Their red cloaks are famous, as is their magnificent home, but fewer know that the Royal Hospital Chelsea, as the home of the Chelsea Pensioners is known is also open for tours.
It’s an unusual site, in that it still performs the same function as it was designed for — unlike many other buildings of the era which now serve very different functions having been converted into museums or universities. Some 300 pensioners live here, although that’s a term that’s changed, as the earliest pensioners were war wounded soldiers, so could be quite young — and were still expected to do work on some sort or other. Today, it’s the elderly retired living out their last decade or so.
Although the grounds are, as I only recently learnt, open to the public, tours have normally been limited to pre-booked groups, but they recently started selling individual tickets, and also are experimenting with evening tours.
So, a dark and very rainy night saw a huddle of people waiting to see what would happen next. In the distance, the familiar scarlet uniform of a Pensioner, carrying an old candlelit lantern emerges from the misty rain, and the tour begins.
As this is a functioning estate, tours are limited to a few of the main, and fortunately most impressive rooms. In one, the living image of King Charles II greets us, and goes through a history of how the Hospital was built. Quite entertaining, and unexpected, although I can appreciate that if you aren’t familiar with the restoration period, it could be a bit confusing.
Outside again, and into the great courtyard which today is the back of the hospital facing the river, but was once the front for easy access by barge. Glowing in the front yard is the gold statue of King Charles II, which each year is the centrepiece of their annual tradition to clad it in oak leaves on Oak Apple Day.
In the courtyard is also what’s thought to be the sole memorial to HMS Birkenhead, the sinking o9f which popularised the unofficial rule of women and children first, as they were evacuated off the ship before the men, most of whom died.
The chapel awaits, as does the living and terrifically giddy Sir Christopher Wren who talked in breathlessly enthusiastic tones about the chapel, and why the architecture is so clever, which indeed it is.
A short detour to see an original pensioner apartment, which while tiny by modern standards would have been luxurious for the time. Now, if you do the evening tour, you skip the great dining hall, as it’s in use, but you do get to finish off with wine in the Chelsea Pensioner’s private club instead, which is a very nice way to end a tour.
As a tour it’s more entertaining than deeply historically informative, but that’s a good thing, as some history tours can end up sounding like a list of facts, but this was a pleasant evening in fine surroundings, and finished with wine — so hard to beat.
To arrange a guided day time tour – go here. The evening tours are a new thing, and they may be advertised again shortly.