Winston Churchill is very famous. You can tell this because his house, Chartwell, belongs to the National Trust and as well as the usual stream of parents with young children and retirees milling about, it also sees whole busloads of actual tourists flocking in to visit it too.
Which is a shame as Chartwell is a very nice house. A really very nice house. A house so nice, in fact, that it is currently at the very top of places Mama would like to live in. Somehow, however, I do not think the National Trust will be giving it up any time soon.
Of course, what Winston Churchill is actually famous for, unless it is indeed his house, is a bit of a mystery to me.
Perhaps it is for being an artist. There are a lot of his paintings scattered about the house itself, and even more in a purpose built studio nearby. Yes, he must have been a famous artist. Although if I am honest, I am not at all sure that he was a very good one. Mama was inclined to be polite about them with the very approachable guides, who were full of little anecdotes about Winston’s life and habits at Chartwell. I suspect this is probably damming.
Apparently, he also liked to write. But although Chartwell has a vast number of books, unlike the paintings, very few of them seem to be by the great man himself. I expect this means that it was probably more of a hobby. Certainly his habit of marking the place a book had came from with a small stuffed animal, some of which are still in situ, shows a certain frivolousness of approach.
That said, Mama tells me he mostly went in for weighty historical tomes. I am not quite sure why, if this is the reason he is so revered, Churchill gets more visitors and a much nicer house than Thomas Carlyle, who was also famous for his exceptionally long history books. Unless it has something to do with the fact that Churchill was, I am told, considerably less popular with the unpleasant sounding Hitler than Carlyle.
I am also at a loss as to why people kept giving Churchill presents. There is a whole room at Chartwell devoted to them. I entertained the brief thought that the gift of antique Russian salad bowls from the ever popular Stalin was signalling that Winston Churchill’s area of expertise was, in fact, being a chef, but the kitchen was small and quite basic, so I suspect not.
Very nice conservatory style dining room though. And conveniently close to the food preparation area, unlike the majority of these National Trust historic houses we tour. Perhaps Churchill was a pioneering architect? A wall in the garden with an important looking plaque that says that Winston built it himself with his own two hands, suggests being big in the construction business in some way is a possibility.
He might have been an actor, mind. There’s another room in Chartwell for his collection of costumes, which oddly enough are mostly military inclined. A character actor, then. I’m afraid we lost interest a bit when we discovered we were not allowed to try them on ourselves so I didn’t pay that much attention. Of course, he might just have been a collector. Who seems to have bothered a lot of apparently well known people for signed photographs of themselves over the years. Statesmen mostly. I wonder if Churchill was an impressionist?
What I think is most likely, though, is that Winston Churchill was a naturalist. That’s definitely the angle the National Trust is working in its efforts to entertain us children. We picked up a bird trail from the entrance, although we clearly should have got the insect one too as Chartwell is positively bugtastic.
In fact, unlikely as it may seem as a path to international fame, Winston Churchill was clearly a celebrity entomologist, with a particular enthusiasm for butterflies. He even had his own butterfly house to hatch out new cabbage whites for the garden, which the National Trust dutifully keeps well stocked in his memory. We were thrilled to see an actual chrysalis or two while we were there.
There are also a lot of nesting swallows flitting about the eaves of the roof. But we have those too without any effort whatsoever on Mama’s part, so I do not think that cultivating them was Churchill’s raison d’être, no matter how much we enjoyed watching them.
Plus, there is a much beloved and semi famous cat, Jock, at Chartwell (although NOT in the house itself one of the guides said firmly, when my Outstanding Big Brother asked), and surely no serious ornithologist would stand for that, even if he is dead. We, on the other hand, were delighted to spot Jock. My Outstanding Big Brother has a blithe disregard for the available evidence that cats, unlike dogs, take less than kindly to small unknown children bounding up enthusiastically to pet them. Jock was thankfully used to this sort of behaviour and tolerated it well.
Although not, obviously, to the point of actually allowing himself to be stroked.
