Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Royal Tunbridge Wells & Chartwell House

As vacations go, this one is soon going to click into high gear. We both slept very well and woke up excited about flying to England in a few hours and starting the cruise on Thursday. Our flight to Gatwick will depart at 9:45 am. There was also the option of going by Virgin train but it takes 4 hours and then we would need to change to another train which adds an additional hour to get to Kent where we will stay tonight. Flying seemed much simpler.

We had breakfast again in the hotel and then took a taxi to the airport. The airport seems in need of some renovation. Once past security they naturally have you walk through all the duty-free shopping but this area is much too narrow for the large number of people there. My mother wanted a coffee so we found the Starbucks and stayed there for a while. Unless you went to a restaurant there weren't a lot of other places to sit. It wasn't clear what gate we would depart from as they are located on opposite ends of the terminal so Starbucks worked just fine.

Close to boarding time we checked the monitor and the gate was posted. We are flying BA again but this time the plane is a newer 737. At the gate we only had to wait a few minutes. As we boarded I was happy to see it was a nice plane with comfy dark blue "pleather" seats. They had a business section too but we were seated in row 6 in Economy. There were lots of business attired people on the flight just like on our flight up.

We again had a person sitting in the middle seat between us. She was probably in her late 20's and had trouble storing her carry on so had to have it gate checked. She was too nice and let other people go ahead of her and by then there was no place for her bag in the overhead.

It is cloudy here today but the weather in South East England is supposed to be warm and sunny. We took off on time and once above the clouds we had a nice view of the countryside.  I read the Financial Times and took occasional glances out the window. When we were about halfway there we had descended enough that I had a great view. I noticed this rather nice country home below.

English House 
About 25 more minutes we landed at Gatwick. I had arranged a pickup from Royal Tunbridge Wells Taxis. This is the same company our hotel recommended. We exited the plane and looked for our driver but didn't see anyone. I decided to walk to the other end of the terminal for International arrivals to see if the driver was there by mistake.

When we got to the other end there were other drivers but not ours. I had no choice but to call the company. They put me on hold and came back and said our driver was parking the car. However, a funny thing happened immediately after I got off the phone when we noticed a guy coming out of the Men's room with a sign with my name on it! He quickly got in line with the other drivers thinking we wouldn't notice.

We didn't bother telling him he was at the wrong area of the airport for the pickup but we did say it was hard finding him. It was a pleasure arriving at Gatwick since it is so much smaller than Heathrow. We walked to the car and the driver opened it for us while he went to get a token to pay for the parking. The car was clean but it was nothing special. It is about 30 minutes from Gatwick to Tunbridge Wells in Kent. We have been to London many times and as it is just one night, we preferred to stay in the country.

Royal Tunbridge Wells
Royal Tunbridge Wells is a lovely small affluent town of 56,000 people 40 miles southeast of London. In its heyday during the 1880's it was a popular spa and tourist resort. The prefix "Royal" dates to 1909, when King Edward VII granted the town its official royal title to celebrate its popularity with the Royal Family including, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Duchess of Kent. There are only two other UK towns with that prefix.

The town is presently a quiet bedroom community of London with high speed train access to St. Pancras. There are several small hotels, various restaurants and boutique shopping to welcome tourists.

We drove through the pretty Kent countryside with tall trees and lush rolling hills. The rainy UK spring did the trick as it was very green! We arrived at the Hotel du Vin at around 11:45 am. The hotel is part of a boutique chain and has rooms on two floors and a popular restaurant. I had prepaid for the taxi online so we gathered our bags and hoped we could check in early.

Hotel du Vin, Tunbridge Wells
The reception area is just off the cozy lobby. With wood furnishings, comfy sofas and plush curtains, the hotel definitely had an upscale quality.

We were easily checked in and escorted to our room. There is a stately wood staircase but we opted for the antique looking elevator due to the luggage. The elevator was tiny and you need to pull the brass screen across before pressing the button.

Elegant Staircase
Once upstairs we walked through a set of glass doors and down a short corridor to our room. We noticed a young couple with a baby exiting from the room next door. Might be a sleepless night! They name the rooms after people. Our is a Superior room called DeGroot. It was south facing and was a nice size. I didn't care for the orange cushions and chair but I guess it went with the rather strange painting over the fireplace!

Superior Twin Room
The painting was downright frightful! I have never seen anything like it in a hotel room, or anywhere else for that matter, before. 

Horrors! I have no idea!

