Back in June 2021 we visited Chartwell, in Kent. Chartwell is a country estate not terribly far from London, and was the home of Winston and Clementine Churchill for over 40 years, from 1922, until not long after Winston’s death. It was given to the United Kingdom’s National Trust by the Churchills in 1946, and has been a favorite of visitors since that time.
Just this week I completed a video for my YouTube channel about our visit, Visiting Chartwell, and uploaded it to the channel before realizing that an important detail in my narration had changed since the visit. So I had to make a new voice introduction to the video and re-upload it. No doubt other things may change in the future, but I like to make my videos accurate as of the time I upload them!
Here follows the text of my narration.
On a recent visit to East Sussex and Kent, the British Bride and I dropped in at Chartwell and went exploring for an afternoon. Chartwell is a country estate not terribly far from London, it was the home of Winston and Clementine Churchill for over 40 years, from 1922, until not long after Winston’s death. It was given to the United Kingdom’s National Trust by the Churchills in 1946, and has been a favorite of visitors since that time.
Since we visited while some degree of lockdown due to the Covid pandemic was in place, we had to book our entry for a particular date and time, but this has changed since our visit. Booking entrance to the grounds is no longer required. But if you want to tour the house and Winston’s studio, one must make a reservation, which can only be done at the time of entry to the grounds, on a first-come first-served basis. Another couple we spoke with, who arrived not long after us, were unable to enter the house, as the available slots had been used up for the day. Early arrival seems to be a key factor here!
In the event, we managed to get to Chartwell in time to reserve a visit to the house, although we had to wait a couple of hours after arrival to go in. This was not a problem, however, as this is a large estate, and there is plenty of space to wander in and much to see.
Our grounds visit arrival slot was on a Saturday between 12:30 and 1:00 pm, having reserved it the previous day. Upon arrival, we were able to secure a reserved slot to visit the house, starting a couple of hours later, at 2:40pm. As noted, the available house visit time slots were almost exhausted, so we kind of lucked out.
Here’s a map of the estate.
The house sits on the west side of a valley and faces into that valley. There are bodies of water in the low places, and I later discovered that these weren’t natural – Churchill himself had them added during the estate’s renovation soon after he bought it. Apparently he gave a great deal of attention to their construction – and no wonder! They help make the estate quite an idyllic setting. Churchill later said that he had bought Chartwell mainly because of the view across the valley from the house.
It’s worthwhile to consider the history of this place.
The earliest recorded mention of the land itself dates to 1362. The origin of the name “Chartwell” is the name of an attesian spring that is to the north of the current house, which is “Chart Well”. The word “chart” in this case is an Old English word for “rough ground.” The first buildings at the site were constructed at least as early as the 16th century. The estate at that time was called “Well Street,” obviously for the spring. Reputation has it that King Henry VIII stayed in the house while he was wooing his future queen Anne Boleyn at nearby Hever Castle. Parts of the original Tudor house are still visible in the brickwork of some of the external walls.
As I mentioned earlier, Churchill bought the property in 1922. This was kind of unbeknownst to his wife, Clementine – he surprised her with it, not entirely to her delight, since although she had liked the property when they viewed it together, she was worried about the cost of renovating it, as it was not in the best of shape. And her worry was not unfounded! Dry rot was everywhere, and it would have to be largely rebuilt.
The purchase price was £5,000, or about £291,000 in 2020 pounds. In 1922 US dollars this would have been $23,810, or $382,000 in 2020 dollars. Even for the time this was not a huge amount of money. But Clemmie was right, the renovation turned out to be very expensive! The original estimate of the cost was “just” £7,000, but by the time the renovation was complete, in 1924, the cost had ballooned to £18,000, or £1,120,000 in today’s money.
The Overlook and Garden
After checking in at the main entrance building, we walked southwards to the overlook. From here we could see across the Weald into Kent and East Sussex. And down into the walled garden!
I was quite impressed by this garden – despite my great dislike for gardening work itself, I love looking at and walking through beautiful gardens, and this one is quite lovely! And in late spring and early summer with all the plants flowering like nobody’s business, there were hundreds of jolly bees buzzing about, including these impressive specimens of bumblebee.
