Winston Churchill tour, London, England: The man behind Britain’s great wartime leader

Born into grandeur: Blenheim Palace was Churchill’s childhood home. The library at Chartwell, the home of Churchill from 1924. Photo: NTPL

Born into grandeur: Blenheim Palace was Churchill’s childhood home.

Born into grandeur: Blenheim Palace was Churchill’s childhood home.

The library at Chartwell, the home of Churchill from 1924. Photo: NTPL

Born into grandeur: Blenheim Palace was Churchill’s childhood home.

The library at Chartwell, the home of Churchill from 1924. Photo: NTPL

The library at Chartwell, the home of Churchill from 1924. Photo: NTPL

The black-and-white photo of the lithe young boy in a somewhat ridiculous nautical outfit requires context. It’d be nigh-on impossible to guess who it was otherwise. The near-universal mental image of the older Winston Churchill – the hunched, pugnacious bulldog with a cigar in his mouth – is so ingrained that any deviation from it elicits a double take. But Churchill – who died 50 years ago on January 25th, 1965 – wasn’t quite the man of the people he’s frequently portrayed as. The striking childhood photo is collected alongside many of his letters and other possessions from his early life inside Blenheim Palace.

This was where Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born, surrounded by grandeur in the Oxfordshire countryside. His father was Lord Randolph Churchill, an MP who would later become chancellor of the exchequer, and his grandfather was the seventh Duke of Marlborough.

The palace now houses an exhibition on Churchill as an hors d’ouevre for the lavish decorative splendour of the state rooms. But it quickly becomes clear that this was the closest thing the young Winston had to a home.

That the picture of his early life is painted through letters to his parents is telling. He didn’t see all that much of them as they lived a somewhat peripatetic existence. He would spend much of the year at boarding school, then return to Blenheim for the bulk of the holidays.

One letter, from an eight-year-old Winston, describes to his “dearest mama” how much nicer the park at Blenheim is than Hyde Park or Green Park in London. He tells of making pretend camps with an umbrella and riding his pony  around the grounds.

Another to “dearest papa” tells of him seeing a snake and being forbidden from killing it by Nanny Everest – a woman who seemed to play a bigger part in raising him than his parents did.

Churchill was hardly a star pupil at establishment favourite school Harrow – though nor was he as hopeless as he later pretended – and it took him three attempts to pass exams to get into Sandhurst military college. Letters from there show off Churchill’s energetic tirelessness and competitive streak. Always ending with “I remain your ever-loving son”, they tell of working hard to become fencing champion and going out to fell trees.

It would be his writing that got him noticed, though. He used family influence to ensure he was repeatedly sent to where the action was, and then did substantial moonlighting as a war correspondent for the British newspapers. Within five years he ended up in Cuba, Afghanistan, India, Sudan and South Africa. He was captured during the Boer War, and his escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in Pretoria made him a national celebrity.

If Blenheim Palace is the best place to get to know the young Winston, then the Churchill War Rooms in central London give the best insight into Churchill the politician. This stuffy network of rooms and tunnels under the Treasury building in Whitehall was where much of Britain’s World War II was directed from.

The maps, beds and desks are left as they were when the war ended and the biggest surprise is how low-tech and functional the whole set-up was. It’s typified by Room 63, which has a “Keep locked” sign on it. Almost everyone working there assumed it was the only flushing toilet in the complex, reserved for Churchill’s private use. But it actually housed the trans-Atlantic hotline phone that allowed Churchill to talk to United States president Franklin D Roosevelt in secrecy.

Life in the bunker is cleverly portrayed through quotes from those working there. One of Churchill’s personal secretaries, Elizabeth Layton, tells of how she’d often receive sharp reprimands for the tiniest of errors. But she still felt privileged to work for him – even though he’d expect staff to keep up with his own exhausting 8am-to-3am workdays.

General Sir Alan Brooke sums it up best, saying: “It was in every way an excellent battle headquarters, with only one fault, namely its proximity to Winston.”

It’s fair to say he drove his war cabinet and military commanders barmy, with frequent enthusiasms for seemingly unworkable plans and a tendency to selective deafness. Interestingly, though, he never once overruled them.

Churchill stayed overnight in the War Rooms only three times – he preferred to risk it out in the real world and would occasionally stand on a rooftop watching bombs fall. He was an irascible, eccentric personality, and not one easily wrangled.

