Blog : Churchill Centre

Weekend’s at Ditchley Park

Weekend’s at Ditchley Park

Ditchley Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

Though I didn’t make the short drive from Oxford on Saturday afternoon to see Ditchley Park, I recently read an interesting story about it in the Churchill biography by Roy Jenkins.

I’ve always heard that Ditchley Park was offered to Churchill during W.W.I.I. because the weekend house for use by serving Prime Minister’s, Chequers:

“in its Buckinghamshire hollow, was held to be unacceptably vulnerable at the time on the month ‘when the moon was high’”.

This of course was deemed to present a much too easy target for the German Luftwaffe.

As I’ve always heard the story told it was offered as a safer weekend getaway.

As Roy Jenkins tells it; “Churchill reacted to this with a characteristic mixture of decision, buoyancy and self-centeredness. On the afternoon of Tuesday, 5 November (1940) he sent for Ronald Tree, Conservative MP for Haymarket Harborough, and informed him that, on the following Friday, he would like to arrive for the weekend at Ditchley, Tree’s north Oxfordshire country house, with the full apparatus of Downing Street-Chequers secretarial and communications (but not domestic) staff, and possibly a few other guests as well, and to use it on this basis on future weekends of security need. He in fact did so on a total of fifteen weekends over the next year and a half, the last being in March 1942.”

As Jenkins tells it, Tree and his wife were flattered at the request and most gracious and hospitable hosts, with Mrs. Tree writing the PM the following letter after the first weekend; “I have always been one of your greatest if most humble admirers – and I meant to tell you how delighted and honoured we all were to have you come to Ditchley. If it is convenient for you at any time to you no matter how short the notice – it is at your disposal.”

The View from Chartwell

The View from Chartwell

Chartwell, Westerham, Kent

We had a visit to Churchill’s beloved Chartwell on Wednesday morning. One of his private secretaries related a delightful story about each time the PM would arrive at the gates of the driveway. As one makes the final stretch of the drive, you come up a hill and then wind down and around several bends with the roofline of Chartwell finally appearing through the trees. Each time they were on this final part of the winding drive, cigars and papers would be flying everywhere around the car; once they reached the gates of Chartwell, Sir Winston would always repeat the words, “Ah, Chartwell!”

As one walks up to the house from the gardens and comes across the lawn, it’s not difficult to fully understand why he fell instantly in love with this hilltop manor. It was perhaps not because of the house itself, but the view from Chartwell is magnificent! Looking out across the front lawn at the trees, ponds, and the rolling fields below – it’s no surprise that the Churchill was always anxious to make the journey back here from London.

His purchase of Chartwell demonstrated just how brave a man he truly was—a very brave man indeed. In 1922 he purchased this home without first discussing it with Mrs Churchill and she was not at all pleased.

When she first arrived it was in a very bad state of disrepair. The former owners had not lived in the home for several years when Churchill purchased it, but the local doctor told a story of a visit to the former owner on a house call shortly before they moved away. When the doctor arrived, the infirm owner was sitting up in bed in one of the upstairs bedrooms with an umbrella over his head!

The house was originally on the market in 1921 for ₤6,500 and didn’t sell. It came back on the market for ₤5,500 in 1922, and Churchill negotiated them down to ₤5,000. The place was in such a bad state that it took two years and another ₤12,000 to get the house into good enough shape for the family to move in.

The Duchess of M

The Duchess of M

Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire

At present, I’m sitting on the fast train out of Oxford Station heading for London’s Paddington Station. [Insiders tip: On the weekends you can buy a “Cheap Day Single” and upgrade to First Class for ₤5.] It’s late morning and after a lovely breakfast at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford where we’re been for the last several days, I’m heading back to London after an eight day long immersion into the life of one of the most renowned international statesmen the Rt Honorable Sir Winston S Churchill.

One becomes the Rt. Honorable upon appointment as a Privy Councillor to the reigning monarch.

One of the most exhilarating life experiences I’ve had was being announced upon entry from the Long Library on the way in to meet Their Graces The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, before joining them for dinner in the Great Hall.  We were each announced by a footman in full livery of white tie and red tailcoat.

