Chartwell - A day away is a day wasted

Neville Johnsonin Public Places

"A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted". That's what Sir Winston Churchill said about his family home near Westerham in Kent, which has been in the care of the National Trust since his death in 1965. Neville Johnson went there to learn why its gardens and grounds are just as treasured as the house itself.

Roughly thirty acres of formal gardens, and about forty acres of woodland and pasture beyond, are spread out to the south and east of a house indelibly linked to our darkest and most glorious passages in history. It's a great sight on a late autumn morning. As winter beckons, there is still a wonderful pallet of colour wherever you look.

Churchill bought Chartwell in 1922 and, years later, said he did so for the view over the Weald of Kent, which remains largely the same after nearly a century. The real beauty of outdoor Chartwell is that the formal abuts naturally and very openly to managed countryside with magnificent vistas. It always did. The National Trust's Tim Parker, Gardens and Countryside Manager here and at two other Trust properties in the area, has the job of keeping it so.

I'm invited into the National Trust offices in the house to talk to Tim about the gardens and grounds at Chartwell and the work that goes on here.

He tells me that the Trust has actually now owned Chartwell longer than the Churchills did. Its heritage is taken very seriously.

"The ultimate aim we have for grounds care at Chartwell is to present the gardens and the wider estate as the Churchills would have known it," he said.

Tim Parker, in charge of Chartwell upkeep and two other National Trust properties

"What we try to do is keep alive the image of it being a home outside as much as inside the house."

The balance between being authentic and yet sympathetic to the needs and pressures of maintaining a much-visited National Trust attraction is a constant challenge. Getting on for a quarter of a million people came to Chartwell last year and the aim is to get that up to at least 260,000 in the next twelve months.

"Visitor numbers do drop a little after the House is closed each November for the winter months, but we are putting a big effort into enhancing interest in Chartwell's outdoor beauty as well so that the flow of visitors keeps on growing all year round," said Henry Jarvis, the National Trust's Senior Marketing and Communications Manager at Chartwell.

"The house is closed each November over the winter months whilst the National Trust team complete significant conservation work to the Churchill collection."

The gardens and grounds at Chartwell are very much the focus of a new initiative just launched by the National Trust. It comes in the form of a hand-held audio guide now freely available to visitors.

Tim Parker explains the thinking behind of the guide:

"Chartwell became a place where Churchill could pursue his fascination for nature and wildlife. From the Rose Garden, much loved by Clementine Churchill, and the fruit and vegetables framed by the walls that Sir Winston helped build, to the tree-house inspired by one constructed for the Churchill children, the outdoors here is a canvas touched by the lives and memories of the family. The guide helps paint the picture for visitors."

A visitor using the new audio guide / The Golden Rose Avenue a gift from the family to mark Winston and Clementine's Golden Wedding

He goes on to describe the venture as 'leading edge' in the way the Trust promotes the outdoors at its properties.

"How do you make gardens and grounds look authentic without telling visitors what's what? It's been an abiding issue for us at Chartwell, and it's a challenge for many a National Trust property," added Tim.

"We don't do plant labelling, as some attractions do, so that's where the new audio guide is such a plus. It informs about what's here, why and how in a very personal way."

The new audio guide features memories and untold stories with excerpts from Nicholas Soames, Churchill's grandson, Heather White-Smith, secretary to Winston Churchill from 1953 to 1956, and Martin Drury, Churchill family friend and former National Trust curator. It also uses letters and documents that piece together life outdoors at Chartwell.

Narrated by actor Christian McKay of The Theory of Everything, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy and ITV's Churchill's Secret, the one-hour audio guide is offered as part of the admission charge or National Trust membership.

Overlooking Churchill's walled vegetable garden

On top of this, it also includes 'seasonal picks and tips' from Tim Parker, highlighting changing nature around the year at Chartwell.

Further topics will be added to the guide in 2020, including a tour of the views Churchill painted, the landscaping work Churchill undertook, and more seasonal plant highlights.