This comes through in the sections exploring Churchill’s career in politics before and after the war. He was an MP for 40 years before coming prime minister. He crossed the floor twice, moving from the Conservative to the Liberal party, then back again. He was behind the first National Insurance unemployment pension legislation and the introduction of the minimum wage. He was First Lord of the Admiralty during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, and resigned soon afterwards to join the troops in the trenches. He later spent 10 years in the political wilderness, being regarded as a cranky loose cannon with an overzealous penchant for warning about Hitler. That, of course, would see him become the embodiment of the war spirit and only logical choice as wartime PM in 1940.

The  most moving exhibit is the video footage of his state funeral. About 300,000 people filed past his coffin, and 400 million around the world watched it on TV. Typically, he had planned many of the arrangements himself under the codename “Operation Hope Not”.

Great statesman he may have been, but his personality was what endeared Churchill to the world. And that’s best explored at his home, Chartwell in Kent.

Through the landscaped gardens that Churchill rolled his sleeves up to help create, past the ponds of goldfish that regularly entranced him as he sat on a little chair at the edge, is a stout red-brick house, very different from the grandeur of Blenheim Palace. The visitors book is signed by the likes of Harry Truman, Charlie Chapman and Lawrence of Arabia, but they would get homeliness rather than high society. Family photographs were scattered throughout, beloved pets got their own graves, there’s a stuffed toy panda in his study and the furnishing skirts close to chintzy.

The library has bookshelves clambering up every wall.  He may have been born into the aristocracy and have held key positions of state, but Churchill became wealthy only through his pen. He compiled multi-volume works on topics ranging from the world wars to the first Duke of Marlborough, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature on the back of it.

The house is also full of paintings – many of which are Churchill’s own handiwork.

The studio where he painted is across the lawn from the main house, and many of the 500-plus paintings he produced  are there. The favoured topics are revealing. They’re not of high-office trappings, world leaders or globally renowned friends, but the black swans of Chartwell’s lake and his beloved goldfish. The international colossus was never happier than when lost in the trivialities of home. Five more stops on a Churchill itinerary

1 Churchill may not have been the most diligent student but his former school, Harrow, is one of the most prestigious in Britain.  It’s open for public tours a few times a year. See harrowschoolenterprises杭州龙凤419m.

2 Tours of Sandhurst  are available for groups of 10 or more. It’s still where most of Britain’s military top brass start out – and the same applies to many Middle Eastern leaders. See sandhursttrust杭州龙凤419.

3 Nicknamed “the parish church of the House of Commons”, St Margaret’s Church in Westminster was where Churchill married Clementine Hozier in 1908. It’s not as impressive as neighbouring Westminster Abbey, but the 16th-century stained-glass windows are among the decorative trinkets worth popping in for. See westminster-abbey杭州龙凤419/st-margarets-church.

4 To find Churchill’s grave, head a few miles south-east of Blenheim Palace to the parish church of St Martin in Bladon, Oxfordshire. The relatively circumspect  tomb is also the final resting place of his wife, who died 12 years later.

5 The Hyatt Regency in London has a Churchill Bar, with a specially commissioned bronze of the former PM, a humidor selling his favoured cigars and a food menu tailored to cover most of his favourite dishes. See london.churchill.hyatt杭州龙凤 TRIP NOTESMORE INFORMATION

visitbritain杭州龙凤419m.auGETTING THERE

Major airlines offering one-stop flights to London from Sydney and Melbourne include Cathay Pacific, Etihad and Emirates. See cathaypacific杭州龙凤419m; etihad杭州龙凤419m; emirates杭州龙凤419m. STAYING THERE

As the name suggests, the Hilton London Paddington is handily located outside London’s Paddington Station. Doubles cost from £194 a night. See hilton杭州龙凤419m. SEE & DO

The Churchill War Rooms (iwm杭州龙凤, £17.50) is in Central London. Chartwell (nationaltrust杭州龙凤, £12.50) is to the south in Westerham, Kent. You ideally need a hire car to get there. Alternatively, take the train from Charing Cross to Sevenoaks, which takes 33 minutes and costs £22.60 return. Beeline Taxis (00 44 1732 456 214, sevenoakstaxis杭州龙凤419m) will run you to Chartwell and back, with return prices around the £40 mark.

For Blenheim Palace (blenheimpalace杭州龙凤419m, £22.50), again a hire car is most useful. Otherwise, take a train to Oxford from Paddington Station (58 minutes, £24.20 day return) and then the half-hourly S3 bus from outside Oxford train station to the palace gates. It takes 42 minutes and costs £5.90 return.

The writer was a guest of Visit Britain.