Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 29, 2021
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His finest hours

Winston Churchill's country home is an intimate record of the great man's private life

I saw Winston Churchill only once. He was crossing Downing Street in London, sometime in the 1950s, to attend the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. My glimpse was fleeting — but it was enough. As a child during World War II, I knew the famous voice when our family gathered around the radio to hear Churchill speak, but I was too young to understand the impact of his leadership. Only as an adult did I come to regard him unequivocally as the greatest man of his time.

Ed Murrow, the American news broadcaster, said of Churchill during the war that "he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." The wartime speeches still send a shiver up my spine. They galvanized a nation when it seemed that nothing prevented the Nazi war machine from crossing the English Channel.

Churchill's love of his country and his determination to fight for it in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds came from deep in his soul. It came also from his love for his own particular piece of England, his country home of Chartwell on the outskirts of London, now managed by the National Trust.

Churchill was captivated by the property from the moment he first saw it — particularly its magnificent views over the Weald of Kent. The house itself was a different matter. His wife, Clementine, was dismayed by the ugly Victorian building, full of dry rot and closed in by undergrowth. But after buying Chartwell in 1922, he set about rebuilding the house with architect Philip Tilden. Tilden later recalled, somewhat ruefully, that "no client that I have ever had spent more time, trouble or interest in the making of his home than did Mr. Churchill."

The Churchills moved into Chartwell with their young family in 1924 and for the next 40 years (with the exception of World War II) it became the centre of their family life. Churchill once said: "every day away from Chartwell is a day wasted."

Calling a spade, a spade
Churchill loved to take part in landscaping the grounds around the house. He designed a heated swimming pool, enlarged a small pond and dug a second one so that he could proudly call them "my lakes." As an accomplished bricklayer — he could lay 90 bricks an hour — he found relaxation in building much of the extensive garden walls. He also built two cottages and a playhouse for his daughter Mary.

Chartwell was at its liveliest during Churchill's "Wilderness Years" between 1929 and 1939 when he was out of office. Through his writings and speeches in the House of Commons in this period, Churchill became almost a one-man unofficial opposition to Germany's rearmament. An astonishing range of visitors — military, civilian and diplomatic — came to Chartwell, often at risk to their careers, to give the up-to-date information he needed for these speeches.

This was also the period when he was working on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Other visitors to Chartwell in the '30s included Charlie Chaplin and Lawrence of Arabia.

During World War II, Chartwell was closed up: it was an obvious target for enemy bombers. But the house again became a refuge for Churchill in 1945 after voters in the first post-war general election rejected their wartime leader. Churchill returned to his painting and writing. A new series of secretaries, working around the clock in eight-hour shifts, took down his memoirs of World War II. The massive six-volume work contributed to the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963.

In 1946, a group of Churchill's friends bought Chartwell and gave it to the National Trust on condition that the couple could live out their lives there. The future of the house now secure, Clementine took new pleasure in running the home. The downstairs dining room was converted into a cinema where Churchill would invite friends and household staff to join him. He loved movies and when the lights went up would always say, often with tears in his eyes, "The best film I've ever seen."

When Churchill could no longer paint, he spent hours in the garden he had created looking out over his favourite view. He gazed at those woods and fields for the last time in 1964. After his death in January of 1965, Clementine no longer wanted to live at Chartwell and the house was passed to the National Trust.

Time Capsule
It was Clementine's wish that Chartwell be shown largely as it was in its heyday: the '20s and '30s. Rooms that had changed since the war reverted to their original use and the family donated a wealth of furnishings and artifacts from the period.

The result is a house that comes closer than any I have ever visited in capturing the spirit and personality of its owners. Oddly, the only other home to resonate with me in a similar way is that of Churchill's great friend and ally, Franklin Roosevelt, in New York's Hudson River Valley.

Churchill's biographer, Martin Gilbert, wrote: "A tour of Chartwell is a tour of Churchill's life." Perhaps it's the little things like his walking sticks in the hall or his cigar and brandy glass set to one side in his studio. Or the comfortable drawing room with his favourite armchair and a card table set with cards ready to play bezique.

The dining room, with windows on three sides, looks out onto the garden. Around this table in the '30s, Churchill and his colleagues argued their stand against the appeasement of Hitler. The room was also the setting for long drawn-out meals with family and guests when Churchill would be an attentive and generous host.

The upstairs rooms contain a museum of the great man's life and a room full of the many uniforms, awards and insignia he was entitled to wear.

But the room where Churchill's presence is strongest is the spacious study that was his "workshop" for 40 years. Here, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he prepared five budgets and discussed the spread of Fascism with worried advisers when he was out of office. He paced up and down this room rehearsing the speeches he gave to an often sullen Parliament and wrote much of his prodigious literary output here.

The room's Victorian ceiling was removed to reveal the original beams and rafters. Dominating the far wall over the fireplace is a painting of Blenheim Palace where Churchill was born. A mahogany stand-up desk given to him by his children replaces a simple one of similar design made by a local carpenter. On the table by the window overlooking the garden are busts of Napoleon and Nelson, favourite family photographs and Churchill's spectacles.

We retraced our steps downstairs and waited for a rain shower to clear. As we returned through the garden on our way to the parking lot, I wondered if my emotions about the place were simply because I was of an age that remembered the man himself.

But then, in the shadow of one of the walls Winston had built 70 years before, a young woman with a strong London accent and tears in her eyes suddenly turned to me, quite out of the blue, and said "Oh, I would love to have met him." I said that I had once seen him. "How lucky you were, luv!" she replied.

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