Guest post for our blog by former Chelsea resident Andrea Kirkby together with an exciting competition below the post!
Chelsea was once the epicentre of the Swinging Sixties. It was the home of punk too, a few mohican-wearing punks remaining standard tourist sights until the mid 1980s; I doubt if they’re still around now. But my Chelsea when I lived there was never about punk. Instead, I wandered round the back streets, looking for history. And much of it doesn’t even cost you a penny.
I’ve always loved the Royal Hospital. How can you not love the mix of Christopher Wren architecture and the wonderful characters who live in it – the smartly uniformed Chelsea Pensioners, old soldiers who all have a story to tell.
The museum here is fascinating – for instance I found out about Christian Cavanagh, a.k.a. Mother Ross, who joined the army initially to look for her conscripted husband; she fought at Blenheim and Ramillies and her cover was only blown when she was wounded and the surgeon stripped her to operate. She got a pension (but apparently didn’t actually live in the Hospital, which was closed to women till quite recently). There’s always a Pensioner looking after the museum, friendly, chatty and full of information. There are uniforms, memorabilia, all kinds of military pictures – and then you have the chapel and the dining hall, if they’re open, and the gardens – which are full of green parakeets! And the buildings are Wren buildings and there is also an interesting little graveyard. It’s all free of charge.
Next door is the National Army Museum, which I didn’t think was going to be much fun (its brutalist architecture didn’t inspire me initially either); but it’s up to date and rather interesting, with displays for instance on the Korean War and National Service. It goes all the way back to 1066, and among other fascinating exhibits you can see the skeleton of Marengo, the horse Napoleon rode at Waterloo. Again this is a free attraction.
A hot summer day always called for a relaxing visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden, which was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries as a source of medicinal plants. Around that initial, functional collection a wonderful botanical garden has grown up; the micro-climate here has allowed the building of a collection of tender plants, including plants from the Mediterranean and Canary islands, while there are also a number of glasshouses to be visited (it’s not a cheap visit though at £9 so do take your time and there’s also a cafe if you fancy a bite to eat).
When I lived in Chelsea the Duke of York’s Headquarters was still owned by the army. Since then though it’s added the Saatchi Gallery to Chelsea’s already numerous cultural attractions. Tate Modern is just modern (that is, post-1900) but the Saatchi is actually contemporary – what’s going on in art right now.
Consequently the exhibitions are always changing and often controversial. But they’re also always free. It’s a great place to explore with a friend.
A quite different kind of cultural experience is offered by a visit to the comforting intimacy of a High Victorian environment at Carlyle’s House, a National Trust property on Cheyne Row. It’s been preserved practically the way it was when the Carlyles lived there, with the historian’s study, his books, even the little garden with its fig tree (which is still productive).
You won’t get to see the Chelsea Arts Club though, unless you know a member. I was lucky enough to be invited a few times and enjoyed myself immensely.
Almost all the members work in the visual arts – though they include architects and photographers as well as painters and sculptors – and they make engaging company.
Down Cheyne Walk, by the river, are two more historical monuments. Crosby Hall was built in 1466 – but in Bishopsgate, several miles east of here. It only arrived here in 1910 when it was transported brick by brick (The Hall is original, the other wings were built on to it after its removal). Close to it is Chelsea Old Church (open Tuesday to Thursday) which looks much more modern than Crosby Hall on the outside, which was rebuilt after damage in the Second World War. But inside, it’s a different story; there are chained books, Tudor monuments, Sir Thomas More’s private chapel and a memorial designed by the great Bernini – though executed by a rather less expert sculptor. Really good fun for someone brought up on church-crawling, as I was!
Finally, if you like your spy fiction, you should make your way along the King’s Road to Bywater Street, where John le Carré’s mole-hunter George Smiley lived with his faithless wife. I always loved the cute pastel-painted houses here; I loved them even more when I found out their espionage connections.
There are so many reasons to love Chelsea. Why don’t I still live there? Simple: just about the most expensive houses in the UK. I just can’t afford it. But I can still visit when I want and stay in a beautifully intimate Chelsea hotel like The Beaufort, just to fall in love with this wonderful area over and over again.
Do you agree with Andrea? Tell us in the comments below why you love Chelsea and we’ll give the best answer by 5pm UK time on 21st July 2013 a free luxury night’s stay at The Beaufort. It can be anything at all – a shop, your favourite restaurant, a street or your very own secret Chelsea tip. We’ll also offer a complimentary traditional cream tea to the best runner-up.
Enter for the chance to win now. And don’t forget to RT this blog post to inspire others with your favourite Chelsea tips!
Terms and conditions: the main prize of an overnight stay for two in a double or twin room must be booked in advance and the winner’s preferred date must be for a stay taken by the end of 2013. The runners-up prize includes a cream tea for two at the hotel to be booked in advance (but no overnight stay). This competition may be withdrawn and cancelled at any time at the discretion of The Beaufort. Any employee, supplier or family member or anyone connected to the hotel is excluded from the competition.The promoter will not be liable for any failure of receipt of entries. To the extent permitted by applicable law, the promoter’s liability under or in connection with the prize draw competition or these terms and conditions shall be limited to the value of the prize in question. Prizes are non-negotiable, non-transferable and non-refundable. No cash alternative is available. In the event of unforeseen circumstances beyond the promoter’s reasonable control, the promoter reserves the right to cancel, terminate, modify or suspend the prize draw competition or these terms and conditions, either in whole or in part, with or without notice. The promoter’s decision is final. No correspondence will be entered into. The winner’s twitter username will be posted on @beauforthoteluk after the winner has been selected.