When we went downstairs to inquire about directions to the train station we asked about the painting. The answer was ambiguous as they just short of dodged the question. Later on we noticed other lobster paintings (which were blue, not orange) near the restaurant but there were not as scary. I am glad we are only spending the one night. I can only  imagine what kind of nightmares we may have. 

On the plus side, the black and white bathroom was very nice with modern fixtures. The glass bath/shower door was a nice touch. It looks traditional yet contemporary at the same time. 

Our bathroom
After getting directions from reception to the train station we exited the hotel and headed down Pleasant Street to Crescent Street. We will be taking the train to the town of Sevenoaks to get a taxi to Chartwell House, Winston Churchill's home.

Pleasant Street
The town's buildings are a combination of older heritage style and sharp looking low front shops. The Arcade building is impressive but I was told it is currently empty.

Great Hall Arcade
Part of the walk is up hill and we did some window shopping along the way. The town is very nice and they have some wonderful shopping. It reminds me slightly of Wellesley, MA where I lived for a few years. We took a look inside India Jane, an upscale home goods store. They have several other branches in the UK.

India Jane from the window
India Jane
They had some very nice things and their merchandising was top notch. I liked an ottoman but it was 500 pounds and would obviously require shipping so I will think about it.

Further up we passed a few restaurants, a hair salon, supermarket and more shops until we could see the train station across the road.

Train station with the clock on far left
The train station is very cute and much larger than it appears at you can enter either from the back or front. We purchased our tickets from the machine using a credit card and found the track. The trains come very frequently, about every 20 minutes and it is only 2 stops to Sevenoaks. I researched taking a taxi directly from Tunbridge Wells to Chartwell but the train and a taxi from Sevenoaks would take about the same time and be less expensive.

In just 10 minutes we arrived in Sevenoaks, jumped in a taxi and headed to Chartwell House in Westerham. Chartwell is actually located closer to the Sevenoaks train station than the center of Westerham. The taxi fare was supposed to be about 25 pounds for the 18 minute drive to Winston Churchill's home. However, as we drove through the beautiful countryside we hit a snag when we saw a sign indicating a detour due to road closure. Not only would the trip now take longer as we needed to approach Chartwell from the opposite end, we also weren't going to be saving any money, actually probably costing more.

We circled back and ended up going through Westerham to reach the other road which was near the Kent boundary which we had passed this morning coming from the airport. During the drive we had a nice chat with our driver but I started to doubt his sincerity and if he knew about the road closure. Finally 20+ minutes later we saw the signs for Chartwell and drove up to the visitor center. The driver said the cost was 36 pounds!. This was 12 pounds more than it should be but we didn't argue with him. We were just happy to finally be out of the car and didn't want to waste another minute as it was almost 2:00 pm.

Ticket office
While purchasing the tickets our suspicions were confirmed when we asked about the road closure. The woman selling the tickets responded, "oh they have been working on that for weeks, your taxi driver should have known". She added that the taxi driver probably did know and said she felt badly for us. We were steamed but there was nothing we could do as I didn't write down his license plate number. We were quickly cheered up though when she handed us tickets for the 3:15 pm - 3:30 pm time slot and said that those were the last ones she had for that visit. If we were any later we would have be given tickets for 4:00 pm! She said the tickets have been selling out everyday.

Our Tickets
Since we had an hour to wait I browsed the gift shop and purchased a National Trust guide book on the property and some postcards. They also had a doggie pickup bag that was really cute for free. I use the biodegradable plastic ones but the paper ones are more environmentally friendly. I may order some.

Doggie Pickup Bag
We were told in advance of visiting the house, to enjoy the walk up and see the gardens and Churchill's painting studio. That sounded like a good plan and in some ways it was nice not to be in a rush. We started our walk up through the Rock and Water Gardens.

The plants were very impressive. They take great care of the property and I can see why it is so popular. We are also so lucky with the beautiful weather with sunshine and blue skies.

I have wanted to visit Chartwell for about 10 years but it never worked out. When I decided to stay in Kent the night prior to the cruise, it fit perfectly with our schedule this time. The grounds are huge and there were  lots of people sitting on the lawn enjoying the fine weather and the views.

Chartwell House
Chartwell House was the beloved home of Winston Churchill from 1922 until his death in 1965. Churchill paid 5,000 pounds for the house and its 80 acres. His wife Clementine was not immediately enthralled with the gloomy Victorian building covered in ivy and worried about its drain on their finances. It took her many years to feel happy here.

An architect was hired to modernize and enlarge the original dwelling. Almost every part of Chartwell was changed when the family finally made the move here in 1924.

The setting is spectacular with slopping hills, ponds and beautiful gardens.

