Royal Hospital Road SW3 4SR
Wednesday April 10th 2014
Linda walked from a very smooth Jubilee plus District Line journey to Sloane Square and Jo arrived per bike, which she was allowed to secure behind the Lodge at the London Gate Entrance to this significant and architecturally impressive site. Mary had been sitting in the sunshine by the Army Museum (which will wait for another day) until she checked her phone so we were able to stroll into the complex at opening time – 10AM. The excellent Bus Route 170 goes past the door – a journey we much enjoyed in May 2011 (the Victoria Line had been a bit peculiar this morning otherwise I might have come this way). I was early enough to ponder on the riches evident in the bespoke shops and flash cars of this part of Chelsea, and then watch the Lodge keeper let in various white vans delivering to the Royal Hospital.
Essentially the Royal Hospital is, in modern day speak, a combination of ‘sheltered housing’ retirement homes and care home/hospital for pension age soldiers. About 370 of them. Queen Elizabeth I saw the need to care for wounded or retired army personnel but the French actually got there first when they built the even more magnificent ‘Les Invalides’. Charles II moved the project on and arranged for his (and the nation’s) favourite architect Sir Christopher Wren to design the buildings from 1682 onwards. The Museum, almost immediately on your left after the pensioner Elephant, is housed in the building designated originally for the 50 or so staff dealing with pay and pensions. (A job which is doubtless dealt with these days by a few minutes on a computer payroll). The entrance hall has a large diorama showing how things were in 1805 when Ranelagh Gardens were a pleasure destination (I always think an 18th century euphemism for sex, drugs and rock and roll). Where the present day pensioners find their leisure I would not venture to guess – though we did see some of their mobility bikes parked outside the Tesco Metro – but of course they are all of ‘previous good character’, a pre-requisite for getting a home here.
The Museum itself is one large room with a series of very legible information boards and glass cases. There is an eclectic mixture of exhibits – the Chelsea pensioner uniforms through the ages, regimental drum kits, some ’colours’, some history about the building and building materials such as original bolts and screws from Wren’s day. As befits the venue that hosts the annual Chelsea Flower Show there is even a certificate for a prize winning garden. The end section is wall to wall medals displayed according to campaigns and regiments. For me the most interesting thing to see was a ‘mock-up’ of a pensioner bedroom – neat and ship shape (wrong service but you know what I mean) with beautiful wood panelling but certainly not spacious. Just before our visit I had spotted a BBC item about the proposed rebuild. Certainly with an aging and increasingly dependent population Chelsea faces the same dilemma as many of the more local and less grand almshouses, which is how to maintain the integrity of the building while offering residents and carers a more disabled-friendly environment.
We exited through the Gift Shop, which is also the Post Office and staffed by Pensioners, and there are certainly some charming souvenirs – Jo was very taken with the memorial Poppy Umbrella so it was just as well it was not raining. In fact the spring sunshine was growing stronger.
The layout of the greater Hospital complex is very reminiscent of Oxbridge Colleges, which of course originated as monastic cloistered foundations, with three ‘courts’ of classical simplicity. Unfortunately the Figure Court is not enhanced by a fairly naff statue of Charles II in Roman Ruler garb but heavily gilded, ('and the Oscar goes to...') but you can look beyond to the River. The central court houses the adjoining Dining Hall and Chapel both of which can be visited. Mary had been lucky enough to attend a wedding held here and the sideways facing pews make it both friendly and good for gawping at the bride – if that’s your thing.
The public toilets are below the Light Horse Court and as the notices say were used as shelters during the bombs of World War 2; from this you will gather they are capacious but not accessible. In spite of this 13 people died when a bomb fell in 1941.
There were several small groups being led round by the more physically able pensioners – if you have the time and the organisational skills to book ahead I think it would be worthwhile to get an enhanced experience of this historic site unique in that it is still very much a lively active place and home to many.