We were welcomed to Blenheim Palace the ancestral home of the Marlborough’s with a Champagne reception prior to dinner. ‘Blenheim Palace’ Champagne was served and seemed to be flowing rather freely. Near the entry to the Great Hall, there was a seating plan for the evening and as I found my name at Table Four I was pleased to know that our table host was to be the Duchess herself.

There were eight tables for about 80 guests for the evening and a Churchill family members hosting each table.

Upon hearing the footman loudly crack his gong three times and announce in a booming voice, “Dinner is served!” we were invited through the massive wooden doors and into the Great Hall. I found Table Four and began to look for my place card and was naturally quite pleased when I found that the Duchess and I were seated next to one another for the evening.

The Duchess of Marlborough

The Duchess is at once, without a doubt, aristocratic and regal in her bearing and at the same time quite lively and engaging. We had a extraordinary conversion beginning with a discussion her recent trip the US to visit friends, including time Palm Beach, Los Angeles and Sun Valley.

I asked her where she stayed while in Los Angeles, and she said, “Well, I don’t know the area well enough, but it’s that rather nice area, not far from the Getty Museum.” “Perhaps it was Bel Air?” I suggested. “Yes, exactly that’s it!”

We discussed the magnificence the new Getty Museum and that the collection contains one of her favourite paintings, by an Italian fellow, of who’s name I can’t at the moment recall. “We also went that pink hotel, you know the one, they have the restaurant with the horses,” she added. “Yes of course; the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel,” I offered. “Yes, exactly,” the Duchess replied.

I added that, “Its one of my favorite spots, outside in the garden for a cocktail on a sunny day.”

The conversation progressed to horses and dogs and she mentioned that she rides every morning and takes her dogs along for a ‘miles-long ride’. She asked if I had any dogs, and I said, ‘Yes, an English Cocker Spaniel, named Gus after the first Roman Emperor Augustus.’ ‘Well, that’s rather regal,’ she said, ‘Do you take him walking for miles in the morning?’ ‘Well, a little “farm” like you have here would be rather expensive in LA, but I do take him walking for a few blocks…’ I replied somewhat sheepishly.

Scale is rather important to consider in this type of atmosphere.

The conversion continued on and was very pleasant indeed. The meal and the wine was all served in the most gracious manner. It was a most memorable evening.

Burning Moments that Can Change History

Burning Moments that Can Change History

East Bergholt, Suffolk

“Stour” is the country house that Randolph Churchill, son of the Prime Minister, purchased upon deciding to move from London in 1957. It’s still in private hands and we were quite fortunate to be able to due to the generosity of its current owners, Mr & Mrs Kelly. The organizers of the tour, Richard and Barbara Langworth had written the Kelly’s a letter regarding our trip and had persuaded them to host us with a lunch of sandwiches and sausage rolls.

Also organized for this stop was a tour and talk by Churchill’s official biographer Sir Martin Gilbert. Sir Martin started work as in intern for Randolph, working on “The Book” as they called it, in this very house when he just out of school in 1963. It was wonderful to hear the first-hand account of the goings-on in the house some forty years ago.

As Sir Martin told the story, Randolph had convinced his father’s trustees to allow him to complete the official biography of his father, Sir Winston. All of the archives were at that time held in a strong-room on the property, which has since been converted into a garage, with the heavy steal door is still on the rear of the building.

Randolph was a rather colorful character to say the least. He could be offensive particularly when he was drinking, which according of his physician Dr Marsh was every day. Dr Marsh also joined us at Stour for lunch.

Strong personalities certainly do seem to run in the family.

There were many stories told, but one that I found most interesting and certainly one that changed the course of history was one that Sir Martin told about an evening when Randolph was giving a dinner for his mother.

It was all arranged to be a very fine dinner. According to Sir Martin, Randolph had even dressed himself up from his normal rags he wore around the house and refrained from drinking the entire day.

Randolph had invited his mother Clementine for the weekend in order to try to convince her to allow him to use the personal letters of Sir Winston as part of the material for the biography.

All was set and Randolph as a sign of respect went to the train station himself to collect his weekend guest.

As they we having dinner something terrible happened. Sir Martin considers it quite personal and private and wouldn’t disclose what exactly it was, but sadly, Clementine asked Gilbert to take her immediately back to the station.

As a gentleman Sir Martin thought that he couldn’t possibly leave Lady Churchill on her own on the train so he accompanied her for the hour long ride back to London.

