Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
In our household, I’m known as the one with ‘bright ideas.’
Maybe I should clarify. ‘Bright ideas’ here is spoken in roughly the same tone which Bill Buckley reserved for his interactions with Gore Vidal. Somewhere between getting caught up in a riot in Paris and taking up kicking men twice my size in the head as a hobby, my parents lost some confidence in my critical thinking skills. Well, before that, maybe, but you get the picture.
At the beginning of August, my time in London was rapidly coming to a close, and I had one last bright idea to cross off my list. I’d (very happily) spent May-August doing everything I pleased, mostly spending my days visiting all of the museums, art galleries, parks, record stores, historical monuments, libraries, nature reserves, etc. that I hadn’t had time for as a student, and my nights at jazz clubs or baroque ensemble concerts. The only thing left to do was Chartwell.
Winston Churchill’s former country house, Chartwell is a redbrick mansion situated on 20 acres of gardens and a further 57 of parkland, located in Westerham, Kent. It’s only about 40 miles from King’s Cross, one of London’s biggest transport hubs and my home Tube station. This all sounds quite idealistic, of course, and very doable, easy even.
Certainly, that was my thought going into it. I had initially planned to go on the 1st of the month, but was waylaid by other commitments, and decided to go on the 2nd instead. No big deal, I assured myself, knowing that I would be leaving the city for the final time on the 5th, and thinking that this would be a lovely last trip out of London. Just a little country jaunt.
In retrospect, it would likely have been wise to give up when my phone decided, for reasons unknown, to quit sometime in the night, and I woke up hours later than the 8 a.m. I had planned. Having been out until 3 a.m. probably hadn’t helped. Undaunted, I dragged myself to the shower and through my morning routine, keeping an eye on train tables all the while. The easiest route, it seemed, was to catch the Thameslink from King’s Cross to East Croydon, and then take the Southern to Oxted. No challenge at all after having navigated the vagaries for the Tube for three years.
The first leg of my journey was perfectly fine. I jumped off the train at East Croydon, replete in my jeans, slightly torn up backpack, Brodsky t-shirt, and worn-out sneakers, ready to get on my way. My way, as it turned out, had left two minutes earlier, and I would now have the pleasure of waiting an extra hour for the next train to Oxted to arrive. This was also when I discovered that, in conjunction with my phone struggling to hold a charge, my stored charger was likewise becoming very temperamental. No matter, I was only going to be gone for another two or three hours.
Google Maps assured me that I would actually be even closer to Chartwell if, instead of decamping at Oxted, I got off four stations later, at Cowden. Easier bus access or something like that. In retrospect, considering Google Maps once made me run across five lanes of the M1 where there was no light after stranding me on a median, this was a moronic choice. (By the way, if you’re out there, tall Nordic man that made the same mistake as me and held my hand as we darted across that terrifying highway, hi! I hope all is well and that you’ve learned, unlike me, to make better life decisions). Cowden is, appropriately enough, the station for the village of Cowden, a little town of about 800 people. That should have clued me in to the frequency of bus service.
When I finally disembarked from the train, I was a bit startled by just how small the station was. The fact that my debit card didn’t want to scan in their ancient machine, and that I ended up scampering off up the road, hoping the police wouldn’t chase me down, after 15 minutes spent trying to make it work and failing to find any employees, did nothing to endear me to the place.
And that’s when I discovered that, contrary to what every online schedule had told me, the next bus service to Chartwell would not be in 20 minutes, but two hours. A train back in the direction I came wouldn’t be coming for another hour, and even the stations back towards London were a significant distance from the house. This, as one of my friends likes to point out, is where a sane person would have said ‘too bad,’ grabbed a bite in the village pub, and headed home. Google Maps, which up to then had done me so many favors, informed me that it would be a 2.5-hour, 7.5-mile walk to Chartwell.
I’ve done that on a run to Knightsbridge and back at 1 a.m., I said to myself. How hard could it be? If I’ve come all this way, I’m going to see Chartwell, hike be damned.
The first, oh, mile or so of my Tolkein-worthy trek was on sidewalks, treading past a truck service station, a grocery store, and various and sundry other buildings. Then, abruptly, the road continued, but the sideway gave way to nothing. Where once there was a path of paving stones, only narrow grassy lanes, cut off from grazing fields by fences, remained. In between those and the road proper was a strip of pavement maybe a foot wide, which would have brought me within a hair’s breadth of passing traffic.
It’ll only be for a bit, just keep going.
In a way, I was right. The trimmed, neat grass lanes did last for only a bit. At which point they gave way to the humping edges of fields, forests, and people’s front gardens, large portions infested with brush, bushes filled with sharp spines, and poorly constructed stone walls. So I continued to trudge along, like a lone gymnast on a deranged balance beam, wincing every time (which was far too often) a car or truck sped by.
Truthfully, I couldn’t tell you how many bends, twists, and turns the various roads I traveled on had, but there were far, far too many, and my beloved sidewalk was gone for good. At one point, picking my way through a bush and attempting not to fall from the strange miniature hill I was perched on, I turned to see a farmer and his herd of sheep staring at me from across the way. Terrified that he would call the police to report some sort of escaped mental patient roaming the non-pedestrian roads of Kent, I picked up my pace and skittered away as fast as I could, arms scratched and face sporting an impressive gash. It was hours later that I began pulling the leaves from my hair.
