Sunday, August 14, 2016

Exploring Chartwell--Estate of Prime Minister Sir Winston and Lady Clementine Spencer-Churchill

Sunday, August 14, 2016
Chartwell, Kent

Exploring Chartwell--Estate of Prime Minister Sir Winston and Lady Clementine Spencer-Churchill

     I hate to say what delightful weather we're having in London after hearing daily of the heat wave on the other side of the pond. Here it is absolutely heavenly--perfect mid-70s temperatures with zero humidity. It would be criminal to waste these day other than on picnics.

Mass at St. Paul's Cathedral:
     And so it was that I awoke at 6.30 am, managed to respond to email, checked Twitter--that sort of thing--and then raced through dressing and leaving the house. For I intended to catch the 8.00 am Mass at St. Paul's Cathedral and after having spent (wasted!) so much time on the computer, I could barely leave the house at 7. 30 as I had wanted.
    I need not have bothered. The bus that takes me to Bethnal Green Station was not due for at least 12 minutes and in the end I sat at the bus-stop for 15 while only a stray soul passed occasionally by on a morning meant for lying in. Still, when it did show up, it dropped me off and into the Tube I jumped. I was at the Cathedral about 7 minutes after Mass had begun but it was still completely worth it racing to get there before I completely embarrassed myself with my tardiness.
     There is simply no substitute for a Mass at St. Paul's. Under the mosaic dome of the Cathedral that glints and gleams like a Byzantine canopy, no matter what sort of service you attend, it is magnificent. The celebrant was Canon Mark Oakley and he was compelling. There were at least 50 people in the church--which took my mind back to my first Mass there, eight years ago, when my friend Bishop Michael had said it--which is how we had ended up becoming such good friends with him and his family members. I received Communion and within about 40 minutes was outside in the plaza where life was slowly stirring. Soon it would be humming with humanity; but for a few moments, that part of London seemed to be suspended in time.

Off to Kent:
     Not wanting to waste any time as I was not sure what time my train to Kent would be, I raced to Café Nero to get a hot chocolate and an almond croissant as I hadn't found the time to have my breakfast before leaving. Then armed with my eats, I boarded the Tube at St. Paul's, changed at Oxford Circus for the Victoria Line and arrived at Victoria station about ten minutes later. I then bought my day return ticket to Bromley South station which is the base for a visit to Chartwell in Kent: Country Estate of the Churchills.
     My train headed to Canterbury West was leaving in 10 minutes--so it was a jolly good thing I'd grabbed breakfast at Ludgate Hill. In about 20 minutes,  on an express train, I was out at the first stop: Bromley South. It was about 10.00 am when I got there but as there was no connecting bus until 10. 27, I had a good half hour to walk about the High Street--not that anything was open. All shopping commenced at 11.00. Left at a loose end, I did some window shopping and then waited for the 246 bus which only arrives once each hour--and goes to Chartwell only on Sundays in the summer. It is an easy enough journey--you just need to time your arrival at Bromley South Station correctly so as not to just miss a bus. 
     The bus ride took about 40 minutes but it was utterly delightful. In about five minutes, we were on country roads and passing by little Kentish villages--for we were in another county. It is only when you leave London and get into small towns and villages like this that you can fully appreciate the charms of an English summer's day. I adore the old brick houses, the little cottage gardens with their stone walls and rambling roses. We passed by the villages of Keston and Hayes and the adorable village of Westerham with its little Green and its cute shops before we arrived at the Churchill estate that is known as Chartwell.

Finally--Delighted to be at Chartwell:
     I have wanted to visit Chartwell ever since I visited Blenheim Palace near Oxford, many years ago, where little "Winnie" was born. Having descended from the family of the Duke of Marlborough--his uncle, his father Lord Randolf's older brother, was the Duke at the time--Churchill was born into privilege. At Blenheim, visitors can see the room in which his mother gave birth to him and the letter his father wrote to the doctor who presided over the birth.
     However, it was at Chartwell that Winston and the woman he adored and married, Clementine, made a family home together with their five children--one son and four daughters--sadly, one of the girls, Mariegold, died just before she turned three. At Blenheim, visitors can also see the stone bench on which he popped the question and was accepted as a future husband.
     But, apart from being motivated by Blenheim to visit Chartwell, it was after reading the excellent book, Citizens of London: The Americans who Stood By Britain during its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynn Olson, that I felt a great desire to see for myself the actual environs in which Anglo-American collaboration was at its most vital. For it was U.S. ambassador to the UK at the time John Gilbert Winant, businessman Averell Harriman, and broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and their great personal relationship with Churchill that had cemented relations between the two countries and led to the Alliance that won World War II--that, and the fact that Churchill's mother, Jennie Jerome, was an American! This fact always made Churchill feel a special affiliation to the country across the pond. The three Americans were frequent guests at Chartwell which is mentioned frequently in Olson's book.

