the architect Philip Tilden to help turn Chartwell into a home and it retains a homely atmosphere to this day. Its small, almost cramped, corridors and rooms dictate a timed entry system for visitors and the mish-mash of extensions and alterations are far from architecturally pleasing. So much work was undertaken that it was April 1924 before Churchill could spend his first night there. Work continued on improving the house and gardens for much of his life.

The house is stuffed with examples of his paintings and drawings. An expansive visitors book sits in the hall and reads like a Who's Who of 20th century international and domestic political history. The library is one of the first rooms and is remarkably understated given Churchill's literary output. However, this was a man who had others provide his raw material and facts, and then moulded them into his own distinctive style. One of the last rooms on the tour houses an exhibition on Churchill's career.

Two of the highlights of any visit are the dining room and Churchill's study. The dining room is the family (and public) heart of Chartwell Manor. It was here, after dinner, that Churchill would screen films for guests. Large arched windows offer magnificent views across the terrace to the Garden of England beyond. It is easy to imagine oneself in a large conservatory or onboard an ocean liner. This is deliberate: inspiration came from Churchill's love of trans-Atlantic travel, in particular the Verandah Grills on Cunard's ships Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. Today National Trust guides are on hand to help with visitor queries.

The study is upstairs adjacent to Churchill's bedroom. This allowed him to dictate to his secretaries, one of who was always on call during the hours of nightfall, from his four-poster bed. Churchill dictated nearly everything he wrote. When not lying in bed, he preferred to work standing up and the desk at the side of the study was specifically designed for this. It was his literary activity here which sustained him, both mentally and financially, through the so-called 'wilderness years' of the 1930s. Today the room is displayed almost as he left it at.

Chartwell is more than just an English Country house. The gardens, inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, are delightful. Between the visitor centre and house, a slope overlooks a fishpond of huge proportions and woodland glades are set into the hillside. On the other side of the house, Churchill's famous wall borders Clementine's rose garden. Those viewing the wall for the first time are often surprised, expecting something simple. The local red bricks tower to seven and eight feet, providing another legacy of Churchill in the 300 acres of grounds.

At the bottom of the garden you can see Churchill's studio just as he left it. His palette, still covered in paint, lies alongside his easel and in a small room by the door unfinished canvasses and completed works are piled to the ceiling.

The house's location is as much a part of Chartwell's attraction as its famous former resident. The woods and valleys attracted Churchill originally and in the late forties, when the house was brought by the nation, he considered being buried here. In a change of mind typical of the great man he later decided to be buried in the family church at Blenheim.

Facilities and Information

The restaurant serves a menu inspired by Churchill's favourite dishes cooked to perfection with local ingredients. There is also a shop selling a range of Churchill books and souvenirs.

The house is owed and run by The National Trust. Other properties in the area include Quebec House in nearby Westerham and Emmetts Gardens.

Related Articles:

Churchill's Birthplace: Magnificent Blenheim Palace, by Marta Patiño

More Information:

Chartwell (National Trust)

Churchill's England: Chartwell Home in Kent


Churchill at Chartwell: The World's Only Winston Churchill Bookshop

Churchill Attractions

Kent Tourism

Richard Crowhurst is a freelance writer and author based in Lincolshire, England. He writes on many subjects, including history and heritage topics. More details can be found on his websites, http://www.freelance-writer-and-author.co.uk and http://www.enagri.info.
Article and photo © 2006 Richard Crowhurst


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