Inside Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat

British prime ministers have been using the Chequers estate as their official country residence since 1921.

Situated in more than 1,000 acres of Buckinghamshire countryside, just outside Aylesbury, Chequers is used both as a relaxing retreat for the prime minister of the day and a place to entertain high-profile visitors. Previous guests have included everyone from Richard Nixon to Claudia Schiffer.

Gift to the nation

A building has been recorded on the site since the 12th century, but it was after a project of extensive enlargement and remodelling in 1565 that the modern Chequers took shape. Over the years, the house has been connected to many important events in English history. Lady Mary Grey, sister of Lady Jane Grey, was briefly kept under house arrest at Chequers during the reign of Elizabeth I, while a later owner was a grandson of Oliver Cromwell.

By 1917, changing social dynamics meant the prime minister could no longer be assumed to have his or her own country estate to entertain guests, so the then owners of Chequers, Sir Arthur Lee and his wife Ruth, proposed to sign the estate over to the government for the use of the nation’s leader. 

A stained glass window commissioned by the couple reads: “This house of peace and ancient memories was given to England as a thank-offering for her deliverance in the great war of 1914–1918 as a place of rest and recreation for her prime ministers for ever.”

David Lloyd George was the first PM to use the estate as his country residence, following the Lees’ departure in 1921. 

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Historically, Chequers has been a regular weekend retreat for PMs, although Gordon Brown broke with tradition by reserving his visits for summits and other official business.

Brown’s decision during his time in office not to make regular use of Chequers was seen by The Guardian as “a sign of his determination to distance himself from the era of [Tony] Blair, who speaks warmly of how he [wound] down in the grand 16th-century house”. 

On the occasions when he was there, Brown was evidently uncomfortable, one insider told author Matthew d’Ancona. “Gordon would greet you in a full carriage-built suit and then go round the children’s table asking them what they were reading.” Meanwhile, his successor, David Cameron “wore jeans and a casual shirt and looked as if he’d lived there all his life.” 

Chequers has seen some momentous occasions in history. Indeed it was while walking in the grounds in September 1939 that Neville Chamberlain found himself “on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the aftermath of the Munich Pact”, says Martin Farr in The Conversation. During the subsequent war that the pact had failed to prevent, Winston Churchill regularly broadcast from Chequers. 

It was also at Chequers, in March 1970, that Labour prime minister Harold Wilson’s inner cabinet decided to call an early general election; which Wilson lost meaning that it was the Conservative leader, Edward Heath, who got to show US president Richard Nixon around with the Queen.

’Chequers is why you get the job’

Located only 41 miles from Downing Street, Chequers is a convenient escape from London, as well as a glamorous setting to welcome foreign dignitaries. But for some prime ministers, Chequers became a real home. Carol Thatcher has written of her mother’s strong attachment to the house, which served as the family home for the 11 years that Margaret Thatcher was in power. Denis Thatcher, preferring the estate chef’s dinners to beans on toast in the flat above 10 Downing Street, told his daughter: “Chequers is why you get the job.”

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