During his employ with Randolph he had come to know Lady Churchill and during the train journey she asked, “Martin, there are three possible things that I can do with these letters that Randolph would like to use. I could burn them all. I could have them sealed until 100 years after my death, or I could allow them to be used for the biography. What do you think I should do?”

Gilbert was truly shocked at the magnitude of the question posed him as a young historian. He was appalled at the thought of the papers being destroyed.

It didn’t take him long to convince her that they were a crucial part of “The Book” and should be included.

And included they were.

Full Rear Assault

Full Rear Assault

White House Hotel, London

I was pleasantly engaged in a chat with three fellow travelers on my journey and all of a sudden, from behind, a full rear assault by a woman of a certain age and a somewhat familiar face. She stormed me from behind and I didn’t see it coming whatsoever. She forced her hand in mine and said, “Hello, I’m Mary…”

Well, it all took me by such great surprise and I’m naturally used to calling people by their first names, that I replied, “Hi Mary, its very nice to meet you.”

Just in that instant, I processed the last of what she had just said and asked myself, “Did she just say Mary, as in Lady Soames?”

Indeed she had and I had just called Winston and Clementine’s youngest daughter and patron of The Churchill Centre, Lady Soames, by her first name.

It wasn’t so much of a major diplomatic incident as it was a rather minor social blunder. She seemed to take it all in good humour, style and grace and without the blink of an eye. On she went introducing herself to the rest of the group to whom I’d been speaking.

She has a personality that’s instantly likable; personable, engaging and radiant. A very lovely woman indeed.

A Swords Length in the Commons

A Swords Length in the Commons

White House Hotel, London

On our tour of the Houses of Parliament we continued on from the House of Lords through the Central Lobby which is the lobby that lies between both of the houses of parliament. Their constitution provides that any constituent, at any time can come into this lobby and demand to see their representative. These days of course ‘lobbying’ is a bit more organized than strolling in unannounced.

My favorite story our guide told was about the organization and running of the place itself. The story is about the carpets on the center of the floor in the House of Commons. On the carpets on each side of the house running parallel with the benches is a 6in. [or so] wide red stripe. One of the rules of the House is that the members while standing and speaking cannot cross beyond this red line. These red lines run parallel to one another on each the government and opposition sides of the house. The design was such that these lines are exactly the two sword lengths apart, for reasons that may not be so obvious today, unless one understands that parliament has been meeting in this location since being offered the space by King Edward VI in 1547.

Once we had a look at the House of Commons, including its new bullet-proof glass screen sectioning off the visitors benches, we made our way back in to the Central Lobby. We were fortunate enough to have included our group of fellow Churchillite from the New York, Randall Baker. Through a club of his he made the acquaintance of a one Nigel Evans MP. Nigel was good enough to stand in the Central Lobby with us, answering a few questions and introducing us to a few interesting colleagues.

He first introduced us to David Lammy, the Cabinet Minister who heads up the Ministry of Culture. I can see how one would vote for David Lammy to represent their constituency, as he was immediately very engaging and likable. He commented on the fact that in America we have The National Endowment for the Arts and in the UK they have an entire ministry dedicated to culture.

Next Nigel introduced us to a former colleague of the House of Commons, now sitting in the House of Lords. Lord Brookside and Evans had obviously known each other for quite some time and had quite an interesting and humorous repartee. Evans mentioned that Lord Brookside had voted against the measure to ban fox hunting, and Brookside responded, “Yes and my two daughters nearly disowned me over it. They got on their boots and went out to the hunt and lay out in the field to stop the hunts.” He then went on to say that his family and colleagues have taken to calling him “Tally-Ho Brookside.”

The measure passed of course…

The Palace of Westminster

The Palace of Westminster


We had an 8:45 departure this crisp Monday morning from the hotel. First stop The Palace of Westminster or more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament.

I’ve been to London many times before, and there’s much to see but I’ve never been to visit the inside of the Houses of Parliament prior to this trip. Our guides were able to secure a tour for us thanks to the courtesy of The Hon Nicholas Soames MP, grandson of Sir Winston.

