My love for FDR has been very well documented on this blog, but my feelings towards his buddy Churchill are far more mixed. You could say he’s not exactly my flute of champagne (though I got to sample one of his favourite champagnes at this event last year, and it was delicious, so I’m not questioning his taste); yes, he saw Britain through WWII and all that, but in his personal life, it seems to me that he could be a bit of a demanding jerk. However, as we were already in Westerham to see Quebec House, after we realised his home, Chartwell, was just down the road, it seemed just plain stupid not to visit both.
Whipping out that National Trust membership for the second time that afternoon, we were able to stroll right in, but it’s £13 otherwise. Although the house is self-guided, entry is by timed ticket only, so we found ourselves with an hour to kill before we could go see the house. Fortunately, this wasn’t a problem, for Chartwell is a huge estate, with a woodland trail and lots of other stuff to explore. Because Chartwell wasn’t a planned destination, I wasn’t really wearing the best shoes for walking, and when I saw all the mud on the woodland trail, I wasn’t inclined to wander all the way up it, so we missed out on the “sweet chestnut coppice” (there was also an epic amount of deer poop on the lawns, so don’t be like me in my thin soled shoes with no socks).
However, I did make it far enough to see the bomb crater, where a bomb hit during the Blitz (not sure if Churchill was staying there at the time; I would have thought he’d probably have been in London, but at any rate it was far enough from the house that he wouldn’t have been hurt). Other highlights of the walk include dormice dens, an old quarry, and a large number of mean and apparently aggressive black swans. There were also some tree swings, but I’m always kind of leery of the sort of swings that are just a flat plank hanging from ropes, since I had one of those flip on me when I was a kid and ended up lying on my back with the breath knocked out of me, so I had but a brief and cautious swing.
There was also an excellent statue of Churchill and his wife Clementine (which she bizarrely pronounced Clemen-teen) by the same sculptor that did the one in the centre of Westerham (the one I couldn’t get a picture with because of unruly children), so I had to stop and get a photo to mirror the one I took with the statue of FDR and Eleanor at Hyde Park. It was surprisingly slippery to climb up, especially as my shoes had essentially no traction (they look cool though, that’s why I wear ’em), so take care if you do the same.
Being something of an artist himself, Churchill had a painting studio on the property, which today holds the largest collection of Churchill’s paintings in the world. We happened to arrive at the same time a brief talk was starting, so I learned far more about Churchill’s painting career than I needed to, but he basically started painting when he was 40, in an attempt to shake himself out of his deep depression following the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, where his decision making was partially to blame for over 50,000 Allied deaths. He was never professionally trained in painting, though he did get advice from some artist friends, and honestly wasn’t half bad at it, though he tended to paint mostly landscapes which aren’t really to my taste. The studio also contained an enormous globe that was a twin to one FDR was given, and a small gallery of other gifts given to Churchill over the years, including some American Civil War memorabilia.
Naturally, there were some gardens as well, but it being the start of March when we visited, virtually nothing was in bloom, save for some snowdrops and crocuses that weren’t part of the walled garden. There is a rose walk, which I’m sure is lovely when the roses are blooming, but not so much so when you’re walking past thorny, scraggly bushes with no blossoms. The garden is also where the playhouse that Churchill built for his daughter Mary is located. It’s still set up with child-size furniture that made me feel like a giant, so I can only imagine how the portly Churchill felt if he ever ventured in.
I was excited to see the graves of the family pets (I kept saying, “let’s go to the pet cemetery” which is retrospect may have sounded a little creepy), which included the final resting places of Rufus and Rufus II (both poodles…why do men in power often have such lame dogs? Like FDR and that Scottish terrier Fala), and the handsome ginger cat Jock, who sat at Churchill’s bedside as Churchill was dying. Because of Churchill’s fondness for Jock, there is a ginger cat in residence at Chartwell to this day…they’re currently up to Jock VI, although I didn’t spot him during our visit.
By this point, it was time to enter the house. Photography wasn’t allowed inside, but we were given a brief guide to the rooms, with highlights pointed out to us. It was very homely feeling inside; much like Hyde Park, this was not a grand estate, but a family home. I was thrilled to see there were many objects relating to FDR inside the house, like paintings, busts, and a letter he wrote to Winston, and it was obvious that Churchill treasured their friendship. I enjoyed his library very much, but then I’m always drawn to rooms full of books, especially if they have comfy looking seats. There were a couple more museum rooms located in the house; one was for gifts given to Churchill, which were mostly big silver things that weren’t terribly exciting, though it was interesting to see the honorary US citizenship granted to him by JFK (although as his mother was American, I would have thought he could have gotten American citizenship for himself anyway if he’d really wanted it, though maybe dual citizenship wasn’t allowed back then. Or he just wanted to avoid the dual-taxation that the rest of us American expats have to deal with!). There was, however, a collection of Churchill’s uniforms that contained a splendid array of his hats. Now, that was worth seeing!
The final room downstairs was all about Churchill’s death and funeral, which was a bit sad, especially when they talked about Jock sitting beside him, but I’m just not as sentimental about his death as I was about FDR’s (I think I might be a little too obsessed with ol’ Franklin though. Not quite as badly as I am with Steve Perry circa the late 1970s (seriously, that hair! How was it so perfect?!), but I’m still probably quite a bit more into FDR than any normal person would be). After the lengthy exploration of Churchill’s estate, we decided to have a heartening slice of cake in the cafe, which was mercifully empty at this point as it was the end of the day, and luckily for me, there was some lemon cake left (the only alternatives were fruitcake or coffee and walnut cake, both of which I detest).
Perhaps because Chartwell was run by the National Trust, rather than the government-operated National Park Service like this type of site would be in America, it was nowhere near as impressive as Hyde Park, which had an excellent and comprehensive museum (I’m sorry I keep comparing Chartwell to Hyde Park, it’s just hard to avoid given the close connections between the two men), but it was still enjoyable, particularly as there was such a large estate to explore, which made the waiting time before we could tour the house fly by. I’ll give it 3.5/5, as I think it’s well worth visiting if you find yourself in Kent. Oh, and if you head back to London the same way we did, you may pass the little gem shown below. Naturally, we turned the car around after we spotted it and drove back so we could get a picture, because I’m still juvenile like that.