The choice of Canterbury to spend 30ish days has been glorious. Back when the decision was made and the unit booked, I really only had one thing on my list of must do. And yesterday, we did it.
I will forever associate COVID-19 and the pandemic with a number of things. Many not so great and some really good ones. Near the top of my good ones was my “journey” through William Manchester’s epic (my choice of word) three volume biography of Winston Churchill. It is not for those uncommitted. It exceeds 2,500 pages and takes you through incredible detail of his life. And what a life it was. My journey to “The Great Man” is a bit windy.
Back in late 2008 and early 2009 when I was recovering from cancer and cancer treatment I ventured to read Truman, David McCullough’s wonderful biography. I knew Harry S. as our 33rd president but not much else. Why this book. Not 100% certain, sometimes you just get to places and know you were meant to be there. I am a lover of biographies, especially presidential biographies. (If you’d like to borrow one or two of my favorites, just let me know.) Truman was president as America was emerging as a leading world power and economic force. And how he became president is fascinating. Very early in his presidency, Potsdam occurred. At Potsdam he conferred with Stalin and Churchill and set the world I have lived in motion. Yep, those three men pretty much, from a macro economic and geopolitical perspective, created the world myself and anyone reading this post has lived. So, from this, I have this during need to learn about these men. First, Truman. After all I am an American. Next came Sir Winston Churchill. So I devoured (if that is the right word for something that took nearly two years) the three volumes.
Make no mistake, Churchill is a Victorian man. His views of the world are of that era. As they said during the Victorian era, the sun never set on The Union Jack. Born of an American mother and an English father, his childhood was quite typical of lower level nobility. I came to learn through reading Manchester that it was very typical of Victorian women to be the philanderers. And his mother was such. And he loved her dearly. His father died from the longterm effects of syphilis. And yes, research has concluded he got it from his wife. Another trait of lower level Victorian era nobility is their life long financial struggles.
Winston’s love of his life, his wife of over 50 years was Clementine, aka Clemmie, aka Cat. (Winston was Pug to Cat.) Pug had nicknames for all of his family members. Imagine calling a daughter Mule? Pug and Cat had an incredibly complicated marriage. There is no doubt they loved and were committed to each other. They had 5 children, 4 daughters and a son. Their 4th daughter, Marigold, died when she was 2. Winston was a loving parent that used to love nothing more than playing with his children. Things became very dark when Marigold passed. So, in a true Victorian way, Winston purchase an estate an hour or so south of London. Clemmie hated Chartwell.
Churchill spent much of his “alone” years (late 1920s to late 1930s) at Chartwell. The main house was there when it was purchased by Churchill, but not much else. Largely with his own hands he built much of the grounds. Remember, money was scarce. It is at Chartwell that Winston wrote. You see, up until after WWII (mid 1940s) Winston supported his family as an author and paid speaker. One reason Americans love him so is not just for his American heritage, but of his many pilgrimages to The States to make money on the lecture circuit. The Churchill family could not afford Chartwell. It is at the essence of why Clemmie, the financially prudent one, really was not fond. Chartwell was also where, as he says, painting found Winston. And an accomplished painter he was. For a man that struggled with being idle, painting was therapy for him.
It is my opinion that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American. Some were close (I’d put Alexander Hamilton in that small room). But, as Malcolm Gladwell states in his book Outlier, success is the product of opportunity and effort. The 1860s provided the opportunity for Lincoln. And boy did he meet the challenge. We (US) would not be the US were it not for Lincoln. In my humblest opinion, The world would not be as we know it (good and bad) were it not for Churchill. In the first half of that amazing century, Winston “saved” England, Europe and all of western civilization from the fascists.
I’m attracted to Churchill for many reasons. His greatness. His conviction. His oratory skills. His story telling. His incredible human-ness. And I think the thing I find most alluring was Churchill as a friend. The man knew how to do relationship. He was friends with so many people. And it was at Chartwell that many of those friendships were nurtured.
The drive into the Chartwell Estate is captivating. So English. Narrow roadway with greenery on the sides that seems to want to grab and hold you there. We parked and as Joyce was taking care of the pay machine (I’m sure Joyce at some stage will post about those!) I made my way down to a bench. I sat down and on the neighboring bench was an English gentleman (about our age) that appeared to be someone that had brought a group there for the day and was just biding his time. He said something in my direction and with the door opened I jumped into this wonderful discussion about England / US / Churchill / Chartwell, etc. Joyce wandered up and sat down. By this time she had our tickets for the day. (I am so lucky!) My new found friend announced to Joyce that I had talked his ears off. He wasn’t wrong, and he was the one that opened the door. We shook hands, likely to never have our paths cross again.
Having read Manchester, I had a real good feel of what to expect of Chartwell. So, the house, the studio, the ponds, the labyrinth of streams with amazing stonework wasn’t surprising. There were two surprises. Often I build up in my mind such a high level of expectation, that I am disappointed that the reality does not stand up. Not here! The second thing is the topography. I had in my mind that the Estate sat in a large valley. Oh no, the house sits on a hill looking to the north and London. The views from the decks and yards immediately surrounding the house are spectacular.
What a glorious day!!
It is with a wide range of emotions that I look forward to tackling Stalin. If anyone out there in the blogosphere has a recommendation, it would be greatly appreciated!!