“Churchill’s Britain”: Good Try, But More is Needed

“Churchill’s Britain”: Good Try, But More is Needed

Peter Clark, Churchill’s Britain: From the Antrim Coast to the Isle of Wight. Lon­don: Haus Pub­lish­ing, 2020, 240 pp., no illus­tra­tions, $29.95, Ama­zon $27.48, Kin­dle $22.49. Excerpt­ed from a review for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. To read the orig­i­nal, click here.

N.B. March 2021: The orig­i­nal post con­tains author Clark’s response, which is about the most cor­dial reply to a grumpy review I’ve ever read. He kind­ly takes heed of my crit­i­cisms and says he will attend to them in the paper­back in due course. RML

Churchill’s Britain abridged

I did want to like this book. Hav­ing host­ed ten tours of Churchill’s Britain, we’ve long hoped for a com­pre­hen­sive trav­el guide to all the places in what Lady Soames called “The Saga.” But some improve­ments are need­ed to this one, to make it tru­ly helpful.

The first thing one notices is: no pho­tos. How can a book dis­cuss Churchill’s Britain with­out depict­ing it? There is no admis­sion infor­ma­tion on places open to the pub­lic. The index is unhelp­ful. It lists names but not venues—not even Lon­don or Chartwell. To find, say, Ditch­ley, you have to know it’s in Oxford­shire. (Its map loca­tion is buried in the gutter—the maps are dou­ble-page spreads.) When you do get to what you want, you find that cov­er­age is often sparse. Wood­stock is there for Blenheim Palace; but noth­ing about its famous haunt the Bear Hotel, or Lord Ran­dolph Churchill’s con­stituen­cy, which drew young Winston’s close interest.

Churchill’s Britain says the West Coun­try holds few places of inter­est. Yet a 1996 Churchill tour spent four days there, vis­it­ing places asso­ci­at­ed with Marl­bor­oughs and Churchills. They includ­ed Round Chim­neys, birth­place of the first Sir Win­ston; Lit­tle Churchill Farm, where the fam­i­ly had its ear­li­est begin­nings; Great Trill, birth­place of the First Duke of Marl­bor­ough; Ashe House, where Sir Win­ston thought the Duke was born; and oth­er pri­vate homes and church­es. Churchill’s Britain does men­tion Ply­mouth and Bris­tol Uni­ver­si­ty. Port­land gets half a page, but omits the dra­ma of Churchill send­ing the King’s ships to sea before the 1914 war.

Churchill’s London

Churchill's Britain
Among notable omis­sions in “Churchill’s Britain” is the old Lon­don Mag­a­zine on the Ser­pen­tine, Hyde Park. A Pal­la­di­an-style vil­la built in 1805, it once housed naval cordite for the defense of Lon­don. In 1911, war threat­ened over the Agadir Cri­sis. Notic­ing that the Mag­a­zine was unguard­ed, Churchill sent a marine detach­ment. His deci­sive action helped con­vince Prime Min­is­ter Asquith to appoint him First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty, where he pre­pared the Roy­al Navy for war. For years aban­doned, it reopened as an art gallery in 2013. Pre-Lock­down, it was open to the pub­lic on Tues­days through Sun­days. (Zaha Hadid Architects)

Lon­don, to which Churchill’s Britain devotes 100 pages, receives good cov­er­age but many omis­sions. I couldn’t find the Albert Hall or Guild­hall, though less­er speech sites are includ­ed. In Hyde Park, we find noth­ing on the old Lon­don Mag­a­zine (right).

The two Lon­don chap­ters are orga­nized by postal code: SW1 and “every­thing else.” So to find Winston’s nanny’s grave, you must know the City of Lon­don Ceme­tery is in NW12. From his office at Min­istry of Muni­tions (Hotel Métro­pole), Churchill gazed with omi­nous thoughts on Armistice Day 1918. Where is it in Churchill’s Britain? You’ll find it if you can find “Northum­ber­land Avenue” (not in the index).

Clubs and Eateries

Here too is the Nation­al Lib­er­al Club (actu­al­ly on White­hall Place), cel­e­brat­ed haunt of the young Win­ston. A more pre­cise account of this and near­by venues is on Hillsdale’s walk­ing tour of Churchill’s White­hall. The book omits most of Sir Winston’s clubs: Boo­dles, Bucks, the Reform, the Athenaeum. I could not find the Savoy Hotel’s Pinafore Room, home of The Oth­er Club.

