Statesman's retreat

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Chartwell, cherished home of Winston Churchill.

Between the wars Chartwell was arguably the most important country house in Britain - not for any architectural merit, but because Winston Churchill lived there during the critical period in Britain's history.

Here, in his study overlooking the Weald of Kent, he worked on five Budgets in his time as chancellor in the 1920s. Many of his best-selling historical works were also fashioned here. Most crucially, it was here during his self-styled "wilderness years" in the 1930s that he carefully rehearsed the speeches he made advocating re-armament in the face of the Nazi threat.

The house, now owned by the National Trust, also became a meeting place for a growing number of politicians and military advisers, who shared Churchill's concerns about the growing menace of fascism in Europe and the appeasement policies of the Chamberlain government.

Churchill bought Chartwell in 1922, when both the Liberal government and his own political career were collapsing - he had become ill and lost the Dundee by-election. He later remarked of that time: "I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party and without an appendix."

But he did now have a house - and one that he was to cherish mightily for the last 40 years of his life, as both a place to work in and a place to unwind. "Any day away from Chartwell is a day wasted," he used to say.

The house, a modest-sized, tall red-brick building, much altered over the years and often criticised as ugly, or at least undistinguished, has a certain eccentric charm, with a delightful view across two lakes, graced by black swans, to an ancient woodland. Many rooms have been restored to how they looked and were used in the 1930s, a move made possible largely by the Churchill family's willingness to allow furniture, paintings - especially by Churchill himself - and other possessions to be used for this purpose.

The focal point inevitably is the study, where Churchill spent much of his busy working life pacing up and down, dictating countless letters, memos, articles, speeches and books to a succession of secretaries, often deep into the night. In the centre of the room stands the writing table inherited from his father Lord Randolph Churchill, on which, mixed in with family photographs, stand busts of Napoleon and Nelson, a reminder of Churchill's provocative dictum that "the story of the human race is war".

His studio by the lake houses many of his pictures as well as his easel, brushes and overalls, and his paints. Another talent was bricklaying, which he practised around the estate. A man of boundless energy, with his wife Clementine he helped to landscape the garden, enlarge the lake, and create the present rose and water gardens. Chartwell became the perfect politician's retreat.

There is an exhibition setting his life in context, with recordings of the famous 1940 speeches by the leader whom Clement Atlee called "the greatest Englishman of our time".

Details from the Administrator, Chartwell, Westerham, Kent TN16 1PS. Tel: 01732 866368

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