Chelsea Pensioners don’t have far to go if they want to visit the area’s biggest annual event. The giant white marquee of the Grand Pavilion of the Chelsea Flower Show is quite literally at the bottom of their garden.
When I strolled through the beautifully-kept grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea at the weekend, the sound of drilling and sawing echoed from across the neighbouring site as workers raced to get exhibits ready for the first visitors next week. Yet I had pretty much to myself the institution’s courtyards and terraced gardens, around which the Pensioners live in a series of attractive blocks.
The Hospital was established by Charles II in 1681 to provide a comfortable home for “the relief and succour” of veterans of the British Army and, although the facilities and accommodation have been refurbished over the years, its founding purpose remains the same. Perhaps the biggest change in recent came in 2009 when residents voted in a referendum to permit women to be admitted (although it remains a residence for single people, rather than couples).
Building work was finally completed in 1692 and by March of that year the full complement of 476 men over the age of 65 had moved into their accommodation. Sir Christopher Wren was the original architect for the institution in the 17th century, so as you would expect, the Grade II-listed buildings, which are based on the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, are aesthetically pleasing. Initial funding mostly came from deducting pay of those serving in the army, but since 1847 it has been supported by ‘Grant-in-Aid’ from the Ministry of Defence and other sources.
Visitors are welcome to to attend the weekly Sunday services held in the plain Wren-built chapel, boasting a fine painting of the Resurrection. And the grand wood-panelled dining room, featuring inscriptions of the dates of important British battles, and a large mural painting representing Charles II on horseback, is open to the public for a few hours every day.
During my exploration of the Hospital grounds I saw a number of the residents wearing their distinctive blue uniforms (they mostly save their more lavish red uniforms for special occasions). In many ways the Pensioners – split into three companies which are each headed by a Captain of Invalids who is responsible for the “day to day welfare and administration” of those under his charge – live in the regimented way that they did when they were in the army; they go to dinner to the sound of a beating drum
And judging by the activities on offer around the Hospital, I can’t imagine that the residents will get bored. Next to the bowling green, the Pensioners have they own pub (with a big Shepherd Neame sign outside). Noticeboards advertise events such as performances of ‘songs from stage and screen’, classes and local visits. The buildings cover a large area, so many of the residents travel around by electric buggy – and there are special charging points for use when their batteries run out!
There is an infirmary on the site, offering GP services, but the ‘Hospital’ in the institution’s name denotes ‘hospitality’ and the fact that many of the 300 or so residents are in good physical shape benefits the upkeep of the site. Pensioners work, for example, in the gardens through the week, helping to keep the lawns and shrubs trimmed. As part of the deal whereby they give up their Army pension they get accommodation and three meals a day provided for them.
While they may enjoy visiting the Flower Show, the biggest day of the year for the Chelsea Pensioners is Founders Day which takes place around May 29th. Not only was this date Charles II’s birthday but it was also when the Restoration of the King took place in 1660. Founders Day is sometimes referred to as Oak Apple Day, as Charles’s escaped from Parliamentary forces by hiding in a Royal Oak Tree following the Battle of Worcester in 1651 is also commemorated.
Today, a good starting point for visiting the Royal Hospital Chelsea is the visitors’ centre (nearest Tube station: Sloane Square). Here you can watch a film narrated by Dan Snow before heading out to explore the rest of the site. There is also a museum which is open on weekdays. But once the Chelsea Flower Show, which has been held in the grounds of the institution most years since 1912, opens it is unlikely to be peaceful.