A Sense of Place: Churchill’s House at Chartwell

Has your heart ever been captured by a view?

Has it swept you off your feet and stolen your breath, and instilled an insane desire to have it at any cost?

Around four thousand years ago, the ancient writings go, God stood one of his earliest recruits on Mount Nebo. You’re not getting there, God said to Moses with a rather sobering finality: but your descendants will people it.

On a clear day, from the top of Mount Nebo, you can see the whole of Israel stretched out before you. You can see Jerusalem, and the River Jordan’s valley and even the West Bank city of Jericho.

What a panorama: one for the bucket list.

For thousands of years, people have wanted to possess that view. The evidence lies in ruins discovered in 1933 of a church and monastery, right at Nebo’s summit. They were there when Egeria, the French pilgrim, wrote of her travels to the Holy Land between 381-384.

Someone had built a place to possess the view: but centuries later their feeble attempts did not stand the test of time.

On the Kentish borders, near the village of Westerham, there has for centuries been a building which claimed a view. Its name. Chartwell, comes from the word chart, old English for rough ground, and a well which lies north of the great red brick house. At 650 feet above sea level the view inspires devotion in all who see it.

It might explain why Winston Churchill did something extremely uncharacteristic in 1922, the year he lost his seat as an MP for Dundee.

He took one look at Chartwell and made arrangements to buy it, without consulting his beautiful wife Clementine.

She never really liked the house, it is said. And when you see it, you can understand why: a great Victorian monolith of a place. There has been a building there since the 16th century – Henry VIII stayed there when he was wooing Anne Boleyn at Hever Castle – but after Victorian renovations there is nothing subtle about Chartwell House.

So, on their arrival Clem transformed the place with her customary taste. The inside is a model of comfy,graceful hospitality, the fabrics subtle and sophisticated, the decor effortlessly pleasing to the eye in a thirties Miss Marple sort of way. The house was designed for comfort, and a walk round makes one feel instantly at home.

Churchill, though, loved the landscape.

And he did not leave its transformation to others. He dug ponds, built walls and laboured to produce a tract of land worthy of the view across the Weald.

The results are very him.

Peaceful, bold, sympathetic to the sense of place, the gardens grace the view and dress the house. Black swans paddle on the lake and you can go and sit in his favourite spot, where , after a hard day, Churchill would sit by his pond and feed his beloved fish.

Money worries were never far away, though. Perhaps Clem felt Winston had overstretched himself buying the stately pile: twice it was put up for sale before, in 1946, a consortium of the wealthy bought the place so that the couple could grow old and end their lives there.

And now, also according to that deal done in 1946, we can all enjoy that view. Chartwell was passed to the National Trust in 1966, one year after Churchill’s death.

The affable crowds pottered round the place, dogs on leads, and we and Macaulay joined them yesterday, to be utterly undone by that incredible view.


37 thoughts on “A Sense of Place: Churchill’s House at Chartwell

  1. I remember watching the TV drama ” The Gathering Storm” which gave a wonderful impression of Chartwell. Fab pictures.

  2. I’ll be travelling down to Kent later today to visit family, but, despite being born west of the Medway, I’ve never paid a visit to Chartwell…a wrong I must right in the not-too-distant future ;). Incidentally, I’m a member of English Heritage, but not the National Trust, so, I get, for instance, free entry to Dover Castle, but not Chartwell…

    1. I know. Add to those two Historic Royal Palaces and there is quite a dilemma as to which to choose! In our neck of the woods -the south surrounding London – all the English Heritage sites seem to be free: old abbeys and castes and so on. National Trust seems a much better bet if you live there…

  3. Absolutely Gorgeous!! I find the personal history behind powerful men and women to be what is fascinating, not necessarily what they are famous for. Thanks for sharing these wonderful views.

      1. From what I am given to understand, upon Roosevelt’s in person meeting with Churchill, they became friends as Churchill was resolute in his mission to seek the aid of the U.S. in WW11.

  4. sometimes I think places should go to another generation to live in, and to enjoy. Though I guess this would have to become a boutique hotel instead?

  5. If Egeria was Medieval then why did she travel in the 4th C?? Views are worth a lot. I knew a couple who moved from Dorset because there weren’t any ‘vistas’. We were bemused. Especially as they’d tuck themselves into a little valley and built an 8 foot wall around their new place. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. No one can discredit his greatness as his personality intersected time at the critical moment in history as well as his role in defeating the evil dictatorships and their murderous genocide. But I do not revere him that much. As an egalitarian American stewed in democracy and belief in the self determination of peoples I label him an imperialists and colonialists like most of the Allied and Axis powers as well. With his British empire this and British empire that speeches – I am sure the colonial subjects felt victimized by his thinking in that regard esp post war India.

    1. That’s quite possible, Carl. Living here, though, in a country which could so easily be under Nazi occupation but for his words, we have a special tie with the man who stood up to Hitler when there was no-one else to do so.

  7. Oh fantastic, absolutely wonderful and so apt as i am starting my post for tomorrow with one of Churchill’s quotes. Stunning. I once knew the son of Churchill’s housekeeper from the war years. there was much talk of him never getting home on time for dinner and napping where he sat.. love it.. c

  8. Superb post Kate. Your photos and descriptions of the grounds capture a bit of Churchill’s character. I did see the link to Roosevelt’s letter and found it to be rather touching.

  9. What a view! Never been to Chartwell. It seems gorgeous. I wonder why she of the number nine boots had reservations? Naughty of Winnie not to consult her, of course.

    1. The view is nice, the building rather monolithic: without the charm of many Victorian conversions of earlier buildings, Col. But it’s a matter of opinion: and I am not sure why Clem never warmed to the house.

  10. From your photos, I can certainly understand Churchill’s attraction to the site. Stunningly beautiful. (I love the reference to Miss Marple. I began reading Agatha Christie’s mysteries when I was a teen.)

  11. I would so love to visit Chartwell, now more than ever after reading this post and seeing your wonderful pix. Every few years I go upstate (New York) to Hyde Park where I visit FDR’s estate. What I like most during my visits there is seeing Top Cottage, Roosevelt’s private getaway, that he designed himself. He entertained many dignitaries there during the war years including Churchill as well as King George and Queen Elizabeth. Eleanor also had her own house, Vall-Kill, not that far from Franklin’s. Visiting their homes and thinking about the rich history within those walls never grows old to me. Mac might like to know that FDR’s beloved Scottie, Fala, is buried under the sundial not far from where Eleanor and Franklin rest on the main estate, Springwood.

  12. Oh Kate, this was so thrilling. I’m so glad the Churchills were treated so kindly – he gave so much! I could picture him in the chair, very satisfied with the little storage table that kept weather and nature from his cigars and matches.

    Thank you, I truly loved seeing this and knowing that he did not have to live his life under some ridiculous financial strain.

    1. So pleased to have filled you in, Amy. You would love this place, designed by a man who knew how to work hard, but also to cherish those quiet moments of joy which make life worth living.

  13. What a wonderful view! Peaceful and a place for a great man to recharge! I love to hear that Churchill was so creative and did his own landscaping. I’d love to see this wonderful place someday! Debra

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