In 1834 Thomas Carlyle, the historian who was to become one of this fascinating part of London’s most famous residents, described Chelsea 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”.
Chelsea is probably now less ‘dirty and confused’ than in Carlyle’s day, but to all intents and purposes Carlyle could well have been writing about much of the Chelsea of today.
Blue Plaques abound and every street seems to have been home to a noted artist or writer at some time or other. Chelsea is rich in historic parks, gardens and open spaces. Some parts still have the feel of a village about them, while in Wren’s Royal Hospital the area boasts one of London’s finest secular buildings.
Medieval Chelsea was little more than a cluster of buildings on a gravel bank among the marshes next to the Thames but in the 16th century a number of notable individuals saw the benefits of its location – upstream of the cities of Westminster and London and with the nearby river handy for transport – and built houses there. Reginald Bray, who fought with Henry Tudor at Bosworth and was the architect of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, lived here, as did Sir Thomas More who built a house about 200 yards west of Chelsea Old Church.
In the late 17th century the foundation of the Royal Hospital by Charles II gave Chelsea its most famous residents – the Chelsea Pensioners – while the 18th century saw Chelsea become something of 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. In the mid-18th century, the royal family were such frequent visitors that 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 Jacob Epstein, Augustus John, John Betjeman and, more recently, Mick Jagger, and Bob Geldolf.
1. 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.
2. Albert Bridge
Opened in 1873, the Royal Albert Suspension Bridge, to use its full name, has always been rather frail and wobbly. Notices on its old toll booths instruct troops to “break step” while crossing it, and it is currently closed to vehicles while repairs are carried out. In the 1950s 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 scheme in 1992 in a bid to make it more visible to shipping, and is illuminated at night by 4,000 light bulbs.
3. Royal Avenue
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.
4. 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.
5. Sloane Square
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 an 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.