All of the audio guides are funded by the National Trust's Churchill's Chartwell Appeal, which enables all things Churchill to be acquired, maintained and seen at his home in Kent. This flourishes thanks to support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, The Royal Oak Foundation, the National Trust itself, plus private donations from members of the public.

Tim Parker heads up what the National Trust calls a portfolio operation. As well as the extensive grounds at Chartwell, he is in charge of the upkeep of Emmetts Garden, a few miles away, and Quebec House in nearby Westerham, which was the childhood home of famous 18th century soldier James Wolfe. He's now in his fifth year in this role, after nearly seventeen all told working for the National Trust.

Groundcare and garden equipment and machinery housed at Chartwell 'does' for all three properties and, therefore, more than earn their keep, I learn.

"We like to think we make efficient use of everything we have," said Tim.

Only occasionally does he hire in equipment or specialist services, like the tree trimming in progress that very day as part of National Trust tree safety management. A team of arboriculturists, using a high-production chipper, were trimming back some overhanging branches near the Chartwell car park.

Recent developments at Chartwell include the introduction of a plant quarantine area to prevent any influx of disease that may spoil the collection in the heritage gardens here, and the complete refurbishment of dilapidated glass houses with electric bench mat heating. The latter means Tim is able to grow on site many more of the plants he needs, and this further reduces risk of importing disease. Tim describes this as one of the best advances in recent times. Chartwell is Grade 2 listed and these wooden glasshouses had to be restored rather than replaced. They are very impressive.

There is a six-strong full time National Trust team looking after the gardens and grounds, plus an apprentice. Tim is proud that Chartwell has the privilege of being chosen by the Trust to help future groundcare professionals working for the organisation because of the wide variety of work and conservation activities here.

"It's an important time for all of us at Chartwell in terms of making sure we continue the story of the Churchill home and all it meant," he said.

A Conservation Management Plan for Chartwell was commissioned by the National Trust in 2016 to establish an ongoing blueprint for all work on the house and its grounds. This involved scrutinising archives and talking to members of the Churchill family.

"What came out of the plan was that it was possible we were over gardening parts of the site, and it brought about what we call 'the spirit of place' which means concentrating on the fundamentals that enriched the site in its heyday," said Tim.

"Other sites, like say Cliveden, require a much more exact regime of clipping lawns and hedges and neat precise bedding to fit its particular spirit. Not so here at Chartwell where, for example, the grass in the orchard area, still featuring the fruit trees planted by Churchill himself, was being mowed more frequently and tightly than it had been in his day."

The croquet lawn; a favourite of Lady Churchill

"We are now managing the orchard area as a meadow with natural wildflowers."

Time and resources saved here is allowing Tim and his team to put more into improving the lawns closer to the house and, in particular, one of Lady Churchill's favourite areas, the croquet lawn, which abuts the south facing side of the House.

The croquet lawn emphasises the family aspect of Chartwell. Lady Churchill was an accomplished player and it always played a big part in family life here. Actually, it had originally been a grass tennis court, Clementine Churchill being a pretty good tennis player too. There had been a smaller, cramped croquet lawn also near the house, but as Lady Churchill grew older and less mobile tennis was abandoned in sole favour of croquet, and the tennis court became a larger croquet lawn with the original one switching to an ornamental lawn.

Croquet can be - and is - played at Chartwell, and Tim's aspiration is to get the lawn's surface into even better condition. He does core and aerate and it has been verti-drained, but a resurfacing may be on the cards sometime. It looks pretty playable even on the threshold of winter, but work on it will definitely be stepped up next year, Tim says.

Obviously, the National Trust intends it to be a real playing surface as croquet sets are very much in evidence at the ticket office. Visitors can hire mallets and balls, and a number of visiting groups play here regularly. The surface may not quite be there, but the view certainly is. There cannot be many that offer such a splendid and far-reaching vista. No wonder the Churchills loved it here.

The refurbished 'listed' glasshousing and the new quarantine area

Churchill bought Chartwell to be his green haven, a retreat from the rigours of politics which, until the onset of the Depression as the 20s closed, had him on the front benches at Westminster, either in government or opposition for close on twenty years.