Due to all the terrorists and security troubles security these days it is naturally quite tight around the building itself. Barricades and Bobbies everywhere. Everything, however, is quite in the British tradition of being quite highly organized. We’re off the bus and through the security in no time at all thanks to our rather efficient British guide Gerry Clark. The 48 of us were broken up into smaller groups, each with a very professional guide. Our fellow had obviously been doing this for quite some time and even though he was young he had some great stories about some of the origins of the customs and traditions of the parliament.

The Houses of Parliament

The original part of this magnificent building was built in 1097 during the reign of King William II. This Great Hall is now under refurbishment and is used for the lying of state—most recently Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. The Palace itself has over one thousand rooms and in that fine British tradition also nine pubs.

Looking down the across Great Hall from the entrance is a breathtaking sight—a great site indeed. It is a vast open space with something in the order of 14 tons of English Oak making up the roof. One can actually smell the history that has taken place in this great room.

The first room on our journey beyond the entrance, when we arrived, were the apartments of State. This is the room where the monarch will enter, crown themselves, and then be robed by their loyal attendants. They then proceed to the House of Lords to open Parliament each year.

Naturally such a grand room requires ample amounts of gold leaf. So much in fact that one artist spent a countless number years on the project. He carried out his work in such focus and determination that he finally went completely mad and was checked into a lunatic asylum.

After leaving the very grand state apartments, we proceeded, as Queen Elizabeth II has done each year since she succeeded to the throne of Great Britain in 1953, into the House of Lords. There are only 92 hereditary lords in the house these days. There were 724 until Tony Blair’s government succeeded in eliminating the majority of them. In addition to the remaining 92, there are 699 life-peers, two Archbishops, and 24 Bishops that make up the Lords.

A ‘Full English’ on the First Morning in London

A ‘Full English’ on the First Morning in London

Endel Street, London

Time for a ‘Full English’ breakfast

I had an excellent night’s sleep last night after being out at a drinks party at a friend’s flat over in Marylebone until 1:30 AM.

What jet lag?

I’m sitting here at a small sidewalk café just off Covent Garden after having had an excellent little full-English breakfast at The Old Express in this tucked-away little market just off Park Lane in Mayfair; The Shepherds Market. I thought this time of year was supposed to be before the tourist season begins but the streets are packed with shoppers and assorted sightseers. It’s astounding how many languages that one hears while strolling about in the City.

Tonight, the first event of ‘Churchill’s England’ and invited is the patron of The Churchill Centre, Winston and Clementine’s youngest daughter Lady Mary Soames.

Heathrow Express

Heathrow Express

Heathrow Airport

Catching the Heathrow Express to Paddington

I caught the Heathrow Express and if you haven’t ever done this it’s the new train that goes directly to Paddington Station. It gets you from Heathrow to the City in 15 minutes. All the cabbies are of course quite upset about it, but such is progress.

Last year when I was in London I actually got a stern lecture by a cabbie, because the doorman at the hotel asked where we were going and I said, “Heathrow.”

Well, when we got in the cab I said, “Paddington Station, please.” The cabbie said, “I though you were going to Heathrow?” “Yes we are, on the Paddington Express.”

Well ‘ee wasn’t ‘appy.”

Somewhere Above the Pole

Somewhere Above the Pole

Somewhere Above the Pole

Compliments to the Staff

Flight was excellent. We arrived on the flight to Heathrow a few minutes early and I actually had very nice service from two flight attendants, both of them English.

Well, actually from one flight attendant.

The nice one was quite sweet and sincere and the other had been flying with United since the Magna Carta was signed. I gave them both the little appreciation comment cards that United sends out every so often. I gave the card to the first one because she was indeed very sweet and to the second one because I thought she really needed something to cheer her up. She seemed in dire need of it actually. I had a nice meal, several glasses of wine and an sleeping pill.

There was a very delightful lady with whom I shared the row. She is a nurse from West Virginia and living in Honolulu. She and I were both reading but had a very enjoyable conversation over dinner. She was just newly engaged and is traveling to Scotland with a girlfriend for a week touring around with no plans at all—just a list of B&B’s around the country. Sounds refreshingly fun.

I woke up an hour before landing with breakfast of fruit and pastry. I’m sure it’s difficult to bake at 30,000 feet. Seriously, do things rise at this altitude? I’d recommend sticking with the fresh fruit.

We arrived about mid-day as fresh as new.