The leafy lanes and pretty Chiltern villages surrounding Chesham and Amersham are not immediately redolent of Labour history. Swan Bottom is a long way from Clydeside, and Cholesbury is no Tolpuddle. Yet growing up in the area, I was always fascinated by the stories of three Labour titans who were drawn to the area, like many of us, for the Chilterns air, green fields, open spaces, and closeness to London. Within a few miles of each other, albeit at different times, two Labour prime ministers and one founder of the NHS lived in country retreats far removed from Westminster wrangles and the nightmarish NEC meetings, where they relaxed, read, recuperated and plotted their next moves.
Clement Attlee at Cherry Cottage
Clement Attlee bought Cherry Cottage in Prestwood, Great Missenden in 1949, and sold it in 1961 for £15,500. When it last sold in 2012 it went for nearly a million. For two years Clement and his wife Violet rented it out, and then in 1951, with the fall of the Labour Government, they moved in, with crates arriving from Downing Street and a few items arriving from Chequers, seven miles up the road. Attlee wrote to his brother Tom: ‘I have been very busy getting settled into Cherry Cottage which looks very well now. It was a very heavy job unpacking and shelving books…2000 or so volumes.’ There’s some Pathe News footage of the Attlees at home, where you can see part of this impressive collection of books.
Cherry Cottage is not extravagant. It is best described, like Attlee, as modest. Hugh Dalton, who helped the Attlees move in, waspishly described it as ‘rather like a pensioner’s cottage’. It was rather more than a cottage — with six bedrooms, a 26ft drawing room with bay windows, a parquet wooden floor which it was said was a gift from the newly-independent people of Burma. It is a grade II listed property with parts dating to the 16th century, but most of it is built in the 1920s in the Arts and Crafts style. There were three quarters of an acre of gardens and cherry trees.
Attlee tackled the garden himself. In a letter to this brother Tom on 8 April 1954, Attlee wrote that he had been ‘getting rid of a rather ugly bed and putting in new rose trees.’ The idea was for Violet to live at Cherry Cottage permanently, with Attlee travelling the hour or so into London during the week and staying at his club. In a journey familiar to millions since, Attlee commuted to London from Great Missenden station. He was the second-last man off the beach at Gallipoli and founded the welfare state, but he famously couldn’t drive. They moved from Cherry Cottage to a nearby, more manageable home in 1961. Violet Attlee died at Amersham Hospital in 1964, and Clement Attlee died three years later.
Aneurin Bevan and Jennie Lee at Asheridge Farm
Rather grander than Cherry Cottage was the 54-acre Asheridge Farm, a mile north of Cartridge, and four miles from Chesham, which Aneurin Bevan and Jennie Lee bought in the summer of 1954. As well as the farmhouse there were two cottages for farm workers and farm buildings. Jennie Lee oversaw the installation of central heating, and the conversion of the flint barn into a guest house. Lee’s biographer Patricia Hollis wrote:
‘Asheridge was splendidly light and spacious. The heavy front door opened into a fine double sitting-room, with its beamed ceiling and generous windows…off the inner hall was a dining room where a dozen could sit.’
Added to this was a wide oak staircase, four large bedrooms and bathrooms, and a vast attic for Bevan to hide himself away. The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson captured some of the space and light when he visited and took photographs.
Bevan’s biographer Nick Thomas-Symonds suggests the new farm brought some cheer into Bevan’s life after the political setbacks of the early 1950s. Using the sale of their Chelsea home and royalties from his bestselling In Place of Fear, Bevan and Lee set themselves up as farmers, with a herd of Guernsey cows, pigs, and over a thousand chickens. In a profile in the Bucks Free Press, Bevan was reported as being a regular at the Blue Ball pub in Asheridge, which is still serving fine beers and food.
He caught the train from Chesham station, where he would buy his paper from Denzil ‘Taffy’ Walter, a fellow-Welshman from the Rhondda, who ran the newsstand at the station. Bevan’s love of this Chilterns retreat was no affectation. He threw himself into his Buckinghamshire farm with the same verve as socialist politics. Michael Foot wrote ‘it was for him no mere pose or hobby; it was another life into which he plunged with total absorption.’ By the end of the 1950s, Bevan, miner, MP, and socialist minister, was an established and successful gentleman farmer.
Aneurin Bevan died at Asheridge Farm on 6 July 1960, attended by Dr Tom Wise who used to live on White Hill in Chesham. One of final visitors at the farm was Bevan’s old friend and comrade Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India.
Harold Wilson at Grange Farm
You can argue that Harold Wilson’s Buckinghamshire retreat was famous before he was. Grange Farm appears in the Dam Busters (1955) as Barnes Wallis’ home. Wilson bought Grange Farm, on Deep Mill Lane, Little Kingshill in 1970, after Labour’s surprise defeat in that year’s general election. My old school friend lived a few houses away, and remembers seeing Wilson pottering down the lane.
Grange Farm was a five-bedroomed, oak-beamed farmhouse. The barn, dating from the reign of Queen Elizabeth, was converted into a study for Wilson’s prodigious post-prime ministerial book writing, and a storage space for his political papers and library. Unlike, Bevan, Wilson had no taste for farming — Grange Farm had little land — but it was near Ellesmere Golf Club (since closed) where the former Labour prime minister played golf with mostly Tory golfers.
Grange Farm appears in Philip Zeigler’s account of Wilson’s secret negotiations with the leadership of Sinn Fein in the early 1970s, when Wilson is said to have invited them to Little Kingshill for talks. It is unclear as to whether this took place. The house also took a starring role in the controversial BBC documentary Yesterday’s Men which roundly mocked former members of the Labour Government and filmed Wilson at home under false pretenses. The footage of Grange Farm was removed from the version of the programme that was eventually broadcast.
Wilson found himself back at №10 after the 1974 election and resigned in 1976. He maintained homes in London and Bucks until 1981, when he began his decline into dementia. He died in 1995.
Attlee, Bevan and Wilson were not alone in seeking an escape to the country. Barbara and Ted Castle lived a few miles away at Hell Corner Farm in Ibstone, west of High Wycombe (now a B&B). Denis Healey and James Callaghan opted for East Sussex. Healey had a house in Alfriston, and Callaghan bought the 100-acre Upper Clayfield Farm at Ringmer between Lewes and Uckfield.
This was a time when a Labour politician on a Cabinet Minister’s salary could afford to buy a farm in Buckinghamshire (much less possible now), and crucially, they were not expected to live in their constituency.
Paul Richards is a writer, and grew up in South Buckinghamshire. He has been an active member of the Labour Party for over 30 years.