At the foot of the garden is the Marycot, a little child-sized brick cottage that Winston built for his daughter Mary. The features and fittings are sized to fit a child, and I’m sure she greatly appreciated playing in this little house.
Leaving the garden we found our way out this portal and to the line of cottages that include Winston’s studio. Like the Marycot, Winston laid the bricks himself for at least the studio portion of these cottages. He was reputed as a good bricklayer, and at one point he was a member of a professional bricklayers’ association. Oddly enough, they expelled him from their membership when he joined the Conservative Party! Must have been some kind of political statement on their part.
Besides his chief fame as soldier, author, politician, and statesman, Churchill is well known as an amateur painter. He took to this hobby as a distraction from his heavy responsibilities in June 1915, after he had been removed from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty in the wake of the disastrous Gallipolli campaign during the First World War. His introduction to the hobby was on a family holiday, when he observed his sister-in-law painting in watercolor. He took at turn at the brush, and was instantly entranced. He first painted in watercolors, but soon graduated to oils. During his life he painted over 500 paintings. He frequently took painting equipment with him during his travels, and did so even while serving in World War I as the combat commander of a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in France! During the time of his Prime Ministership, however, he was so busy that he apparently completed only one painting.
Churchill described himself as nothing more than an amateur. He mainly gave away his paintings, which he self-deprecatingly described as “daubs”. This hasn’t stopped people from paying large sums for his paintings when they have come onto the market, however. One of his paintings, the only painting he did during WW2, is this one here, entitled “Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque.”
He painted while still in Morocco after the Casablanca Conference in 1943, and he later gave it to US President Franklin Roosevelt as a birthday gift. Eventually, after passing through a number of hands, in March 2021 it was sold at auction for over 8 and a quarter million British pounds!
Painting was an important activity in Churchill’s life, and helped him in dealing with his occasional bouts of depression, which he described as his “black dog.” In an interview with Life magazine in 1946 he said “When I get to heaven I intend to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject.”
The Estate Grounds
After leaving the Studio we took a walk on the estate grounds, down to the south end of the ponds. We had seen a notice at the entrance to the grounds about the black swans that we found on the pond. The notice was a warning not to bother or approach the swans too closely because they could be quite aggressive. Fortunately, they were too busy to get all aggro with us when we passed by. And aside from photographing them, we left them well enough alone.
At the foot of the larger of the ponds we found a statue of the founding couple of Chartwell, Winston and Clementine Churchill. This is labelled “Nemon Statue” on the official map of Chartwell, and before we arrived there I found myself wondering who or what on earth “Nemon” was. Looked like “lemon” with an “n”.
Of course, this isn’t what it is – it turns out that Oscar Nemon was Winston’s favorite sculptor, and a good friend besides, and Nemon’s output included a number of sculptures of Winston, including one found in the House of Commons, in the Parliament building in London. There was a bit of turnabout as fair play between the two men, as Churchill made Nemon the subject of the one and only sculpture he himself ever made! Here you see the sculptor Nemon with his bust of Churchill, and Churchill’s bust of Nemon!
Leaving Winston and Clementine, we then ascended up the trails into the trees. My physical conditioning (or lack thereof) made this ascent rather exhausting, but it was nevertheless quite enjoyable. There are a few interesting features in the woods up there, including a recreation of a military camp, called the Canadian Camp. There are hammocks and wooden camp furniture, but no explanation at the site as to why it’s Canadian, or even why it’s portrayed. I later looked this up and it turns out that there were Canadian soldiers who camped out here in the woods at Chartwell during the Second World War. One of their tasks was to pull camouflage over the lakes when there was an air raid, so the German pilots would not recognize Chartwell from the air, for navigation purposes.
Further along are other features, including a “bomb crater,” which is the remnant of an incident when bombs are said to have fallen on the estate at Chartwell as the planes left London. Another feature is a rather elaborate treehouse, a recreation of the original treehouse Winston built or had built for his children.