View of the garden and rear of the house
Winston Churchill in addition to being a brilliant statesman, orator and writer, was also a very accomplished painter. He took up painting in 1915 as solace following the British defeat at the Battle of Gallipoli.  With the exception of a short break during the Second World War, Churchill painted often and produced over 500 canvases. He used to paint in the house but his wife was displeased with oil paint on the rugs. In 1950 - 1952 a single story extension was built as his painting studio. His easel, original paints and brushes are displayed as if he has just taken a short break.

We visited the painting studio which is bi-level and quite large. It was very crowded as perhaps some of the people were also waiting for their tour to begin. They don't allow any photos inside any of the buildings so I relied on the postcards and guidebook I had purchased.

Postcard of Winston Churchill's Painting Studio
After exiting the studio we visited the beautiful gardens. Clementine Churchill loved roses and they have continued that tradition on the property with various flowering plants in her favorite pastels.

Rose Garden
The gardens including the Grey Walled Garden were beautiful and looked very natural. We could see several gardeners working during our visit. I must certainly require a lot of work.

Grey Walled Garden
We meandered through the garden leading up to the back of the house. The exterior of the house actually looks rather understated.

Chartwell House from the rear
The different levels enhance the beauty and elegance of the setting. The ground are extravagant and it was a treat to enjoy.

While my mother relaxed on one of the benches, I took a walk to the pet graves. This is where two of Churchill's poodles (Rufus I and Rufus II) and his favorite cat Jock are buried.

"Jock" the cat from a postcard
You can easily miss the graves as the stones are flat against the ground and worn away. I actually had to ask one of the gardeners to show me where they were as I kept going past them! Afterward I met up with my mother at the front of the house.

Chartwell from the front
The view of the Weald of Kent is magnificent from here. It is easy to understand why Churchill loved living at Chartwell.

View of the Weald of Kent

Rose Garden
They had a few benches in front of the entrance and we waited there until it was time to queue and enter the house. There are 3 floors to the house with rooms open to the public. We toured rooms on the ground floor, lower ground floor (basement) and the first floor which is more like a second floor.

The rooms are arranged and furnished as they were when the Churchill's lived here in the 1930's. As the Churchill's grew older and less mobile they located Lady Churchill's bedroom on the ground floor but that has now been reversed.

The hour finally passed and it was now 3:15 pm and we could enter the house. It seemed like there were about 20 - 25 people in our time slot. After entering the Hall we were directed to the right and Lady Churchill's Sitting Room which is in the oldest part of the house. Some of Churchill's own paintings are in this room including, "Winter Sunshine, Chartwell". There is also a set of family photographs on the right side of the room. There were a few tables and sofas. We then walked down the hall to enter the more opulent Drawing Room.

The Drawing Room enjoys windows on three sides and is bright and airy. A Georgian card table, Lalique crystal cockerel, handsome fireplace and several striking George II mirrors provides and elegant feel to this room. The most distinguished painting in the room is on the right hand wall. It is a painting of London Bridge by Claude Monet and was a gift from Churchill's literary agent.

Drawing Room
We next visited Churchill's Library. He had a great admiration for English literature and history. The library was used as a reference room with most his major work on speeches and writing taking place in his Study.

In the right hand corner of the room is a bust of President Franklin D Roosevelt.

We then made our way up the rather ordinary looking carpeted staircase to Lady Churchill's Bedroom on the first floor. This room has a fantastic view of the Kent countryside. Clementine took great personal interest in the decor of Chartwell and had final say on the color scheme. In her own bedroom she used cerulean blue (looks paler in person) on the walls and ceiling with red moire silk (looks more orange) for the four poster bed. Clementine also used the room as a personal study where she managed the household accounts and interviewed the staff.

Lady Churchill's Bedroom
With family pictures, an 18th century fireplace, porcelain equestrian figures and a mantel clock the room is a stunning bedroom. The Ante room off to the right used to be a bathroom and dressing room but now displays porcelain and other memorabilia. Robes, metals and important letters are arranged on the walls.

The next rooms we visited were the Museum and Uniform rooms. These original 3 bedrooms were converted to their present museum role in 1966. The display cases hold awards and many interesting uniforms. Two of the notable awards of interest displayed are the Honorary Citizenship of the United States and the Medal and citation for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Apparently the impressive showcases with the uniforms were modeled on the window displays created by Liberty's of London. There is quite a large selection of robes, coats and hats. It was fascinating to see the range of ceremonial and everyday clothing he wore.

Just past these rooms is Churchill's Study. It has exposed ancient roof timbers and a huge Union Flag is hanging from the rafters.

