AN appearance by East Grinstead MP Sir Nicholas Soames at Lingfield Notre Dame school recently reminded Simon Kerr – a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things local – that his grandfather Sir Winston Churchill once had a home close by.
Chartwell is the place most closely associated with the wartime Prime Minister, but in WWI the Churchills fled the noise and chaos of London and took out a lease on Lullenden, a large Tudor property between Lingfield and Dormansland.
‘There is a charming story about the Churchills acquiring an ex War-Department horse to pull their wagon,’ said Simon. ‘But on one occasion a car back-fired which caused the horse to suffer some form of post traumatic crisis. It then bolted with Mrs Churchill helpless at the reins until a brave citizen came to her rescue and all was made right.’
The Churchills made their home at Lullenden from the Spring of 1917 until November 1919.
When, with the help of his mother, he bought the manor set in 77 acres, Churchill was 42 and still fighting.
He had resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty over the fiasco of Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, and having left the Cabinet was commanding a battalion at the front, hoping to find glory in uniform.
But with his wife and family safely installed in Surrey he was brought back into government as Minister of Munitions – an ironic appointment given that his motive for moving his family out of London had been to escape bombing raids.
Winston’s wife, Clementine, loved the gardens and among the local trips she recorded taking were ‘to Crawley in the motor’ and to Cheal’s Nursery Gardens for rock plants.
The Churchill children at that point were Diana, 8, Randolph who was six, and three-year-old Sarah, and they were often joined by their cousins, Johnnie and Peregrine, the children of Winston’s brother Jack and his wife Goonie.
But between them the five made so much noise that Churchill installed them in the nearby barn with their nannie Isabelle, so that at weekends he would could work in peace.
A keen artist, Churchill painted Lullenden and three of his pictures of the lovely old building survive. He also took great interest in planting azaleas, magnolias, and rhododendrons in the wooded grounds, and when he was not in France he enjoyed weekending in the countryside which was conveniently close to the airfields at Penshurst and Godstone.
The Churchill children attended school in Dormansland, travelling there each day in a pony and trap, and on the day that the Armistice was declared they came home to find the gardener nailing a Union flag to the flagpole to celebrate victory.
With the war over Churchill was appointed Secretary of State for War and Air, responsible for the demob of almost three and a half million soldiers back into civilian life.
But his domestic peace was shattered by the death of Isabelle, who had been the Churchill family nanny for many years, in the 1918 flu epidemic.
And a year later they decided to sell Lullenden, both to rid themselves of its attendant expenses – and to be free of the tyranny of the gardener who was insisting on a major overhaul of the grounds.
So they sold the house to friends General Sir Ian and Lady Hamilton and eventually settled at Chartwell in Westerham in 1922.
‘Having been a guest at there myself, I think Churchill made a big mistake choosing Chartwell over Lullenden,’ laughed Simon. ‘And our rail connection would have been handier for him too!’