There are lots of grand houses across the UK, but one of the most well-known is Chequers. It is a 16th century mansion which has been a place for Prime Minister’s to relax, host events and welcome important guests for over a century. It has never been open for the public to visit, and the only way people can enter is if they are involved in politics or are a dignitary.
In the past, Churchill wrote some of his famous speeches there and today, (Monday 15 May), Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has welcomed Ukraine's President Zelensky there. The visit forms part of the president’s tour of western allies. Downing Street said Sunak had welcomed Zelensky to the country retreat as the UK continues “sustaining our support” for the war-torn country. Zelensky is the first world leader Sunak has hosted at the residence.
So, where is Chequers, what significant events have happened there, who else has visited and why is Zelensky visiting? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is Chequers?
Chequers is a country retreat which has been the official second home of serving prime ministers for over 100 years. Since 1921, every leader of the country has been able to stay there. It boasts ten bedrooms, a heated indoor swimming pool in the Orangery, a putting green and extensive 1,500-acre lawns. The grand house, which was built in 1565, is listed Grade I on the National Heritage List for England.
Where is Chequers?
Chequers is located in Aylesbury, near the village of Ellesborough, which is halfway between Princes Risborough and Wendover in Buckinghamshire. It is about 40 miles north-west of central London and is at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. Downing Street and Chequers are about 41 miles apart, which means it takes roughly an hour and a half to drive between the two.
Who owns Chequers?
Chequers was first gifted to the nation by Conservative minister Sir Arthur Lee and his American heiress wife, Ruth, in 1917. They did so after realising that the politicians coming to power post-World War I were unlikely to have country estates from which they could entertain foreign dignitaries or to relax in themselves.
The ownership now technically falls under The Chequers Trust, but is in complete control of whoever is Prime Minister at the time.
Why is the house called Chequers?
There’s no confirmed reason why Chequers has its name. One theory however is that it derives from an early owner of Ellesborough manor, Elias Ostiarius. The surname ‘Ostiarus’ meant an usher of the Court of Exchequer. The coat of arms in the manor also featured a checkers board and it is thought that the name may have derived from it.
Alternatively, some have theorised that it is in fact named after the chequer trees that grow in its grounds.
What significant events have happened at Chequers and who has visited?
Chequers was the backdrop of many of Winston Churchill’s most famous radio speeches, which he penned from one of the rooms there during World War II. Famous guests at the house have included the Queen, David Bowie, Elton John, Bryan Adams and former US Presidents Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.
Most recently, it was the location chosen by Theresa May to ask for ministers to agree with her new Brexit proposals in 2018, something which is known as the Chequers Plan. In April 2020, Boris Johnson chose to recover at Chequers after being hospitalised with respiratory complications from Covid-19.
Why is President Zelensky visiting Chequers?
President Zelensky is visiting Chequers as part of a tour he is currently undertaking of western allies. Zelensky said the two leaders would have “substantive negotiations” on the response to Russia’s invasion.
Sunak said: “This is a crucial moment in Ukraine’s resistance to a terrible war of aggression they did not choose or provoke. They need the sustained support of the international community to defend against the barrage of unrelenting and indiscriminate attacks that have been their daily reality for over a year."
He added that the "fault lines" of Russia's war on Ukraine could be felt all across the world. He said: “That is why the UK is sustaining our support to Ukraine – from tanks to training, ammunition to armoured vehicles. And this message of solidarity will ring loud in all my meetings with fellow world leaders in the days ahead.”
The latest package of military assistance will see hundreds of air defence missiles and further unmanned aerial systems including long-range attack drones with a range of more than 200 kilometres (124 miles). The new equipment will be delivered over the coming months. The UK has also recently promised long-range Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Kyiv after continued Russian attacks.
Zelensky thanked the UK Government, the King and the British people for their support. “We are thankful from all our hearts, from Ukrainians, from our soldiers, we are thankful,” he said.