This time, it was my idea. At the risk of being drummed out of the Loyal Order of Put-Upon, Vacationing Husbands Everywhere, I make this confession. It was I, it was me, it was myself who suggested touring a historic house and looking at the furniture. The only argument I can offer that might possibly rehabilitate my reputation as a reluctant tourist is that the house in question was once the home of Winston Churchill. How can someone of my generation not be curious about a man like him?
Though once I was more interested in the present and the future, I now find myself curious about the past. My budding interest in the extraordinary events that barely preceded my lifetime was nudged into an active pursuit by a 2008 visit to the Imperial War Museum. In a report I prepared for friends at home that year, I wrote the following:
“Folks, I’m not really sure how to write this part. I tend to be glib, with humor being the order of the day. But that might not work right now. There is not a lot of humor in a war museum. What there is, though, is an incredible amount of history … much more than a person can process in an afternoon. It was overwhelming, physically and emotionally.”
The seed had been planted, and I began delving more and more into the first half of the twentieth century. Then, during a trip to the Churchill War Rooms two years later, my attention became focused on Winston Churchill. So I did what most curious people of my generation do – I started reading about Churchill – and from this I decided that despite the sheer power and force of personality that set him aside from the masses, the trait that would make him most identifiable to “Joe Everyman” was his love for his home in Kent. Given that I was also anxious to see that area myself, I proposed a trip to his getaway. Which is how, on an overcast Sunday, Elizabeth R, Ben and I found ourselves exiting a cab at the public entrance to Chartwell.
Since getting to Chartwell, which I thought was a fine idea, involved only train and taxi travel and not overland exploro-trekking, I was in charge. No train went directly to Chartwell, but there were 3 relatively close by. I chose Sevenoaks, the one farthest away – because it alone had a resident taxi rank. I thought this was brilliant of me. I also ascertained that the train to Sevenoaks left not from Waterloo Station but from Waterloo East, so I joyously dove into the Journey Planner website and figured out not one but THREE ways to reach Waterloo East from regular old Waterloo’s east exit. Upon disembarking from our train, I noticed a huge sign pointing to an escalator leading directly to… Waterloo East. I pointed, and surreptitiously ditched my directions.
The 20 minute train trip to Sevenoaks was interesting by itself – not only did we pass right next to London’s newest skyscraper, the Shard, but Ben also pointed out a few more landmark buildings, the Cheese Grater, the Pint Glass, and, of course, my particular favorite, the Gherkin. Come on, New York and Boston, you are really lagging in the building nickname creativity department!
There was in fact a taxi rank at Sevenoaks, and we enjoyed the 20 minute ride through the Kent countryside in a cab that, although immaculate, smelled strongly of rest room air freshener. The driver gave us his card so he could pick us up for the return trip. Oh goody.
Churchill bought Chartwell in 1922, and various histories indicate that his wife, Clementine, may not have been overjoyed at the purchase. If not, imagine her reaction to what happened next. Like many a new homebuyer, Churchill plunged into a scheme of alterations that, as in the case of many of us, cost more and took longer than expected. Adding wings and dredging lakes will do that. In the end, the project went on for over two years, the final bill came in at more than 250% of the original estimate, and Churchill was barely speaking to his builder. It makes one wonder how Mrs. C then thought about their money pit.
My Guess Is That Churchill Was More Expressive Than Hanks Was
From my perspective, however, speaking as someone who wasn’t there during the process, it was all worth it in the end. Nestled part way up a gentle hillside, Chartwell makes you feel that it is both classy and comfortable. We were able to tour a large portion of the furnished house, though no photos were allowed inside.
We had expected Chartwell to be among the smaller of the National Trust’s tourist sites, for no other reason than we knew it was Churchill’s beloved personal, and thus more modest, private home, and it was way out in the wilds of Kent. Not so – it was mobbed, even on a drizzly Sunday, complete with tour bus parking areas and a large, undistinguished and overpriced restaurant.
Still, I was most impressed that with typical British efficiency, they assigned us a specific half hour time slot to visit the house. A half hour was ample time to absorb the interior of what was really a home, and not an overly large one, and without an unmanageable number of other tourists. Unlike Blenheim Palace, a true palace and Churchill’s boyhood “home,” Chartwell embodied the spirit of the man, and I could easily imagine his portly form at ease in every room we visited. Friendly docents hovered in each room, eager to share details of the times Churchill and his Clemmie were in residence.
I was fine with the indoor time limit because the part of Chartwell that held the most interest for me were the grounds. Still, I did enjoy wandering through the interior, and could imagine myself spending a retirement migrating from the library to the drawing room, and eventually the dining room, the last two offering wonderful views of the countryside. Of course, that’s not counting the time I would spend outdoors, which is exactly where I’m heading now.
The grounds of Chartwell had enough different facets to keep even the most frenetic putterer busy. Before you arrive at the house, you encounter a string of seven ponds,featuring a goldfish pond in the middle and terminating with a swimming pool.
Bordering the goldfish ponds were huge plants which were labeled as being members of the rhubarb family. They were also prominently labeled, “Do Not Eat.”
Assuming that somehow you were allowed to live in Chartwell, if you zip in the front door and out the back, as we men are likely to do on a weekend, you will find spread before you a terrace lawn, beyond which a grassy slope descends to a pair of lakes. In the distance, yet in full view, lies the Weald of Kent. On either side of the lawn can be found gardens for weeding, outbuildings to be maintained, or brick walls to be augmented. I doubt that Churchill was ever bored, but when he was he would only have to scan his landscape and wonder “what needs be done next?”
A steadily increasing rain prevented us from thoroughly investigating the grounds, and reluctantly we called it a day. A little too early, we returned to the car park and awaited our transportation back to the train station.
Our odoriferous taxicab, back to pick us up as promised, deposited us back at Sevenoaks just in time to climb aboard a waiting train for London. We took our seats near the door, and waited. And waited. We noticed a train official talking with a man attempting to board without a ticket. The official pleasantly insisted that the man give him the price of the ticket, at which point he would hand over the ticket. The man, somewhat less pleasantly, suggested that the official give him the ticket before the giving up the cash. This exchange continued for some time, with the degree of pleasantness noticeably diminishing at each round. Eventually a hush descended over the entire train car as the decibels at the doorway increased, until finally the would be stowaway stalked off in a huff.
“They do this all the time,” whispered a veteran traveler who was sharing our group of four seats. “His accomplice does the same thing at the other door to the car, and sometimes they get the free trip.”
I wondered if this sort of thing was peculiar to the train stations close to Churchill territory, where the would be freeloaders might have absorbed some of Churchill’s “Never, ever, give up!” mantra. Probably not. Even Churchill couldn’t inspire everybody.
[NOTE: Speaking of never giving up, I doubt that I’ll ever give up trying to stick more stuff in every post. This time, at least, I’m doing it in the form of a video. Here are some more Chartwell pictures that might tell the story better than we did.]