This room is very special and were Churchill wrote many of his speeches and conducted business. It is also where he made a living as a writer. Although the product of the aristocracy, he didn't inherit vast wealth. Churchill supported himself as a journalist, war correspondent and then the author of many respected books. He wrote 43 books including a four volume biography of his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough and his highly respected six volume account of the Second World War.

His bedroom which is just off the Study, is small and private but not open to the public.

We then went down to the ground level to see the Dining Room.

Dining Room

This room is in an east facing extension of the house which was added in the 1920's. The room has the appearance of a summer room or conservatory. I had expected something a bit more grand. However, it is a nice relaxing room with a marvelous view.

Finally we just had the Kitchen and the Exhibition rooms to see to complete our tour. In the kitchen there are no electrical appliances or easy to wipe surfaces. The utensils are made of copper and cast aluminum and the Belfast Sink has solid brass taps.

The exhibition has many photographs, various objects and a genealogy chart showing the Churchill family lineage. There was also a plaque on the door with a crest and Churchill's full name.

We greatly enjoyed tour of Chartwell and learned many things about Winston Churchill that we did not know. We definitely have a fonder appreciation for everything he accomplished. We walked around the front of the house to catch the shuttle bus that whisks people through the gates back to the ticket office and restaurant area. I snapped a photo of the outside of the Drawing room before we left.

Doors to the Drawing Room
The ticket office called us a taxi to take us back to Sevenoaks. While waiting for our taxi I took a look at the gift shop and the plants outside for sale.

The taxi soon arrived and we were on our way for the ride to the train station which did not take long. The work on the roads had stopped for the day so it was a quick 15 minutes to the station. The tickets we had purchased earlier were roundtrip so we checked the track and waited for our train.

Once back in Tunbridge Wells we stopped at Morrison's supermarket to purchase some duct tape. My new 22" spinner suitcase needs some mending. The rubber part has separated from the front part of the bag. It is still attached well enough that it isn't open but my clothing and contents can be seen from the outside.

Morrison's carried a wide variety of items and after asking about the tape, we easily found it on one of the aisles. It was only 1 pound for a roll which seemed cheap. They had self-serve checkout like Home Depot.

Back at the hotel we rested for about an hour until it was time for our dinner reservation at 6:30 pm. The Bistro at the hotel is refined with sconces and stone fireplace but also relaxing with the large windows and casual ambiance.

Bistro Hotel du Vin
The Bistro has two rooms which connect in the middle of about equal size. We were seated on the room to the left further away from kitchen. There were a few other seated tables but we were among the first patrons for the night.

We had eaten at the same Bistro in Cambridge with my cousin and her husband a few years ago in their Cambridge location. The menu was very similar here.

We began with wine of course and then the Mushroom and the Pate starters. These were just "okay" and somewhat disappointing. It seemed like toast was a great gastronomical feat with both of our plates sporting a single piece like it was extra special.

Mushrooms on a piece of toast

Pate with one piece of toast

Although the first courses were not that pleasing we were entertained by the young couple sitting diagonal to us. The woman was blond and in her early 20's. She could not stop playing with her hair. First it was down, then a ponytail, then plopped on top of her head! They must have been staying in the hotel too because at one point she left and came back in a different sleeveless top.

The other table near us was a bunch of business colleagues who worked in the fashion industry. There were 4 men and 3 women. One of the men was quite boisterous and must of loved the sound of his own voice as he would not shut up and let anyone else speak! They were all dressed smartly and seemed to be having a great time with lots of laughter.

We enjoyed the delicious bread and butter until our main courses arrived.

The main courses were better but not as good as our meal at the Bistro in Cambridge. My mother had the fish with potatoes. She is not a huge fan of potatoes so this dish was about a 6 on a scale of 10.

My main was the Steak Hache which I happily devoured in Cambridge.

Steak Hache
This time the steak was in pieces and tasted more like Mutton than steak. I tried my best to convince myself it was my imagination that it wasn't great but only ate about half of it. The chutney was very good.

At least we were eating in the hotel and could just go upstairs when we were done and not need to take a taxi anywhere tonight.

We both ordered dessert which turned out to be the highlight of the meal. My mother had the Baked Apple and I had the Banana Chocolate Brownie which sounds even more decadent the way the British pronounce "Ba-naa-naa".

Baked Apple

Banana Chocolate Brownie
With the desserts a success we exited the Bistro and went upstairs to watch a little TV and use the Internet. The beds seemed a little low and soft. I was hoping for a descent night sleep.

The Bistro

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