A trait I have inherited from my father is the ability, no, the compulsion to talk to strangers. I know my children hate it, my friends cringe, but I can’t help myself. Nor do I have any desire to curb this habit as it almost always turns out well, sometimes very well indeed. At the recent Chelsea Flower Show I began chatting with one of the Chelsea Pensioners, resplendent in his iconic red coat. I invited him to St. Paul’s. He came the following Tuesday. He invited me to lunch at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, the world famous home of the Pensioners. Friends welcome. And this is how Ange, Lizzie and I got to spend Monday, a gorgeous, sunny, beautiful, London summer day, at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. What a treat!
Charles II, motivated, as much by admiration and envy of the French system, as desire to do the right thing, in 1681, issued a Royal Warrant to build the Royal Hospital “for the succor and relief of Veterans broken by Age and War,” and more than 300 years on it is still going strong. It is a place of wonder and beauty and its Pensioners are the toast of the town, wherever they go. “Hospital” in its original form means hospitality more than a place of medical care, and while there is a medical wing in the current complex, is was place in which to live out life with dignity, including a bed and meals, something many 17th century soldiers would have found to be the height of luxury. Expectations have changed and so has the Hospital, so that the sense of luxury remains in tune with todays standards. So much so that my friend Ange and I are plotting how we too can get ourselves a spot. We need to wait ’til we are 65, bump off the husbands and join the army. Ok, the first two are doable, the third a bit trickier but we are resourceful women. Because this place is gorgeous! GORGEOUS.
The Wren Chapel is particularly stunning, built by the great man Christopher Wren of St. Paul’s fame himself, in the 1680s. It is still a local parish church, it was the church of Baroness Margaret Thatcher and Denis. They are both buried on the grounds.
Ok, the individual rooms are a bit cramped but the idea is that one spends a little time alone as possible. There are large common areas where games abound. Posters and flyers for outings are everywhere. The grounds are stunning. The bar is open from 10:30 am and that red coat. Oh how much I would like to swan round in a red coat like that. Would need to nick a few medals to pin to my chest, obviously, but otherwise I think I would look dashing. And London would fall at my feet. London falls at all the Pensioners’ feet, as well it should.
Yes, there are women in the hospital, since 2009. Today there are 15. But they don’t get on with each other, we were told. We assumed this was just male hyberbole until Ange started chatting with the female pensioner in the gift shop. “We had a lovely tour of the Chapel from one of the other women, Xxxx.” “PHeffff” was the immediate response. “I don’t like her. No one likes her.” Ange was stunned into silence. Ok then. No group singing of “We are family, I’ve got all my sisters with me,” for this lot. But the men seem to get on. One of the gentlemen we met had recently been hugged, on television, by Jo Konta, at Wimbledon. The press were now after him. Are you “that man,” we joked (having been prompted by Peter). Yes he acknowledged, with a smile, he was. But no autographs today. We all laughed. We laughed often on Monday. Peter told fantastic and funny stories of his life and his time in Chelsea. But there is a solemn side to it all as well. These are men and women who have seen conflict, of the most brutal kind. And many of their friends paid the highest price. Standing in the North Front is a larger than life statue of a Pensioner, arm raised, as if hailing a cab (it is Chelsea, after all). Around the base are the words Sir Jacob Astley spoke before the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, known as the Soldier’s Prayer: “O Lord you know how occupied I shall be this day. If I forget thee do not forget me.” Words that pierce the soul.
But this is not a sad place, not at all. There is not any sense of what most of us generally feel when in an institution for older people: Despair. Chelsea Hospital tackles head on the great scourge of our modern times, especially for those in advancing years: loneliness. To be lonely here would take an effort. In a world that is becoming increasingly fractured and alienating, Royal Hospital Chelsea retains a tangible sense of community. A belonging. We should all be so lucky. There is a lot we could learn from this place. It was an honour and privilege to be invited in. A perfect London day indeed.