February 14, 2009

Robin Fedden, the former Deputy Director-General of the National Trust, was the author of Churchill at Chartwell (Oxford, Pergamon: 1969), the definitive account of Winston Churchill’s acquisition, transformation and occupation of the house and garden he so dearly loved. One sentence in Mr Fedden’s book has always struck me as rather singular. He begins his chapter entitled “The Garden” with the words: “The charm of the garden relates to its simplicity.”

Certainly the garden is charming – one of the most charming I know – but to describe that wonderfully sophisticated and expensively contrived panorama of earthworks, waterworks, rockeries, brickwork, trees, shrubberies, pastures, formal terraces, lawns, beds and borders as “simple” has always struck me as being something of a terminological inexactitude or, at least, a greatly restrained understatement. Speaking in Commons, on 27 July 1950, Churchill said, “It is always, I think, true to say that one of the main foundations of the British sense of humour is understatement,” so perhaps Mr. Fedden was having his little joke. Fortunately, the rest of his chapter accurately describes one of the greatest glories of Chartwell.

Mary Soames wrote in Clementine Churchill (Cassell: 1979), that soon after the end of the war the garden at Chartwell, which during the 1920s and 1930s had been an earthly paradise to Winston but had afforded Clementine only worry and fatigue, became an increasing source of pleasure and satisfaction to her mother. Although in the past Clementine had often tried to dissuade Winston from undertaking large-scale works, now the boot was on the other foot as she conceived and carried out several major improvements whilst Winston made the demurring noises.

She had always found the gardens too spread out and exhausting, and among her major improvements were the removal of the old dilapidated greenhouses and potting sheds to provide a wide sunny terrace and the conversion of the tennis court to a croquet lawn. The Golden Rose Garden was created in 1958 as a Golden Wedding present to their parents from the Churchill children. Clementine became immensely proud of “her” garden and loved to preside over the several charity open days held each summer for various good causes.

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To Robin Fedden’s 30-year-old and Lady Soames’s 20-year-old accounts of the Chartwell garden we can now add a relevant hands-on perspective:

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