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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Churchill's Chartwell

Chartwell, Churchill, Britain, Kent
Chartwell from the south, viewed through the orchard
Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was one of the greatest Englishmen that ever lived, and a brilliant man.  Now, before anyone gets all excited about the fact that he was an imperialist, capitalist, aristocrat, self-publicist, sometimes reckless adventurer, glutton and all the other dreadful and unfashionable characteristics he may or may not have had, I’m sure he probably had a few faults.  I expect you have some too.  But if you’re British, you owe Churchill big time.  And Chartwell was his home for 40 years.

There are some places where you get a sense of the people that lived there.  And there are places where history was made.  Chartwell is a bit of both.  The house itself is mainly Victorian, though built round a 16th century estate where Henry VIII is said to have stayed whilst courting the saucy-eyed Anne Boleyn just down the road at Hever Castle.  Churchill drove his children to it in 1922, to ask what they thought of it.  They urged him to buy it; he already had, without telling Clementine, the long-suffering Mrs Churchill.

Chartwell, garden, Churchill, Kent, Britain
Yes, it's part of the garden
Chartwell, named for the Chart Well that feeds the lake below, would prove to be a challenge to the family’s often shaky finances.  But Churchill loved it – he had partly fallen in love with the views over the Weald of Kent, which have to be amongst the loveliest in England.  Initially, the property required a considerable amount of work.  The house and gardens you see now are a product of Churchill’s dreams and personal input over the years.  It is, unashamedly, a family home, yet also stuffed full of fascinating memorabilia alongside the personal items.  The study, where Churchill worked on the nation’s budgets, his writings – and, presumably, his speeches – is an amazing room.  The drawing room is elegant and the dining room is set ready for a meal.  Heaven knows how many famous behinds dined there. There’s an exhibition on the man, and loads of his paintings if you like that sort of thing. 

The house was bought by friends of the Churchill’s in 1946 and presented to the National Trust on condition that the Churchills could continue living there.  Clementine gave it up after Winston died in 1965, but continued to visit right up to her own death in 1977.

It’s not really a place to take small children who get easily bored.  But the main drawback is that it can get extremely busy.  The National Trust very sensibly limits the number of people in the house at any time, so entrance is by timed ticket.  But, weather permitting, you can easily lose yourself for several hours just wandering around the gardens and grounds.

Chartwell is on the B2026, south of the A25 at Westerham, Kent.  Nearest railway station is Edenbridge.  Visit Chartwell's website for more information. There's also more about Churchill and his times in the modern history posts on this site, such as Britain at War 1939-45.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Brixworth - All Saints' Church

All Saints' Brixworth Saxon Church Northampton Britain
All Saints' Brixworth
You don’t see Saxon churches too often these days.  They stopped making them sometime ago; so when you get the chance to see one, take it.

There’s been a church at Brixworth since about 680 – more than 1,330 years.  The present church, built as part of a long-since vanished monastery, replaced an earlier wooden one and dates from between 750-850.  Goodness me, it was old enough when the Normans came.  It tickles me to think that, at the time it was built, Brixworth was in the ancient Saxon Kingdom of Mercia – England and the United Kingdom did not exist.

The 11th century round stair turret, sticking out from and so obviously in different style to the 15th century spire that it’s attached to, looks like it belongs somewhere else.  You go in through a wonderful Norman doorway built within a Saxon arch and then you can see more Saxon arches in the nave – made from Roman bricks allegedly pinched from a nearby villa (so they’d be getting on for 2,000 years’ old then?).  There’s a rather splendid early 15th century ‘triumphal arch’, an impressive roof and... well, you’ll see it all when you go.

All Saints' Brixworth Saxon Northampton
The interior is light
I was lucky enough to chat for a while to the vicar, a lovely guy who was just about to retire after 30 years at the church.  It was a privilege to converse with this gentle, courteous, man   Somehow, it added to the peace and timelessness of the place.  You get a sense of the generations that have worshipped there.  Despite it being late January, the Christmas tree and nativity scenes were still on display – something to do with a recent Church of England guideline, apparently, though the vicar also explained with a chuckle that the tree saved having to buy flowers.  He showed me the medieval painted screen, restored and moved from the nave as a memorial after the First World War.  When this was done, large chunks were cut off to make it fit; but at least they preserved what was left.  He didn’t mention that, once upon a time, the church used to keep St Boniface’s larynx bone.

Anyway – pop in when you’re in the area; it’s worth it.  Brixworth itself is a large village in Northamptonshire, with some very attractive buildings and a couple of nice looking pubs, about 6 miles north of Northampton on the A508.
All Saints' Brixworth Saxon church Northampton
Medieval painted screen

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor, Isle of Avalon, Arthur, visit Somerset.

1191AD. The Abbot’s dark robes stirred in the wind that blew across the marshes.  Oblivious to the drizzle that soaked him, he stared down in wonder at the two skeletons in the sarcophagus the monks had unearthed, and at the inscribed lead cross beside them.  “Hic iacet inclitus rex Arturius in insula Avallonis sepultus”, he read – ‘Here lies the famous King Arthur, in the isle of Avalon buried.’  The bones of one skeleton were tall and strong; the other, slightly smaller, had a tress of fair hair clinging to the skull.  These, then, were the remains of the legendary Arthur and Guinevere, his queen.  The Abbot sighed; King Henry would be pleased at the news.

The above almost certainly never happened.  If it did, any proof of it has long gone.  In all probability, it was a politically motivated medieval hoax.  Yet legend surrounds Glastonbury and its mysterious tor; where does fact end and fiction begin?  The Tor, a natural feature rising some 500’ above the Somerset Levels, has been a sacred site since before the Romans came.  It is Ynys Wydryn, which some translate as 'the Isle of Glass'.  It is the home of Gwyn ap Nudd, King of the Fairies and Lord of the Otherworld.  It lies on Ynys yr Afalon, the Isle of Avalon.  It was Merlin’s stronghold.  Some say it contains an ancient maze.  At its base, under the Chalice Well, Joseph of Arimithea is said to have buried the Holy Grail. 

Glastonbury, Tor, Somerset, mysterious Britain, King Arthur

One thing’s for sure; Glastonbury Tor is impossible to miss.  It stands proud in the landscape, can be seen for miles and the views from the top are worth a bit of lung-heaving to get there.  There is certainly evidence of occupation since ancient times.  The iconic tower on its pinnacle is all that remains of a church, St Michael’s, which replaced an earlier church destroyed by earthquake in 1272.  It possibly stands on the site of a Dark Age fort.  And, one undisputed fact, Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, was hung, drawn and quartered here in 1539.

Of course, it’s difficult to feel the atmosphere with all those people up there trying to enjoy it as much as you are, and getting in the way of your photographs.  So either imagine them in ancient peasant clothing, or go early or late in the day.

St Michaels, Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, viewpoint

I couldn’t find any parking near to the Tor – park in Glastonbury.  From Chilkwell Street (the A361 to Pilton), turn left up Dod Lane and follow the footpath, or continue until just past the Chalice Well and follow the signs from there.  The latter is a concrete path, easier in wet weather and possibly less steep; or you can do a circular walk.

Visit Glastonbury Tor's website for more information.