I recently went over the county border to Kent to have a look around Chartwell, once the home of Sir Winston Churchill.
It would be expecting too much to end one’s journey to a historic house with some gentle motoring through parkland and parking spot a few yards from the front entrance.
So I wasn’t too surprised that my first experience of Chartwell was the usual huge National Trust car park – almost not huge enough for the crowds arriving on the first sunny Sunday of a grim spring.
Still, I found a space and, walking slightly downhill towards the house, the parking area quickly disappeared from view (I checked by looking behind me), so I was able to take in the surroundings as a weekending Churchill would have done.
The house has a fairly undistinguished red brick exterior. At first glance the black framed windows look like newish additions. But then, the house is fairly modern. Much of it was redesigned when Churchill bought it in the 1920s. The arched windows I see on the terrace side are revealed, later in my tour, to be those of a low-ceilinged but bright, informal dining room, which would have come into its own on summer days. On the wall opposite the windows is a painting which a jovial Churchill worked on one Christmas – ‘Bottlescape’, a still life depicting his favourite tipples.
Entering his study, most of which is roped off, my eyes immediately search for his desk, at which I imagine much of his thinking and writing began. It’s reassuringly solid and wide, though I am not convinced the very numerous framed family photos cluttering its surface would have been there in his day. On the other hand, as I learn from the concise and well-laid out information sheet in my hand, most of his thinking was done standing up or pacing around the room. He would dictate on his feet to an assistant, the books he needed for reference laid out on a wide lecturn.
The rooms given over to museum-type displays brought me as close to the man as many of his more domestic rooms. In the glass cases are honours in the form of medals and other objects given to him by admiring foreign governments or by British cities which made him a freeman. On a more parochial level, there is a medallion commemorating his cow’s first prize in a class at Tunbridge Wells Show.
Several hats, including a straw one with a rakishly wide brim, are displayed alongside photos of Churchill in casual attire in the grounds of the house. As he wandered he would typically pick up a feather and stick it in the band of his Homburg.
At the moment there is little to excite the horticulturalist in the Chartwell gardens, though given a spell of clement weather the rose garden might prove a draw later in the year. Meanwhile, ropes and a sign keep visitors off a patch of brown lawn, recovering from a children’s Easter Egg hunt.
This week has been all about Margaret Thatcher, and rightly so. But on the evidence of Chartwell, interest in the human side of her most illustrious prime ministerial predecessor is still very strong, nearly five decades after his death.