One of the treasures of my neighborhood of Chelsea, is the Royal Hospital Chelsea which is only a couple minutes walk from my house. Built in the late 17th century under the direction of Charles II, its architect is the infamous Sir Christopher Wren, who built 54 London churches and other significant buildings including St.Paul's Cathedral.
Situated over 66 acres and adjacent to the Embankment of the Thames River,
the grounds are a delightful place to stroll
and also the location of the annual Chelsea Flower Show every spring.
Charles II had the Royal Hospital Chelsea built as a home for soldiers who were unfit for duty due to old age or injury. It still exists today 300 years later as a home for retired soldiers who meet certain requirements.
To be a Chelsea Pensioner, upon entry, one must surrender their Army pension, and in exchange they are provided with lodging, uniforms, food, and medical care for their lifetime.
Not a "hospital" in the strictest terms, but a place of "hospitality," the pensioners in scarlet must be free from obligation to support a wife or children, and normally be 65 years of age.
They are organized into three companies, each under the care of a Captain, and still adhere to a semblance of military order. Each Sunday morning, representatives gather for the Governor's Parade immediately preceding worship services in the Chapel.
It's a moving and fascinating parade, which you won't quickly forget.
Each pensioner is given a 9x9 foot berth as their home,
which is just enough room for a few personal things, including some storage, TV,
bed and desk. Meals are taken together as a group several times a day.
They also have their own pub and recreational area.
Because my friends and I enjoy their company so much, we went for a visit one rainy day, when we lucked into meeting up with Paddy Fox, a real "charmer" at the young age of 78, who delighted us with stories of his home country of Ireland and life as a pensioner. Having been at the Royal Hospital since 2001, he has served 35 years in the cavalry.
Paddy must have taken a liking to us too, because he took us into his apartment and tried on his scarlet coat for us to see. With extra responsibilities at the Hospital, he lives in one of the larger apartments that are available for a few lucky guys.
We also toured the beautiful chapel which was consecrated in 1691,
gazed at the magnificent painting of the Resurrection by Sebastiano Ricci,
listened to the incredible organ
and visited with one of the handful of women pensioners who was happy to tell us all about the chapel. It was only in March of 2009 that any women were allowed to become pensioners. It's been very amusing to me to visit with the pensioners while I've lived there, both before and after women were admitted, to hear of their reluctance to accept women at first, and their eventual "warming up" to the idea. How would you like to be one of the 2 or 3 women living with over 300 eligible bachelors??
If you are ever in the area on a Sunday morning, I encourage you to attend services there in the chapel. They have an amazing professional choir whose voices are angelic, you will mix and meet with the locals in the area, as well as the pensioners, and if you're lucky like we were last year, you might see Margaret Thatcher, because this is her home church when she feels up to coming.
A few parting glimpses, this is the Great Hall where the pensioners take their meals
and here's the hallway of one of the wards where they live. One of the directors allowed us a quick peek. You can see that their distinguished uniforms hang on the outside of their doors.
You will also find quite a few modernized modes of transportation--scooters lined up along the hallways.
It's been one of the true serendipities of living in this neighborhood to encounter these charming gentlemen on the streets as they make their way to the stores and to do a bit of shopping. They seem to cherish every moment you spend talking with them, and they never fail to delight you with their stories and their generosity with hugs.
May their roads be filled with gratitude for the service and sacrifices they have made for their country.
I salute them!