Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill
30 November 1874–24 January 1965
St Martin’s Church, Bladon, Oxfordshire OX20 1RS
- - -
The thing that hits you first about Sir Winston Churchill’s grave is the size. As a man he was large; as a historical figure, a giant, and surely the man who personified the fight against Hitler. And yet his grave is not grand or particularly imposing: a raised slab, only slightly over-sized, that is shared
with his wife Clementine, surrounded by identically sized graves of his family in the quiet churchyard of St Martin’s in the village of Bladon in Oxfordshire. He could have been buried in the grounds of nearby Blenheim Palace, his family home. He could have been buried at Westminster Abbey. Or, for that matter, anywhere he wanted.
But he chose Bladon. Anyone can come see him here – and they do. Wear and tear by the constant visitors means the stone has had to be replaced twice. When I came, on a bitterly cold day, there was a small basket of white roses, sent for Clementine. ‘On this 1st April, your birthday,’ said the card, signed ‘Mary’. As a grave, this is one where history looms large, and indeed threatens to overwhelm, but the thing that surprises is this small human touch – a bouquet sent, mostly likely by their daughter, Lady Soames, so many years on (Clementine died in 1977).
He was buried on 30 January 1965. He had lain in state in the ancient stone magnificence of Westminster Hall, endless queues passing by. He had been carried through the streets by gun carriage to a monumental funeral at St Paul’s. Big Ben was silenced. The guns at the Tower boomed. Afterwards, the coffin, transferred to a barge, sailed up the Thames and as he passed the London docks, all the cranes dipped towards him, bowing to the old warrior. Then he went by train to Hanborough railway station and, finally, by hearse to Bladon.
The church has produced a little booklet about the death and funeral, much of which was gleaned from letters at the time from Mrs Bishop of Beehive Cottage, which adjoins the churchyard, to her sister. Again, it was a joy to find something so personal.
On 24 January, Mrs Bishop wrote:
We have just heard that the old warrior has given up at last. What a fight he has made! Mr H. from Church Cottage ran over in tears to tell me. He is now tolling the bell – every twenty seconds or so. I expect the same is happening all over England. It is very touching on this lovely morning.
On 30 January, she recounted: ‘It is a glorious morning, bitterly cold but no wind and the sun is coming out. I have icicles 8 to 10 inches long in the garden. The village is navy blue! Never have I seen so many police, men and women (900) compressed into such a small place.’ People started to queue, she said, in the morning. By the time the (private) funeral was over and they could start to file past, it was four and a half hours from end to graveside. ‘The police have put flood lights over the grave so that the queue can carry on after dark … which they did until midnight.’
On Sunday 31 January: ‘The queues restarted at 7 a.m. and continued all day ’til long after dark. The police estimate the numbers at 70,000 during the weekend.’
More than a month later, on 10 February, she adds: ‘There is a constant stream of visitors all the time. Lorry and van drivers pull up in the main road and pop up for a moment, business men and travellers, many old folk, school parties and even one or two groups of “mods and rockers” have been in, very quiet and orderly.’
The booklet stops soon after but the visitors who come to see the grave with the word CHURCHILL on the side never have. During the funeral, a poem was read by Richard Dimbleby, his voice breaking. It is included in the booklet and I recount it here for I think it goes some way to explaining why so many of us want to visit him still:
Drop English earth on him beneath
Do our sons, and their sons bequeath his glories
And our pride and grief
For Lionheart that lies below
That feared not toil nor tears nor foe.
Let the oak stand tho tempests blow
So Churchill sleeps, yet surely wakes
Old Warrior where the morning breaks
On sunlit uplands.
But the heart aches
- - -
With ninety-nine other ‘dead interesting’ burial sites, Ann Treneman’s Finding the Plot is published 5 April and is available in paperback (£10.99) and eBook (£6.99).