Wednesday, 19 April 2017


The Royal Hospital, Chelsea

We met up with our friends John and Anne to do a partial walk around Chelsea and then have an early dinner. The walk started from Sloane Square, but the first point of note was the Royal Hospital Chelsea. It was founded by Charles II in 1662 for retired soldiers on similar lines to Les Invalides in Paris (completed 1674 under Louis XIV). The architect was Sir Christopher Wren. I hadn't realised that it was open to the public, but apart from a minor grilling at the closed gate you are made very welcome.

The Hospital is an independent charity and relies partly upon donations to cover day-to-day running costs to provide care and accommodation for veterans. Any man or woman who is over the age of 65 and served as a regular soldier may apply to become a Chelsea Pensioner (i.e. a resident), if they need and  "of good character". They must not, however, have any dependents and former Officers must have served at least 12 years in the ranks before receiving a commission.

The magnificent main building is shown above. There is also a new addition off to the left, dated 2008 ...

... and a less recent one to the right.

The central portico is flanked by two identical wings: the one on the right is the dining hall, while that on the left is the chapel (the beautiful interior is also by Wren). The painting of the Resurrection in the half dome is by Sebastiano Ricci.

Behind the main facade is an imposing courtyard, Figure Court, open on the side nearest the Thames. In the centre is a massive statue of Charles by Grinling Gibbons. It was re-gilded in honour of the Queen's Jubilee in 2002 and now looks very golden indeed.

Looking down towards the river (the area was closed today so we couldn't get any closer), we suddenly realised that we were looking at the redevelopment of the Battersea Power Station site.

We headed along Royal Hospital Road and turned left into Tite St, passing the house where Oscar Wilde lived from 1884-95 and where, at a dinner party, he met his future lover Lord Alfred Douglas. The house is not itself very distinguished. But further down the street on the other side is a house where the great painter John Singer Sargent lived - and this has a bit more visual interest.

We turned into Swan Walk to visit the Chelsea Physic Garden (or Chelsea Psychic Garden as my son's partner thought it was called). Before entering I took a picture of this classic 1930s appartment block on Royal Hospital Road

The Chelsea Physic Garden occupies 4 acres and was established by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries (pharmacists) in 1673. In 1722, when the Society was in financial difficulties, the Lord of the Manor of Chelsea, Sir Hans Sloane, gave the Society a perpetual lease on the site for a rent of £10 per annum (now paid to the Cadogan Estate). Sloane's statue (well actually a reproduction) stands in the centre of the garden.

The garden was an absolute delight to explore and we also had a very informative and interesting guided tour by a volunteer guide. Most of the plants are there for their pharmaceutical value and we learned that the many plans whose Latin name included officialis were so-named by Linneus to denote their medicinal properties.

Among the non-medicinal plants we enjoyed this Judas Tree in full flower ...

... and the unusual Handkerchief Tree.

We returned to the embankment and admired the Peace Pagoda on the edge of Battersea Park. It was opened in 1985 and the permission to build it was the last legislative act of the Greater London Council.

On the street side this large red brick house with swan motifs was very striking.

Now into mansion land in Cheyne Walk. Perhaps the most interesting was this one, once the home of the painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti and also the poet Algernon Swinburn. (Algernon is an ancient name which apparently drives from the Norman French aux gernons, meaning "with moustaches". You don't hear it much nowadays, do you?)

Food was calling now and we headed north towards the excellent Wright Brothers Oyster Bar near South Kensington tube. I was very taken by St Luke's church in Sydney St. It was built in the 1820s, before Gothic revival churches had to be true to medieval principles. It is very striking, but seems too narrow for its height.

Conditions: surprisingly warm and sunny.

Distance: About three miles.

From: London's Hidden Walks by Stephen Millar vol 2 (Metro Publications)

Rating: four stars.

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