Westerham, England – A Tale of Two Heroes

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Domesday Page
Domesday Page showing Westerham or Oisterham

At a time when the current US Administration is massaging its job creation statistics by including the temporary hire of many census workers, one can be confident that it was not handled like that in 1086.  William the Conqueror completed in that year the great survey of England, known as The Domesday Book, setting out what was owned by whom and what taxes were owed on such property.  The Domesday Book included the small town of Westerham, which is located on the border between the English counties of Kent and Surrey and which was settled long before the Norman Conquest. Pat and I visited this picturesque little town (population only 5,000) in June 2010. It is remarkable that such a small community should contain the homes of two Englishmen who, two centuries apart, both made a huge impact on history.  They are today honored by statues on the Westerham village green.

Chartwell as seen from back garden
Chartwell as seen from back garden

The first house that we visited was Chartwell, home of Sir Winston Churchill from 1922 until his death in 1965.  Of course, during the years that he was serving as Prime Minister, he lived 25 miles away in London at 10 Downing Street rather than at Chartwell.

Churchills goldfish pond
Churchills goldfish pond

I was pleased to observe that the Chartwell fish pond was still full of goldfish and I saw, by the side of the fishpond, the chair in which Churchill would relax while watching and feeding the goldfish.  Churchill loved goldfish.  It is said that he confessed this to Stalin during one of their meetings during the Second World War, to which Stalin is said to have responded “Would you like some for breakfast, Mr Churchill?”   The other living creatures that I noticed on our visit to Chartwell were the black swans, which come from Australia.  Chartwell is built on a hillside from which it enjoys sweeping views across the Weald of Kent which is an area, once forested, lying between the chalk escarpments forming the North and South Downs. The word “weald” derives from the German “wald” meaning “forest”.  Chartwell is now owned by The National Trust.  The house displays furniture, books, pictures, and other Churchillian memorabilia reflecting how the family lived in the 1920s and 1930s.  The extensive gardens are at present magnificently cared for.

Churchill building his brick wall in the garden
Churchill building his brick wall in the garden

The house itself was once a rather gloomy Victorian country mansion, but was redesigned and extended by Churchill himself to create the lovely home that we see today. Churchill was an accomplished bricklayer and even built some of the garden walls with his own hands during the years that he was in the political wilderness.  Pat and I visited the house a few weeks too early, because the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain is to be celebrated at Chartwell in September 2010.  The Central Band of the Royal Air Force will play at a concert in the gardens while, in the skies above, “dogfights” between Spitfires and Messerschmitt will re-enact the events of 1940.  I am sorry to be missing this, since my memory of the real thing is somewhat hazy.

Quebec House in Westerham
Quebec House in Westerham

The second house that we saw in Westerham was Quebec House. Churchill was loaded with honors during his lifetime and had time to savor his achievements, before he died of natural causes at the age of 90. On the other hand, Quebec House was the home of Major General James Wolfe who was killed in battle at the age of only 32.

Maj General James Wolfe
Maj General James Wolfe

Yet Wolfe’s place in history must also rank highly. He was born in Westerham in 1727 and was baptized there at St Mary’s Church.  The actual font in which he was baptized in on display in that church, together with a memorial window dedicated to him.  After a successful Army career, he was given the command of a British expedition to drive the French out of Canada by capturing the city of Quebec. The British were opposed by the strong French force defending Quebec, but Wolfe sailed up the St. Lawrence River and laid siege to the city for many weeks. His problem was that he could not entice the French to fight and, with the approach of winter, his fleet was at risk of being trapped by ice.  By the middle of September 1759, time was running out for the British.  Wolfe therefore led his forces to the west of the city, where they climbed the cliffs known as the Heights of Abraham, surprising the French who thought an attack from that direction was impossible.  The British won the ensuing Battle of Quebec and, within a year, the French Army had withdrawn from Canada forever. Wolfe died of the wounds that he suffered during the battle.  A direct consequence of these events is that Elizabeth II is Queen of Canada to this day.  Last year, many Canadians visited Westerham to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Quebec.

Quebec House is very modest compared with Chartwell.  It was Wolfe’s home during his childhood. He was very young when he joined the British Army and most of his adult life was spent serving abroad.  Nevertheless Quebec House is an attractive 17th century gabled house which, like Chartwell, is now owned by The National Trust and which displays many prints and pictures from Wolfe’s career, together with detailed information on the Battle of Quebec.  The night before Wolfe left Westerham for the last time to sail to Canada, he stayed at The George and Dragon.  This is a 16th century coaching inn in the center of Westerham, which Pat and I much enjoyed visiting.  So there it is.  Westerham, a little town, hardly big enough for the home of one national hero, finds itself with two.

Maj Gen James Wolfe's statue in Westerham
Maj Gen James Wolfe's statue in Westerham
Churchills statue in Westerham
Churchills statue in Westerham