Fifty years ago this month on the 29th – 30th June 1963, President John F Kennedy visited Harold Macmillan at Birch Grove.
The media was said to be arriving in large numbers to cover the event and the landlord of the Red Lion was besieged by reporters some of whom even asked if they could sleep in the Pub’s attics. The area was swarming with security and bodyguards. It was rumoured that secret agents spent the night up in trees and that they took the number of every car approaching the area. A massive security operation was in progress and the village of Chelwood Gate was under siege for about 3 days. At the time it was reported that “Television sets refused to work because of the power of the security transmissions to protect the 35th President of the United States”. These were the greatest security precautions ever seen in Britain and it was said the English police were not obtrusive but that the American security force had guns which were openly on display.
The helicopters which carried the President landed at the Isle of Thorns. There were certainly two helicopters, possibly more, so that at least one could act as a decoy. The American service personnel allowed local boys to have their photos taken next to the Army vehicles.
President Kennedy was a devout Catholic and went to Mass at the Roman Catholic Church in Forest Row. It was said his Cadillac was followed by a car with armed guards standing on the running boards clinging to the sides. As his car approached the Red Lion the driver slowed down to take the sharp corner back to Birch Grove and this enabled waiting children to see and wave to him. On his return to Birch Grove, Lady Dorothy had asked the boys from Cumnor House School to line the paths to greet him. The President stopped to speak to the boys and asked them to sing their school song, but alas Cumnor House had no school song, but the invitation was much appreciated.
This was to be the last time President Kennedy visited England as he was assassinated in Dallas later that year on 22nd November.
Our Rector Father John Twisleton reviewed a book by the respected political biographer, Richard Thorpe entitled Supermac: A Life of Harold Macmillan and as part of Richard’s research about his first book The Uncrowned Prime Ministers he had visited Harold Macmillan at Birch Grove and in his book Richard describes how the former Prime Minister tottered towards the door to personally welcome him to Birch Grove on St George’s Day in 1985.
Father John also kindly arranged for Richard Thorpe to visit St Giles Church last year to talk to the Danehill Parish Historical Society about Harold Macmillan, who is buried at the Church. Richard told us that special supplies of President Kennedy’s blood were held at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead in case of emergency and he contrasted this to when President De Gaulle visited Birch Grove. On that occasion supplies of De Gaulle’s blood were to have been simply stored in the fridge at Birch Grove, but Harold Macmillan’s cook took a dim view of this and a separate refrigeration unit was located in the grounds, well away from the house. Richard told us that in later years Harold Macmillan would look back on those days when President Kennedy was his guest with much emotion.
Jill Rolfe (with her permission)