Still, the bird trail gave my Outstanding Big Brother an excuse to head straight for the ponds to check out the geese, and BLACK SWANS, the latter being particularly thrilling as they are allegedly very aggressive when approached, something which we were of course fully determined to test out as soon as we heard about it.
I dunno, maybe having kids has mellowed them, but they didn’t charge us, even though we got within a good fifty metres of them and their signets before Mama dragged us off to gaze longingly at the swimming pool.
A SWIMMING POOL? Was the man a fitness guru now too?
Either way, Mama covets that swimming pool. What a view.
I covert the wendy house. Which also has amazing views. It belonged to one of Chruchill’s daughters originally; now it belongs to the visiting children. To be honest, Mama thinks the wooden fruit, veg and hot dogs in the play kitchen could do with a bit of a refresh as they were looking a bit battered and thin on the ground the last time we went. From this I gather that the one thing Winston Churchill definitely is not famous for was his domesticity, or having children, or having grandchildren.
Of course not, says Mama, who is inclined to add something sharp about the way in which praise of parenting skills is generally considered to be something of a compensation prize for women rather than serious grounds for admiration at this point.
As long as my Outstanding Big Brother and I could continue to have a lot of fun coming up with increasingly bizarre culinary combinations for Mama to sample, we were good though. And it’s wonderful how we will enthusiastically participate in a good game of *pretend* to mop, sweep, tidy and clean up. Mama says.
Over the other side of the lake, there is a large field perfect for picnicking in, rolling down or combing through the grass for insects.
But the main attraction here are the giant swings hanging from a number of the trees. Suitable for people of all sizes, you can go on slow ones, romantic ones, fast ones, high ones and downright alarming ones, and all of them have more stunning views! Highly recommended.
There are also some natural play areas in the woods. One is a sort of camp, complete with very comfortable hammocks, and the other is called a Dormouse Den, for reasons which escape all of us, but where you can jump from one wooden mushroom to another. They are lovely cool places to escape the heat of the day if you so wish, or the rain if that is your problem. I am not sure they were actually around in Winston’s day, unlike the swings, but you can certainly discover some really excellent bugs there, which is clearly why they have been built.
But just as you think you have got Churchill pegged, you realise that what with the swimming pool, the lake and the goldfish pond, Churchill clearly had as much of a thing about water as my Outstanding Big Brother and me. He was a big fan of the pond next to the formal walled gardens (great flowers, mainly the preserve of Churchill’s wife, so at least I was able to rule out plant guru from his list of accomplishments, dunno who was responsible for the orchard and the extensive kitchen garden, and even more wonderful ants, which were presumably Winston’s contribution). Landscape gardener?
We therefore rounded off our visit in an unusually contemplative manner, sitting and staring meditatively at the large orange bodies milling around just below us, in much the same way Winston Churchill is said to have done while thinking about beetles or somesuch. Could have been there for hours, but Mama declined to brave the rush hour traffic on the M25.
Chartwell, then, is clearly a must for all the bug enthusiasts out there looking to see a more personal side of a pioneer of the field, and there sure are a surprisingly large number of them. But Churchill, for all his butterfly prowess, seems to have been a man of many parts, and so practically anyone will find his house and him interesting. In addition, Chartwell is set in such lovely and varied surroundings that should you just want a nice outdoor location to roll around this is a wonderful place to spend time and explore. Definitely worth a visit.
Address: Mapleton Road, Westerham, Kent, TN16 1PS
Opening: 11am to 5pm. You’ll need a timed ticket to visit the house, and on busy days your slot could be several hours after you arrive. The house is closed from November to March, but you can still visit the gardens and the studio.
Admission: Adult: £14.30, child: £7.15, family: £35.75. There are also cheaper tickets for the gardens and the studio only. National Trust members, of course, get in for free.
By car: There is ample parking, which is free for National Trust members. Chartwell is well signposted from the A25, which is off junctions 5 or 6 from the M25.
By public transport: The 246 London bus route runs from Bromley, including Bromley North and Bromley South Stations, to Chartwell. Local stations with trains out of London are at Edenbridge (4 miles away), Oxted and Sevenoaks (6 miles away each).