Royal Hospital Chelsea review
How do you fancy spending a few hours walking around an old people's home? Actually it's better than it sounds... because this is the Royal Hospital in Chelsea — one of Christopher Wren's old buildings. That's where all the Chelsea Pensioners live. You might have seen them shaking their money tins down the King's Road, wearing black caps and red tunics, looking like they have stepped straight from the annuls of a Napoleonic War. I'm not sure what hoops they had to jump through to qualify for a room in this place -- it's the country's grandest retirement home -- but I'm guessing that it must have been pretty spectacular. They don't get invited just because they're good at bingo, that is for sure. They'd need a distinguished army career probably, and plenty of medals on their chest. Maybe have an arm or a leg blown off too... something like that.
It's hard to imagine these old fellas running around with guns and grenades, but that is what soldiers do, isn't it. They might look cute in their buttoned-up tunics, but these aren't your everyday grandads. These are grandads of war. Fighting grandads -- grandads that blow up tanks and parachute in behind enemy lines.
The main gate is along Royal Hospital Road, about 1/3 of the way along, and once you get inside you are basically on your own. You can walk around at your own leisure. There's no leaflet or map, or anything like that. So what you need to do first of all is walk to the right, along the main facade. Head through that big central porch and you'll find a big wooden door either side. These are the rooms that everyone comes to see. On one side is the chapel, and on the other side is the Great Hall. Apart from the little museum and shop, these are pretty much the only rooms that you can enter, but when you take in all the gardens and the grounds as well then there is more than enough to fill up 90-minutes.
They do keep very weird opening hours though -- presumably because they need the rooms for lunch. They only open between 10 AM and noon, and then you are locked out for two hours while they sit down and eat. Then you can come back at 2 PM and see the rest.
The chapel is nice enough I suppose, but it's not going to knock your socks off. I think Christopher Wren saved his best for the exterior. He was probably sick of building churches by this time -- he'd already done about fifty of them. There is a nice painted scene behind the altar, and dark carved oak all over the place. The organ is worth a look as well, if you spin around and aim your gaze upwards. If you're lucky then you'll find a Chelsea Pensioner in there chatting with the visitors, telling them a little of its history. These guys always seem ready for a chat. (He might be doing a guided tour though, which you have to pay for in advance, so don't join the crowd or he might kick you off.)
I had big hopes for the Great Hall because that's where the Duke of Wellington was laid in State, but it's much the same as the chapel really. They still had all the tables and chairs in there from when they'd been eating breakfast. The kitchen staff were tidying up the tabletops and sweeping crumbs off the floor, which kind of ruined the mood a bit. They've got old oil paintings of kings and queens glaring down at you from the side, and big boards full of the battles they fought. It reminded me a little bit of the dining hall at my old school. They had a big list of ex-headmasters and school captains to inspire the pupils, and this place has got dead men who did their duty.
The tables are furnished with deep green lampshades and chunky knives and forks. I saw a load of bowls filled with croutons too, that no one wanted to eat. (Croutons and cornflakes? Maybe they had soup for breakfast.) This isn't the kind of place that serves up two slices of toast and a mug of tea. It's more like salmon pate starters and a pile-high plate of bacon and eggs. I'm guessing they have Earl Grey instead of Typhoo tea -- that is the kind of thing they drink in here.
Now head out of the other door and into the three-sided courtyard and colonnade. This was definitely my favourite space and reminded me a bit of Kensington Palace. It uses the same red and brown bricks that Wren used over there. The windows are looking down all around you, so I'm guessing this is where the Pensioners have their rooms, overlooking the grass and the cannons on the lawn. There's also a rather bizarre statue standing in the middle, of King Charles II. It's all gilded over in gold and he's togged up like a Roman emperor, complete with a short skirt and laurel leaves. I've never seen a British king look like that before. He looks like he's off to a fancy dress party.
After that you can check out the little museum and shop. The museum is just a three-room affair filled with uniforms, citations and racks and racks of medals on the walls. There must be a few thousand of them at least, all donated by the Pensioners. The best exhibit was a little mock-up of their room. They show you what a full-size bedroom looks like, complete with all the furniture. I can't say that I know what a prison cell looks like, but it must be of a similar size. It's like a dorm room at university. It's nice and cozy and comfortable though, and I would be quite happy to live in it.
As you're walking around you can't help but bump into a few of the Pensioners. This is, after all, where they live. I know it sounds stupid but I wasn't really expecting them to be proper OAPs — I don't know why. But they are all shuffling around with walking sticks and mobility scooters. You can straight away tell that they are ex-army by the way they talk and hold themselves. It's almost like they are still in the forces... still living the dream... waiting for the Queen to call them up again. Once a soldier, always a soldier. 99% of them are men (there's about 350 of them), but I did notice one woman too, so I guess they have started letting in the ladies.
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