Throughout the 1930s, during what are often referred to as Churchill's 'wilderness years' when out of office, he was pretty hands-on when it came to outdoor maintenance and development of the estate. The scale of things meant he had to employ full-time gardening staff though and he came to rely on them totally after he was called to lead the wartime coalition in May 1940.

After the war Churchill, rejected at the ballot box and out of office, found the cost of running Chartwell too onerous. It however remained the Churchill's home until his death in 1965, though ownership had passed to the National Trust in 1947 after a group of Sir Winston's business friends had raised near on £50,000 for the purchase, on the understanding that he and Clementine could remain there and continue to enjoy it for the rest of their lives. This was truly an act of gratitude and affection for what he had done to help defeat Hitler.

Churchill was definitely connected to the natural landscape it seems. In particular, he had a passion for butterflies and sought the expert advice of renowned lepidopterist L H Newman about what plants to grow to attract certain species. In many ways, Sir Winston was very much a conservationist, and certainly a nature lover. Wildlife gardening and creating a water harvesting system for Chartwell's walled garden made him a garden enthusiast ahead of his time.

The Chartwell grounds are open 363 days a year, so they have to be very good and, more than that, authentic all of the time, whatever the conditions.

"This time of year is our bread and butter project season," Tim went on to say. "We need the weather to be kind right through until early spring to allow us to press on with the serious work that's beyond routine tidying and maintenance."

"We've been working on a restoration project for the past four years now which involves the systematic clearance and rejuvenation of all the ornamental borders."

Volunteering is a hallmark of the National Trust and it relies on it heavily for its success. Tim has no fewer than seventy of them to help with grounds maintenance and associated work, of which about ten act as visitor guides, and these are trained by Tim and his team.

This volunteer labour force helps year round with routine weeding, dead-heading, edging and the like. They also play a part in the bigger project work and make a valuable contribution to clearing borders and rejuvenating them. They work alongside Tim's team in cutting back, reconditioning the soil and planting of fresh stock. Tree planting, pond clearing and fencing are other areas where volunteer input is much valued.

Young volunteers at work / A group of volunteers fashioning fence posts, recycled from estate timber

The National Trust has a lease arrangement with a local farmer enabling him to graze livestock on some of the field areas beyond the lake.

"Previously, these meadow areas have, if anything, been under-grazed, encouraging a build-up of thatch," said Tim.

"More regular grazing of cattle and sheep has helped reduce this and encourage planted wildflower swathes to prosper. The aim is to make the lower fields yet more floriferous and appealing to visitors when they are free of livestock."

The National Trust is a conservation charity and, in dry summer conditions, there is no watering of grassed areas. Lawns are allowed to brown and restore themselves naturally. Composting is a big part of the work and absolutely everything that can be used for this is. Everything green stays on site.

Even though the house is closed through the winter, Sir Winston's studio remains open and there is a strong interaction with the gardens and grounds, highlighted now by outdoor exhibitions in January and February, which began last year. Using the actual landscape to present these shows how much the grounds meant during his time here. His pictures are displayed at the exact point he painted them and visitors can also see what he saw through a blank frame.

There cannot be friendlier grounds than those at Chartwell, surely one of the National Trust's flagship sites.

Greatest Briton of all time

Sir Winston Churchill was voted the 'Greatest Briton of all time' in an extensive BBC poll carried out in 2002, beating off other notables such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Diana, Princess of Wales, Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Sir Isaac Newton and John Lennon.

Given the political turmoil the country has endured in the past few years, it is perhaps opportune to revisit some of the great man's quotes:

"Politics is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen

It is a fine thing to be honest, but it is also very important to be right.

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

The English never draw a line without blurring it.

Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.

Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.

The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, it's also what it takes to sit down and listen.

Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

The English know how to make the best of things. Their so-called muddling through is simply skill at dealing with the inevitable.

My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.

I am prepared to meet my maker. Whether my maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.

I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.

Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room.

What is adequacy? Adequacy is no standard at all.

There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them are true.

Our thanks to the National Trust for providing some of the images. For more about Chartwell or any of the organisation's properties visit