Nicole Day is Senior House Steward at Chartwell, the former home of Winston Churchill. Here, she explains what working at the iconic National Trust property involves…
Have you worked at any similar properties in the past?
I have not; unusually I started at Chartwell with the café team and then started as a volunteer in the house and have never left. It is a wonderful place and you can guarantee no two days will be the same, and that you will meet and work with some wonderful people.
How have you been preparing for the season ahead?
We close the doors of the show rooms at Chartwell each November and spend the next four months getting ready for the new season; this really is a very important time of year for us. Through this period we can give each and every object and feature attention, cleaning, condition checking and where needed, getting specialist conservators in to make sure it is all safe and looking beautiful when we reopen for the new season each March.
What tasks will you be undertaking around the house this May?
By the end of May the south side of the house here will be looking a little different. Since mid-April a scaffold has been up to facilitate vital works to the windows to help keep the building water tight. Water ingress can cause us great problems not just to the fabric of the building but also to the collections inside. The south side of the building sadly has little protection from the elements and even the Churchill family suffered with issues with water ingress at one point having to move the children out of the nursery wing because of it.
Throughout the works the house will remain open to visitors and by November we should again have watertight windows and be ready for the winter months ahead.
What is your approach to the property, in terms of both preserving its heritage and moving forward?
Looking after a historic site like Chartwell is a constant balancing act. Within the house we employ preventive conservation, which uses good old fashioned housekeeping methods with scientific knowledge and monitoring to maintain the condition of the house and its collection. This allows us to keep the house open and its collection safe to be able to share the fantastic stories of Sir Winston and his family living here, and keep a personal connection with one of our country’s greatest politicians. We are constantly looking for new ways for our visitors to share his much loved home and hopefully feel the same as he did that ‘a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted’.
Which original features still remain in the property?
Chartwell is displayed as the Churchill’s family home, and as such is filled with their possessions and is set out to Lady Churchill’s specifications. Sir Winston made many alterations to the house in the 1920s and whilst the building dates back to the Tudor period most of what you see today is the design of Sir Phillip Tilden, Sir Winston’s architect. Chartwell came to the National Trust in the 1940s which meant the family knew their home was to be displayed to the public in the future. Both Sir Winston and Lady Churchill had strong ideas as to how their home would be displayed, which we honour to this day down to the small details like there being a ‘marmalade cat in comfortable residence’ and that white flowers be displayed in Lady Churchill’s bedroom.
What is the biggest challenge at Chartwell?
Probably our popularity – Sir Winston is an internationally recognised figure and as such we welcome very large numbers of visitors to this relatively small family home. Trying to ensure the preservation of the house and garden and still be able to share its treasures is a tricky balance.
What’s your favourite area or element of the property?
Despite being a member of the house team I would say Chartwell’s very best feature is its setting, with the magnificent views over the Weald of Kent. It is constantly changing with the seasons and offers something new each time you look out to the South Downs, and is the main reason Sir Winston chose Chartwell to be his home.
Is there anything in particular that visitors should look out for this season?
Painting was a major part of Sir Winston’s life despite not discovering his passion for it until he was 41. Sir Winston’s Studio is open to the public February to December and houses 136 of Sir Winston’s works. This more private side of Churchill still comes as a surprise to a lot of our visitors and is well worth the walk through the gardens to see his capturing of many ‘paintatious’ scenes.
What is the most commonly asked question from visitors?
One question we are asked a lot is “did Sir Winston live here during the war?” Chartwell was largely closed down over the war years – it was seen as being too well known a location and to be too visible and so despite precautions being taken of camouflaging the lake Sir Winston did not stay at Chartwell. His country home stayed close to his heart however and he managed to visit. The kitchen garden also kept Downing Street supplied with fresh fruit and vegetables.
How can visitors recreate something of the Chartwell feel in their own homes?
Chartwell is a very homey house and is full of little touches that help make it feel loved. Fresh flowers are present in many rooms, family pictures framed simply in Passe-partout frames and the simple elegant styles Lady Churchill enjoyed are seen all around the house. The beautiful dining room with its custom made oak furniture and green and white colour scheme is very striking and is the room that gets the most ‘wows’.
What’s the most popular time for visitors at Chartwell?
The summer months are always very busy here at Chartwell but the autumn is really very beautiful with the changing colours in the surrounding woodland, a scene Sir Winston captured in some of his paintings.