A few years ago, I visited the little church of St Martin in Bladon, close to Blenheim Palace, where, on November 30th 1874, a child had been born whose name would go down in history. I had come to pay my respects to a great man. Not a man who had an unblemished reputation, not a man who made no mistakes, nor a man who escaped the blame of the many prejudices of his time, but a very human man, full of faults, gifts and idiosyncrasies, who became the leader of a nation in time of need.
“I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say ‘do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be-unconquered.” So said Sir Winston Churchill on VE Day, seventy-five years ago. I have to wonder how he would view the current situation…
I was meeting friends from America. It was a final gathering before they left for home. We sat in the sun outside a pub, sharing a final cider and trying to say in minutes things that need a lifetime. Because we could. We had that choice and that freedom. That was why we were in Bladon.
The church of St Martin is set back from the road. It is a peaceful spot and a simple church near the top of a small hill ringed with trees. Swallows nest in the porch and were diving around the sky in search of food…beautiful to watch. But we had come, not for the birds, nor for the church. We had come to pay our respects, both to a man and a generation.
One of the greatest men of our time lies in a simple grave with his beloved wife Clementine. and surrounded by his family. His mother, the beautiful American Jennie Jerome who became Lady Randolph Churchill, lies behind him.
I remember watching him on the news as a child, seeing the nation’s love for this man and hearing from my grandparents why he mattered. I remember a nation’s mourning at his funeral. I remember those of my family who fought in the war as I look upon the memorials to his family. Worlds apart… but all of us sharing the same human loves and fears.
“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and the glory of the climb.” Sir Winston Churchill.
There are tributes at his grave, plaques on walls and on gates… and a stone on his tomb. My great-grandfather was Jewish. I recognise that single, mute stone, perhaps the most touching tribute of all.
We lingered a while, reading the memorials, simply being there in acknowledgement of our freedom to be so. Here, beside the charismatic, irascible Warrior who had been the hope of a nation and who had galvanised the world.
We went into the little church. It is a relatively modern building… the Norman church was demolished in 1802 and a new one built on the site. It is a simple building, with beautiful stained glass.
We spent some time reading about Sir Winston and his family and enjoying the peace of the place.
One window was made to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s death. It is a beautiful piece from a distance, but it was not until one of my friends took my hand and led me closer that I realised just how beautiful. In every space, even where there is no more than the tiniest gap, Churchill’s own words are recorded.
Around the borders, tiny vignettes show gas masks, the famous cigar, spitfires… a myriad symbols of war, peace and the power of presence that was the mantle of one man.
We left the church and lingered in the sunlight, sharing a few final moments before the inevitable parting. We walked back to the road, where we had left the cars, and said our farewells. Then a woman I love more than any other in this world, one who is more than mother, sister, teacher and friend, took my face in her hands… I had been doing so well till then too…
There are moments when the world falls away. It does not matter where you are… you can be standing on the pavement by a busy road… and there is nothing but the moment and the space in which you stand… and you know that you are blessed.
“Is there any need for further floods of agony? Is the only lesson of history to be that mankind is unteachable? Let there be justice, mercy and freedom. The people have only to will it, and all will achieve their hearts’ desire.” Sir Winston Churchill.
In memory of all those men, women and children, of all nations, whose lives have been ravaged by the violence of man against man, whatever the era and whatever the cause. And in the hope that we are not unteachable and that the lessons paid for in blood and tears by our forebears can lead us to a free and fair future.