White­hall is well cov­ered, but omits the for­mer Carl­ton Hotel (now New Zealand House), where WSC dined on the eve of war in 1914, and Ho Chi Minh cooked his veg­eta­bles. Includ­ed is the For­eign Office, where he didn’t serve, but not the Colo­nial Office, where he did. To its cred­it, Churchill’s Britain con­tains most of WSC’s res­i­dences (so long as you know the postal code), miss­ing only four or five.

Round the IslandChurchill's Britain

The 2019 Hills­dale Col­lege cruise cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ed Churchill’s Britain, pass­ing or vis­it­ing many his­toric loca­tions. The book omits sev­er­al key ones. In Broad­stairs, Kent, young Marigold Churchill died and WSC observed the plan­ning for D-Day. Hartle­pool, Whit­by and Scar­bor­ough, York­shire were shelled by the Ger­mans 1914, caus­ing Churchill’s vio­lent reac­tion. All go unmentioned.

Cred­itably Churchill’s Britain address­es all four of Churchill’s Par­lia­men­tary con­stituen­cies: Old­ham, Man­ches­ter North West, Dundee and Epping/Woodford. But the dis­cus­sion of Wood­ford (1945-64) main­ly involves its under­whelm­ing stat­ue of him, not his long career there. The book miss­es St. Margaret’s Bay, near Dover, where a fine Nemon stat­ue broods over the Chan­nel. Stat­ues are not the book’s forte, and are unin­dexed. For­tu­nate­ly, there are good books on Churchill as MP for Dundee and Woodford.


The Scot­tish cov­er­age is some­what uneven. Dirleton, East Loth­i­an, an Asquith res­i­dence where Churchill was offered the Admi­ral­ty, goes unmen­tioned. Nev­er­the­less there’s room for a myth­i­cal, sto­ry involv­ing anoth­er Asquith abode, Slains Cas­tle. Here, we are told, Vio­let Asquith near­ly died of grief when she heard that Win­ston was going to mar­ry that “orna­men­tal side­board,” Clemen­tine Hozi­er. Peter Clark doesn’t, how­ev­er, fall for the canard that the despair­ing Vio­let tried to throw her­self from the cliffs.

Clementine’s ances­tral home, Air­lie Cas­tle, is omit­ted, and oth­er Scot­tish con­nec­tions. A book more about peo­ple than places should include WSC’s friend Mol­ly, Duchess of Buc­cleuch, who once informed him that Cham­ber­lain was com­ing to speak.  “It doesn’t mat­ter where you put [his podi­um],” Churchill advised her, “as long as he has the sun in his eyes and the wind in his teeth.”

Edin­burgh needs more atten­tion for Churchill’s ear­ly dri­ve for devo­lu­tion (long before it was fash­ion­able); his vis­its to Scot­tish states­men; the Ger­man Fleet sur­ren­der in 1919; his Free­dom of the City in 1946. In Dundee, the sto­ry turns main­ly on how he was pushed out of office by a Pro­hi­bi­tion­ist in 1922—never mind that he won five pre­vi­ous elec­tions, one joy­ful­ly described by Lui­gi Barzi­ni. Scapa Flow in the Orkneys is bare­ly men­tioned, with noth­ing about the trag­ic sink­ing of HMS Roy­al Oak, and how the Churchill Bar­ri­ers pre­vent­ed fur­ther attacks.

Still room for more

Mar­tin Gilbert, on our sec­ond Churchill Tour, spoke of “Churchill’s Lon­don,” a lec­ture hap­pi­ly still online. Ste­fan Bucza­c­ki, in the Churchill Com­pan­ion, admirably list­ed all of Churchill’s res­i­dences, owned, leased and bor­rowed. Sir Mar­tin had long want­ed to pub­lish a book enti­tled, Churchill’s Lon­don in Maps and Pho­tographs. Alas he didn’t have the time, and a tru­ly com­pre­hen­sive guide to Churchill’s Britain remains to be writ­ten. Peter Clark has opened the case for one, and may yet be heard from again.


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