The final big twist on the map brought me up a hill bracketed by forest, and, while I prayed that I hadn’t managed to catch Lyme disease yet, I turned onto the ‘road’ which would finally lead me to Chartwell to over a rough dirt path, so shaded by trees that it was near pitch black.
At this point, if you die, it’ll have been worth it. Okay, maybe not worth it, but at least no one at home will be surprised that this is how it happened. Imagine the obituary: she died doing what she loved, making choices anyone with a basic grasp on sanity and normal interests never would have.
As I switched on my phone’s flashlight, I found that I was on 10% battery, and my stored charger had exactly one charge left on it. No matter, I could get the bus back, I wouldn’t need all of those directions again. Making my brisk way down the thing which it’s almost too generous to call a path, my foot caught on an unseen tree root, and I covered a good quarter of it quite literally head over heels. When I came to the end, I spotted a paved way up ahead, and figured that I had finally reached my destination.
Private Property: No Trespassing.
This is a family website, so I won’t reproduce my exact reaction, but suffice to say it was spirited. With almost no cell phone service and GoogleMaps assuring me that there were no other possible routes, I strode past the sign, shimmied under a wooden gate, and kept marching along. Now, though, instead of cars and confused sheep, I was going past mansions, mansionettes, and immaculate gardens, hoping against hope no one in this strange gated community would spot me and start asking questions. ‘No, really, I’m not here to case houses, I just want to see Winston Churchill’s house’ read as an extraordinarily thin excuse, especially as an obvious foreigner.
After two false starts, I got out of the gated community, and right onto another, even less pedestrian-friendly road. It took an accidental trip to the gardener’s cottage and nearly getting hit by an SUV to find the parking lot to Chartwell. I was happier to see it than Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd spotting a nubile young waitress at La Brasserie.
Here, I might mention that, because of Covid, people weren’t allowed to make reservations for entry, and it was first come, first serve. But the house wasn’t meant to close until 4, and it was only about 3-3:15.
“Hi. I’ve come for the house and the gardens. But I’ve got a National Trust membership.”
“Oh, sorry, we actually just let the last batch of people into the house. But you’re welcome to walk around the property.”
Fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. I’d always dreamed of seeing the outside of Winston Churchill’s house, and swarms of screaming children pushing each other down the hill which led to the gardens.
It wasn’t quite what I’d hoped (or fought through the better part of Westerham’s shrubbery for), but I still enjoyed my half-hour traipsing around the grounds, and, conqueror that I was, the prize that I procured for myself in the gift shop. Because there was no way in hell, after that experience, that I was leaving with nothing to show for it.
Packing my purchases away, I went to check the bus timetable. Upon which I was told that the next bus to a train station would be coming in approximately two hours. For a moment, I considered asking the driver of the tour bus full of elderly people if I could hitch a ride with them, but I had no idea where they were going, and, considering the very violent argument he was having in French in between puffs on a cigarette in front of the monstrous silver contraption, I swallowed my despair, and checked to see the nearest station which would return me to London. Edenbridge Town, evidentially. Joy of all joys, another five-mile walk.
Naively, I hoped that heading for a different station than the one I’d come from would put me on a sidewalk-ed route. No such luck. Instead, it put me on the grassy edge of the B2026, where I got to cling to trees and brush in a desperate attempt not to get hit by the lorries flying down the road. I enjoyed such scenic sites as a lorry driver throwing his butts out the window into a duck pond, a sign that said “Elderly People” with no further explanation, and four people dogging in a silver Hyundai wedged in the tiny dirt parking lot of a nature preserve. Naturally, good luck multiplying on itself, this is when my mother decided to FaceTime me. She has a special talent for calling me in the middle of doing the weirdest things, like heading to an African art film festival in Dalton, or getting chased by a legless, one-armed drunk clutching a beer in a motor scooter through Shoreditch at 2 a.m.
“How-KW, where are you?”
“Out where? Is that a truck? Are you on a highway?!”
“I can’t really say. Somewhere in Kent, I think. It might be.”
“For what possible reason are you walking down a highway in Kent?”
“I wanted to see Winston Churchill’s house, and there was no bus when I got here, so I walked.”
“Does it matter?”
“I don’t know, like 12 miles roundtrip.”
“On a highway?”
“I mean, there were fields and a forest too. I might have Lyme disease now.”
“Only you. Only you would do this. Why aren’t you ever doing anything normal when I call you?”
“You’re the one that raised me!”
Eventually, I convinced my mom that staying on the phone with me (as its battery rapidly ran down) wasn’t going to help anything, and civilization came back into view.
Just another mile and a half, the bad part’s over.
The bad part was over, too, until about three minutes later, when it began to downpour.
Sodden, exhausted, and looking like I had gone on a holiday outing to a warzone, I boarded my Southern line train back to King’s Cross, pushed myself the 10 minutes from there back home, and promptly collapsed onto my bed. Seven hours after I left.
But my one prize of the day has now, as a graduate student, become the bag I take everywhere with me, so maybe it was worth it in the end.
Or so I will continue to tell my mother, until my dying day.