But we were out of time, and couldn’t visit the treehouse or the crater, since our house entry timeslot was coming up, and we had to hurry back down into the valley and up again to the house. We barely made it! They’re quite strict about keeping to your appointment.
The Marmalade Cat
In a letter to his son Randolph written in May 1942, Churchill wrote of a brief visit to Chartwell the previous week, in which he wrote “the goose and the black swan have both fallen victim to the fox. The Yellow Cat however made me sensible of his continuing friendship, although I had not been there for eight months”.
The tradition of keeping a marmalade, or ginger cat in comfortable residence at Chartwell is maintained by the National Trust in accordance with the family’s wishes. Each cat is to have a white bib, four white socks, and is named Jock.
Unfortunately, in our visit we didn’t see the current marmalade cat. Jock here is the seventh in a long line of ginger cats and has been on staff since May 2020, when the National Trust welcomed a six-month-old rescue kitten to the property to take up this unique role. The staff at Chartwell say that he has developed into a mischievous character, and his favourite pastimes are investigating what the gardeners are up to and trying to persuade people to give him snacks. He also likes lots of cuddles on the sofa after an eventful day.
Jock VII predecessor was Jock VI, who joined the staff in 2014, but retired in 2020 due to ill health. This previous Jock is now enjoying the life of a former celebrity with Chartwell’s House and Collections Manager in a much quieter, more peaceful garden of his own.
After the war, the Churchills were considering selling Chartwell due to the expense of running it properly, but friends arranged for the UK’s National Trust to buy it for posterity, on condition that the Churchills retained the right of living there for the rest of their lives. And so they did, until shortly after Winston passed away in 1965, when Clementine relinquished ownership and the Trust took full possession. Much of the furnishings were likewise relinquished and remain with the house to this day, and many other Churchill-related artifacts have since been obtained and are on display.
The NT remodeled the house’s interior somewhat, in the interest of making it easy for the public to tour, but the basic building remained as it was. Now, I quite like the building’s exterior design, but who am I? Just some guy, right? So my opinion is not shared among the cognoscenti of the art of architecture. I gather that the original building as purchased in 1922 wasn’t very distinguished in the first place, but even after Winston had the place renovated, it remained “undistinguished.” Descriptions by professionals include such portrayals as being of “dull red brick and an odd undecided style” and “Victorian architecture at its least attractive.”
Well, who cares what they think! I find the house’s exterior quite inspiring!
I should have taken more photographs and videos while we toured the house’s interior. But I was exhausted by the time we had rushed back over from the woods and the hill. My spectacles were fogging up terribly with all the huffing and puffing through my facemask, and then the stair climbing. It wasn’t pretty, even though the house was! So, I’m having to supplement my own photos of the house with ones from the Chartwell website and other photos found on the web.
Of particular interest in all these rooms was a display of 50 important objects in Churchill’s life.
One of them is this damaged flashlight (known as a “torch” in the UK). While commanding a service battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in World War I, Churchill’s life was saved by this item in battle when it blocked a piece of shrapnel from wounding and probably killing him.
Sir Winston Churchill was one of very few people to have been given the title of “Honorary Citizen of the United States,” something which he received in 1963 not long before his death. Here is Winston’s Honorary Citizen Document, which was given to his son Randolph by President John F. Kennedy. This status of honorary citizen did not confer upon him true citizenship, however. The document here could not be used as a passport, for example, nor could he used it to vote in US elections.
On the other hand, Winston’s mother was a natural-born US citizen, born in New York City to an American family, and this arguably gave him the right to actual natural-born US citizenship. Granting him honorary citizenship was, nevertheless, a signal honor, and expressed great love, gratitude, and respect.
I’m not going to go into deep explanations of all that I saw, as what we saw is tied up tightly with Winston Churchill’s own history – and that is to be found everywhere described in books, films, documentaries, and web pages. It happens that I have been a great fan of Sir Winston Churchill – he was an immensely important leader and individual, of both international as well as national importance. Because of the high regard I have for this great Prime Minister, I was most interested and pleased to be able to tour his house.
I highly recommend a visit to Chartwell if you ever happen to be in the vicinity. It will be worth it.