Many years ago, I spent almost every weekend shopping in the King’s Road area of Chelsea and, according to a good friend, little has changed. Every street seems to have been home to a noted artist or writer at some time or other. It’s also an area rich in historic parks and gardens.
In 1834 the famous historian Thomas Carlyle described London’s Chelsea neighborhood as “a singular heterogeneous kind of spot, very dirty and confused in some places, quite beautiful in others, abounding in antiquities and traces of great men”.
Apart from the fact that the Chelsea of today is probably now less “dirty and confused”, Carlyle could well have been writing about the Chelsea of today.
In Medieval times, Chelsea was a mere cluster of buildings on a gravel bank among the marshes next to the Thames, but in the 16th century a number of notable people recognized the benefits of its location. It was upstream from the cities of Westminster and London and, of course, there was the river Thames nearby for transport, so houses were built. In Tudor timesReginald Bray, the architect of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, lived there, as did Sir Thomas More who built a house about 200 yards west of Chelsea Old Church.
In the late 17th century Charles II founded the Royal Hospital and gave Chelsea its famous Chelsea Pensioners.
The 18th century saw Chelsea become a destination for daytrippers. The Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens, the remains of which still survive in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, attracted throngs of visitors.
During the mid-18th century, the royal family were such frequent visitors that one Horace Walpole noted that “you couldn’t walk there without treading on a Prince of Wales or a Duke of Cumberland”.
“It was in the 19th century that Turner, John Martin, Whistler, Rossetti, John Singer Sergeant, Carlyle and Oscar Wilde, lived and worked in Chelsea, giving the area its artistic and literary reputation.
Twentieth century residents have included sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (Ecce Homo), artist Augustus John, John Betjeman, Bob Geldoff and Mick Jagger.
In addition to strolling down the King’s Road, here’s a list of historical landmarks suggested by the BBC to visit
The fictional home of James Bond, this elegant but rather short avenue was laid out in the 1690s as part of a proposed carriageway linking the Royal Hospital with Kensington Palace. It got no further than the King’s Road which, as the name suggests, was originally a private road reserved for royalty. Until 1830 you needed a special token to use it.
The Royal Hospital
The home of the famous scarlet coated Chelsea Pensioners, the Royal Hospital was founded in 1682 by Charles II “as a place of refuge and shelter for such land soldiers as are or shall be old, lame or infirm in the service of the Crown”. It’s a role it still performs as home to over 300 pensioners. The oldest part of the hospital – the brick buildings around Grinling Gibbons’ statue of the founder – were designed by Christopher Wren. There’s a museum and the courts are normally open to visitors before and after lunch.
Opened in 1873, The Royal Albert Suspension Bridge, to use its full name, has always been rather frail and wobbly. Notices on its old tool booths instruct troops to “break step” while crossing it, and it is currently closed to vehicles while repairs are carried out. In1950s Sir John Betjeman led a successful campaign against its demolition, describing it as “one of the beauties of the London River”. It was given its largely pink colour schee in 1992 in a bid to make it more visible to shipping, and is illuminated at 5.
Sloane Square tube station and the adjacent Royal Court Theatre were originally built in the late 19th century. In 1940 they were severely damaged in a World War II air raid that killed 79 passengers on a train in the station. Both were rebuilt in the 1950s but the station’s glass roof was never replaced. The theatre has a tradition of staging new plays by new writers; John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger premiered here in May 1956. On the other side of the square, the glass-fronted modern movement facade of the Peter Jones department store was built in the mid-1930s to designs by William Crabtree.
Chelsea Old Church
An air raid in April 1941 ensured that most of Chelsea Old Church is in fact new. The bombs left the church in ruins, to be rebuilt after the war. However the chapel commissioned by Sir Thomas More as a place of private prayer survived the bombing. Henry VIII is reputed to have married Jane Seymour here in advance of the state ceremony.
The National Army Museum
Don’t be put off by the brutal late Sixties exterior – admission is free and the extensive displays are both innovative and engaging. The museum tells the story of Britain’s armies and soldiers from Agincourt to Afghanistan and combines hands-on displays with some truly iconic objects: a huge 19th‑century model of the battle of Waterloo; the order that launched the Charge of the Light Brigade; a 1918 signboard from Hellfire Corner outside Ypres and numerous Victoria Crosses.
Carlyle’s House, 24 Cheyne Row
The great Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane, moved into this Queen Anne house in 1834. After Jane’s death in 1866 Carlyle continued to live here and died in its drawing room in 1881. Carlyle could not abide noise (especially from the cockerels in the next-door garden) and worked in a specially-soundproofed study. Now owned by the National Trust, the house is very much as it was when the Carlyles’ lived here.
Chelsea Physic Garden
The physic garden was established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries to train apprentices how to identify plants. After Oxford University’s botanic garden, it is Britain’s oldest. Near the statue of Dr Hans Sloane, who leased the site to the Apothecaries in perpetuity for a nominal rent, is the oldest man-made rock garden in Europe. The rocks include pieces of carved stone that were once part of the Tower of London.”