Thursday, September 27, 2012

Royal Chelsea Hospital

"Why aren't you at work?" demanded the 102-year old pensioner as we passed him in the corridor.  The man didn't look a day over 90, and apart from a cane, lacked the accessories you would expect to see on a man 20 years his junior: no hearing aid, no glasses, no motorized wheelchair or scooter.  As the oldest resident of the Royal Chelsea Hospital, I imagine he's seen plenty of other tour groups come through the grounds on a weekday morning, but clearly he thought our group of American ladies should have better things to do with our time.

We met at the Chelsea gate on a drizzly Wednesday morning, and waited for our guide.
No, that's not our guide!
AWC ladies outside the library
We were met by Major Mal Smart, looking very smart indeed in his scarlet military coat, white gloves, and hat.  He took us inside the library and gave us a little history of the hospital and its residents.
Major Mal Smart gives us a briefing in the library
First off, it's not a hospital and never has been.  When it was built by King Charles II back in the late 1600's, the word "hospital" was a French term for a guest house or shelter for the needy -- with the same origins as the word "hostel."  He wanted to build a facility to house war veterans, and hired architect Christopher Wren to design it.  The RCH opened in 1692 and has been in continuous operation ever since.
Christopher Wren's design, with French influences
Not much has changed over the years.  The RCH still owns the 66 acres it was originally built on, parts of which are rented out for the annual Chelsea Flower Show and other special events.  (Some scenes from season 1 of Downton Abbey were also filmed here.)  While a new infirmary was built in 2009, the original Christopher Wren buildings remain largely unchanged from the exterior, albeit with some interior renovations, such as the addition of elevators/lifts.
The colonnade overlooking Figure Court
To be a Chelsea pensioner, you must have served in the Royal army for at least 12 years and be receiving a pension, at least 65 years old, in reasonably good health, and have no spouse or other dependents.  The RHC currently houses about 300 men and 6 women, ranging in age from 65 to the 102-year-old charmer we met on our tour.  They are provided with a small bedroom, several common areas, basic cooking facilities, and three meals a day.  All pensioners wear their uniforms in public.
Figure Court, with gold statue of Charles II as a Roman general
The Great Hall, where meals are served, made us think of Hogwarts.  The two tattered flags on the left were captured from American military regiments during the War of 1812.
Great Hall, set up for lunch
In the rear of the Hall is a painting of Charles II wearing a scarlet military coat that was the precursor to the one worn by the pensioners.  The wood carvings are all by Grinling Gibbons.
Entrance to Great Hall
Across from the Great Hall is the gorgeous Chapel, where members of the Royal family and the occasional celebrity are known to make an appearance every now and then.  The intricate wood carvings are all by Grinling Gibbons, who also worked in Hampton Court Palace and St. Paul's Cathedral.
The Chapel
Of course, our tour ended in the gift shop, with a delightful array of items celebrating the adorably spry Chelsea pensioners.
Fancy a tote bag?
Afterwards, some of us had lunch in the small cafe, which is open to the public.  Offerings were few and simple, but a sandwich, cup of tea, and chocolate-coated shortbread cookie for less than £5 is probably the best deal in Chelsea!

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite places in all of London--we used to live very close to there and would go to church there some. Once I saw Margaret Thatcher there a few years ago. I remember being excited when I saw the scene in Downton that was shot there.


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