diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 15, 2016

The town of Westerham hits well above its weight in national heroes. Winston Churchill moved into Chartwell House in 1922, and shared the rest of his life between 10 Downing Street and his Kentish abode. But the town boasts one home-grown hero, once considered of equal stature, whose actions shaped the North American continent. James Wolfe was born at the Old Vicarage in 1727, and died 32 years later at the Battle of Quebec, his posthumous victory the stuff of legend in many a schoolboy textbook. Both Winston and James have statues around Westerham Green, and both of their houses are owned by the National Trust. I'd been to the former's, so I decided it was time to visit the latter's, courtesy of the 246 bus from Bromley.

The Wolfe family lived in a house called Spiers, since renamed Quebec House, at the eastern end of the town on the banks of the River Darent. Tudor in origin, it was extended to create a townhouse more suitable to Georgian gentry, three storeys tall with brick-chimneyed gables. Normally the National Trust welcome their visitors via the Coach House, but that's in serious danger of subsiding into the river so is currently closed for refurbishment, and entrance is instead via the Wolfes' front door. Arrive after one o'clock and you have the run of the building and can explore each room at your leisure. But arrive earlier in the afternoon and the only option is a guided tour, which I have to say proved an excellent way to focus on the house and its story without people forever wandering by.

The house was saved for the nation, twice, with the intention of creating a repository for all things Wolfe. Canadians in particular have been very keen to retain a tangible link to James's childhood, before he upped sticks and took a commission in the army aged just 14. Thus the tale of his greatest campaign is told in some depth, one I'd not heard since I was at school, leading a British invasion force up the St Lawrence river and attempting to vanquish the city of Quebec before the mouth iced up again in autumn. A three month siege culminated when James sneaked his army and two cannons up an unexpected cliff overnight, and some disciplined tactics in the ensuing battle saw the French army defeated. Both commanders were shot in the fracas, but the death of this young martyr inspired decades of patriotic fervour back in Britain.

One famous painting depicting Wolfe's death proved particularly inspirational, and the house's collection includes dozens of copies, from oils to engravings and from ceramics to tapestry. Also here are Wolfe's dressing gown, or at least the 18th century equivalent, and the box his sweetheart gave him before he sailed, and his canteen (a combined desk and trunk with compartments for papers and cutlery). Some of the treasures come via childhood friend George who lived at Squerryes Court, the manor house at the other end of town, now a rather more upmarket attraction. And the rest of the family get a look in too - James's father also being a veteran soldier, while his mother's handwritten recipe book has survived, and volunteers bake stuff from it in her kitchen every Sunday.

The most impressive room is probably the first floor drawing room, with games table, tea service and small piano as examples of typically genteel entertainments. The wood panelled staircase is also quite something, including a brass rubbing from Wolfe's burial vault in St Alfege's, Greenwich (which is where his parents had moved to after Westerham). I spent an hour in the house, then stepped outside to enjoy the immaculate garden. If you like an NT cuppa be aware that the cafe is normally in the coach house so is closed, but there decent alternatives in the town centre up the road. Just avoid Mondays and Tuesdays because then the entire house is closed (and this year it's weekends only until the start of August).

Westerham is really nice, by the way. A historic linear town at the foot of the North Downs, its meandering high street is lined by a variety of characterful inns, shops and cottages. I turned up on the day of the Fair On The Green, a triangular fete organised by the local Rotary club, and typical of many an amateur celebration across the country. Tombolas and plant stalls intermingled with hook-a-duck and home baked cakes, while on the central stage (if you can call it that) the Sea Scouts paraded very slowly up and down. I resisted the burgers cooked by a scout troop beneath James Wolfe's statue, instead soaking up the surreal sight of Punch and Judy taking place alongside the frowning bronze form of Winston Churchill.

And then I went for a hike. An excellent information board on Westerham Green hinted at a four mile
Chartwell Walk, strongly recommended by the local ramblers' association, so I looked up the instructions on my phone and followed that. The local ramblers' association weren't wrong. The route headed off upriver, then up into deserted woods past an ivy-clad folly, across quiet lanes and down into the car park at Chartwell. I'm a National Trust member so I popped in briefly to enjoy Winston's house and garden, and his splendid views down across the Weald [8 photos]. And then back to Westerham via a different but equally deserted woodland route, concluding with an unexpectedly exhilarating panorama across the rooftops towards the North Downs. You can get the 246 all the way to Chartwell on a Sunday, but I really enjoyed my solo stroll, no more than an hour each way.

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