Finest Hour 121, Winter 2003-04
By TERRY REARDON
Winston Churchill first visited the island of Madeira on 17 October 1899. He was sailing on the Dunottar Castle to South Africa as a newspaper correspondent covering the Boer War. Also on board was the Army Commander-in-Chief, Sir Redvers Buller. Churchill writes in My Early Life that there was no wireless in those days and for the duration of the voyage they “dropped completely out of the world.” While in Madeira he wrote to his Mother, “We have had a nasty rough voyage and I have been grievously sick.” (See also page 17.)
He was not to visit the island for another fifty years; in the intervening years, however, he enjoyed the fruits of Madeira vines and once commented when drinking a vintage from the late 1700s, “My God, do you realize this Madeira was made when Marie Antoinette was still alive?”
In A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Churchill refers to the death of the Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV, who, according to legend and William Shakespeare in his Richard III, was drowned in a butt of Malmsey, a sweet Madeira wine. Churchill states, “Why should it not be true? At any rate no one has attempted to prove any different tale.”
In November 1949, Churchill telegraphed Bryce Nairn, the British consul in Madeira, and enquired about “warm, paintable, bathable, comfortable, flowery, hotels etc. We are revolving plans. Keep all secret.” His intention was to spend a few weeks there to recoup; to work on The Hinge of Fate, fourth volume of his war memoirs; and, of course, to paint. He was in Madeira for the New Year of 1950 accompanied by Clementine, his daughter Diana, his literary assistant Bill Deakin, secretaries Jill Sturdee and Elizabeth Gilliatt, and two Special Branch detectives. But his vacation was cut short by Prime Minister Attlee’s announcement of a General Election to be held on February 23rd. He departed for London on January 12th, although Clementine stayed on in Madeira—he telegraphed her on the 16th, “Hope all has been pleasant, here nothing but toil and moil.”
Madeira offers many historic sites to the determined Churchillian…
• The Madeira Wine Lodge: Located in the capital of Funchal, in a 17th Century Franciscan Monastery. Home to the largest Madeira producer, The Madeira Wine Company (Blandy’s, Leacock’s, Miles etc.). In the wine museum are letters from wellknown people, including three from Churchill, expressing thanks for gifts of wine.
• Reid’s Hotel: Owned by the Blandy wine family and located in Funchal, Reid’s is recognized as one of the great hotels of the world. As we would expect from someone “easily satisfied with the best,” this was the Hotel Churchill chose for his painting holiday in 1950. A committed Churchillian would want to stay in the Churchill Suite, although there is one little drawback: the price is 1,700 euros ($2,000/£1200) per night, not including breakfast. Ornately beautiful, its bathrooms in rose-pink marble, Reid’s is truly a beautiful retreat.
• Camara de Lobos is is a small coastal town where Churchill painted. Practicing good marketing, the owners affixed a plaque on the wall of the “Churchill Restaurante,” which shows exactly where he worked. Plans are said to be underway to build a hotel, but the name has not been chosen. This writer will chance a guess at the eventual title: “The Churchill Hotel”!
• Cabo Girao: At 580 meters, this is the highest sea cliff in Europe. A small photographic museum is located at the site and the largest photograph is one of Churchill painting at Camara de Lobos, Detective Sergreant Eddie Murray adjusting his umbrella.
Madeira is a favorite holiday spot for Europeans but not for North Americans. This is a good time for the people of the New World to rediscover this idyllic spot in the Old.
Mr. Reardon is a Toronto member of the International Churchill Society of Canada.