Exploring Chartwell:
     Chartwell is owned and managed today by the National Trust--that venerable organization that does such a grand job preserving some of the country's most worthwhile estates. Chartwell is a vast property that stretches for several acres. Much of it is left natural--the Weald of Kent in its naturalness was what attracted Winston to the property and led him to buy it, uncharacteristically, without consulting his beloved wife--who never really took a fancy to it. Parts of it, however, closest to the home, are beautifully landscaped with water features like goldfish ponds, a swimming pool, tumbling cascades, lovely flower gardens and fruit orchards. Apples are already ripening on the trees and offer signs of a bountiful harvest to come.
     A ticket to the house and garden costs close to 15 pounds, but cheaper tickets that give access only to the grounds are available--on a beautiful day such as today, the place fills with families from local neighborhoods. They were picnicking in spots all over the lawns and, from every angle, you could see children playing, rolling down the hills, being pushed in prams and strollers, etc. All these people brought life to the landscape in a very meaningful way.
     Tickets are also timed and one needs to make one's way to the entrance of the house about five minutes before the time on the ticket. My ticket was marked 12 noon--this left me ample time to browse in the shop, take a turn in the café, use the facilities as well as stroll in the garden. The gardens include Lady Churchill's stunning Rose Garden surrounded by tall brick walls and a walkway that leads to an Italian loggia complete with plaster medallions of Marlborough ancestors embedded in the corners--and that was where I dallied before entering the house.

A Self-Guided Tour of the House:  
     At 12 noon promptly, after I was fortunate to run into the resident marmalade cat named Jock (the 8th Jock on the property), I was permitted to enter the house. One picks up a printed guide and then does a self-guided tour. The first room is the Living Room that is decorated in line with the style of the 1920s and 30s and is reflective of Clementine's taste--it is typically English Country, of course, with a Monet oil painting of Charing Cross (a present to the Churchills) taking pride of place together with a crystal cockerel.
     Throughout the house, as one meanders through the narrow hallways, there are on walls and occasional tables, photographs of prominent people of the era who visited Chartwell. Unlike Blenheim Palace which is truly spectacular--the handiwork of John Vanbrugh--this is much more of a family home. It is homely, cozy and perfect for the sort of large family that was being brought up in its corridors and lawns.
      Upstairs, there is Lady Churchill's Bedroom, although Sir Winston's Bedroom is conspicuous by its absence! Then one remembers that for so much of their lives, this couple lived apart (absence makes the heart grow fonder?), and much of their romance was carried out through letters (they were both prolific in that regard). Many of the extracts from the letters they exchanged over a lifetime are also in the studio (more about this building later). I am convinced that Winston could be so successful in his professional life only because he was so blissfully happy in his personal one and, in particular, in his marriage!
     During World War II, Chartwell was closed up. The Churchills lived in the underground bunker attached to Whitehall in London--which both Chriselle and I have visited. They are known as the Cabinet War Rooms and are open to the public. Lady Churchill also had a separate bedroom there--a tiny space, like a collage dorm, a far cry from the vast spaces of her bedroom at Chartwell.
        The Library at Chartwell is another beautiful room with its recessed book cases and more paintings. And finally there is the Study where most of the work he accomplished during his lifetime was carried out. It has a mahogany lectern, a present from his children. I tried to imagine the family's American friends socializing with Churchill family members in the living room, dining room (on a lower level) and the study and I was quite enchanted. Upholstery throughput the house was recently replaced--but the fabric designs employed were the exact same ones present when the Churchills lived here--I know because I asked the well-informed National Trust volunteers present in each room.  On the lower level is also the kitchen--which looks much like the kitchen in Downton Abbey. The household employed 12 full-time servants to run the house and garden--again much in the style of Downton Abbey--which belongs to the same era.

A Word (or Two) About Jock:
     The cat is a fixture of the house and a much pampered pet--in accordance with the Prime Minster's will--for he was presented with a marmalade cat with white paws (socks) on his 80th birthday. He so loved it that he declared that there should always be a similar one at Chartwell. A lady from the National Trust told me that they search high and low each time the cat has to be replaced and so far they have been successful in finding the right one. He has always been named Jock and always will be!

Time for Lunch and a Rest:
     Walking through the gardens and the house can be pretty tiring (especially, if, like me, you read each curatorial note with care!) and I felt the need to take a break and get a bite to eat. The cafes of the National Trust are always well run and I settled for a Child's Meal of Sausage, Mash and Gravy--which is one of my favorite of British meals! For dessert, I chose another favorite, Coffee Walnut Cake--and as I sat and ate it on the sunny terrace, I people-watched shamelessly and amused myself.

A Tour of Churchill's Studio:
      Few people are aware that, on top of eveything else, Churchill was an accomplished painter and that every room of the house is decorated with his own work. I had seen some of his marvelous paintings at Blenheim Palace (when I had first become familiar with his prodigious talent as an artist). Indeed, the more time you spend on his estates, the more you realize that the man was some kind of genius. I mean just think: he was one of the best-known politicians and statesmen of all time and is credited by many for winning World War I for the Allies against the Nazi onslaught. He was also a first-rate word smith and journalist, a prolific writer (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) and historian, a soldier who actually faced action in the trenches of World War I, a military strategist and a diplomat. As if that were not enough, he was a painter, landscape architect, garden designer and gardener. He even built a wall outside the house in Chartwell with his own two hands! A mason to boot!!! It is simply unfathomable! A true Renaissance Man!
     Churchill came to painting at the age of 40 and he painted for pleasure every weekend until the age of 83. He began at Blenheim when he watched his brother's wife at an easel and told her he thought it looked like fun. She placed water colors in his hands and told him to give it a go. He did! And he never stopped! When he sent in his entry to a competition for amateurs under a pseudonym, he won the First Prize. That painting called 'Chartwell in Winter' is still in the house where it has pride of place. And again, sent in anonymously, one of his paintings was chosen to be exhibited in the Royal Academy! In total, he produced 535 paintings in about 40 years--165 of which are at Chartwell.
      Once visitors finish the tour of the house, they get to his studio--a beautiful red brick structure (that appears almost Elizabethan in its antiquity) where you can see a vast collection of his work.  And so, after an hour, feeling far more energetic, I continued my exploration of the property by making my way past more gardens and the fruitful orchard into the studio. In a little alcove inside, are his chair, easel, palette and collection of oil paint tubes! He sat, customarily, at his easel on a round backed chair and painted either from memory or from photographs, his famous cigar smoking in an ash tray at his side.
     Photography is not allowed anywhere in the house or studio (although the garden is up for grabs), but one might buy postcards and I bought several. The paintings in the Studio are stacked up from floor to ceiling so that they are overwhelming to the eye and cannot at all be assessed as individual works of art. I did not at all appreciate the manner in which they are displayed. A museum curator would be horrified.
     Still, the assembly gave visitors an idea of the range of subjects Churchill tackled--there are lots of landscapes of Chartwell's rooms and gardens; lots of foreign scenes based on family travels in exotic lands such as Morocco and Italy; many still lifes of flowers (several grown on the estate); a couple of portraits of his wife and children, etc. There is also scope to see the manner in which his style changed in his life time--from the realistic canvasses of his early days as a painter to the more Impressionistic ones that developed as he grew more confident at wielding a brush. Although he never thought of himself as an artist, he was always willing to learn from the best--and some of his good friends (such as John Lavery) became his private tutors as time went by.
Chartwell as a Museum:
     Chartwell--the house and the studio--are also full of memorabilia from the Churchill's lives as a family and as the country's First Family.  There are stunning gifts galore that he received from heads of state of many parts of the world--many of these were ornate cigar boxes as well as articles embellished with bulldog motifs and V for Victory signs! There is a collection of costumes he wore in his different guises as a public figure, including a lovely collection of hats (for he was rarely without one) and a collection of his walking sticks. There are letters of all sort, official documents and scribbles, tokens of affection sent to him by ordinary people, plus photographs that provide insight into the lives they led as a couple and as a family. There is an extract from a letter written to him by his father (of whom he was very fond), in his final years at Harrow, warning him not to waste a public school education by becoming a wastrel. His father urged him to create a life for himself that would enable him to "amount to something." Lest it be thought that having a silver spoon in his mouth kept him unconscious of the reality of ordinary life, it was interesting to see that, in his early life, Churchill wrote for a living and reported to his wife that he had churned out several journalist articles that would cover their electricity bills over the next few months! My understanding is that before their years at 1o Downing Street, when Chartwell was no longer a family home (all the children having married and vacated it), it was sold. It was eventually bought back by friends of the couple who permitted them to live in it till they both passed away after which it was bequeathed to the nation.
     Was I thrilled with my visit? You bet! It was worth waiting so long to see this piece of real estate that saw so much living history. You see a completely different side to stern Prime Minister Churchill on this estate--you see him as adoring husband, loving father, hardworking artist, even as a bricklayer! Chartwell, at least for me, removed Churchill from history books and made him human.
     I would strongly recommend this trip to anyone who has a free summer's day to spend in the country. Whether you love the outdoors, gardens, interior design and décor, war reportage, national history or just loitering amidst the ghosts of celebrities from a past epoch, you will love this place.
     I caught the 3. 20 pm bus returning to Bromley South Station from where I got the 4.05 train to London Victoria.  It was about 4.45 pm when we pulled in, but I decided to go directly home and catch up on pending chores.

A Quiet Evening at Home:
     I headed for a cup of tea and two biscuits as soon as I walked in the door at 5. 30 pm. Most of my evening was spent making phone calls--both local and to the USA (Llew was sharing the sad news with me about the destruction wrought by a couple of our neighbor's trees upon our deck as they fell during a thunderstorm at night), catching up on email, settling my closet and getting ready for my day out tomorrow. I had my dinner (chicken tikka masala, rice and mixed peppers with rum and raisin ice-cream), blogged a bit, then caught up with the Olympics, videochatted with Chriselle as we made hotel bookings together and got ready for bed.
     Tomorrow, I spend another day outdoors with my friend Bash and his partner, Vanita--and our chosen venue is Henley-on-Thames.
     I truly had, as the saying goes, a day and a half! Wish you could have done more than just armchair travel with me.
     Until tomorrow, cheerio...   

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