The powers that be were kind enough to allow me in to the allotments at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea.
A bit about the hospital
The Royal Hospital was founded by fun loving so called “merry monarch” King Charles II in 1681 for soldiers of good conduct who were no longer fit for active service in the British Army. Charles commissioned Christopher Wren to design the main buildings. It finally opened in 1686 and was completed in 1692. The hospital has been extended since that time and although it was bombed during WWII the greater part of the site Wren would still recognise to this day.
On the day
I was asked to ‘Report to the main gate’ and from there the guard would give me instructions to find the allotment. On arrival I was duly pointed in the right direction. They were good enough to give me the run of the whole site and I was armed with my chit from a Lt Colonel no less in case someone stopped to ask what I was doing there.
The allotment didn’t take long to find. It is quite a modest area of perhaps eight or nine small plots, not the 100’s I am normally used to. Another difference being that most allotments are almost all given over to food produce. Here however, around a third is given over to flowers:. Great fountains of dahlias, sunflowers and full, healthy, weighty roses of all colours. It was a welcome contrast. The vegetables, fruit and flowers worked perfectly together. I was very glad to see it was not all military ‘spit and polish’ either. There are piles of discarded pots and canes shoved away in hidden corners and there is the same entrepreneurial approach to allotmenteering as you would find on any other site. Improvisation and an individualistic approach was everywhere. The one thing however that was missing was The Chelsea Pensioners. I was totally alone.
No matter, I still had plenty to do until they turned up. The view I finally chose was standing on top of a fairly tall wall. From the wall I had more or less a full view of the allotment showing the wide range of flowers and veg. I Clambered up the best I could, gingerly balanced and steadied myself and began. After a slow start things started to work. I managed even to include Wren’s cupola and lantern which sits on top of the main building of the North entrance. All fine but still no pensioners. I eventually had got to the stage when I really did need the stars of the show. The Chelsea Pensioners had all gone AWOL.
I decided I had to go and find them so I packed my gear up aside from my sketch book and pencil and off I went. Oddly I did not have to go far. I moved out of the allotment and over to the low rise buildings at the left of the picture. I then heard a fair bit of noise from one of the buildings, a sort of lively chatting and music. I approached and peered through the Georgian windows, there they were, dozens of them. It appears they have their own onsite pub! They were in there having an afternoon drink and BBQ. All beer’ n’ pipe’ tobacco, A whale of a time it was. Great for them though for me pretty inconvenient. In my mind I was willing them to mount a patrol to do a spot of tomato watering, but to no avail. The battle and war were lost, outflanked by premium ale and spare ribs. Yes they were all pretty well dug in and were not going to budge for anything. I decided to go home.
I had some drawings of pensioners I did a few years ago I so I put them in the final drawing and these will go to produce an oil painting in the future. So all’s well.
Naturally I don’t really begrudge my AWOL pensioners. A good number of them must have endured unimaginable horrors for King/Queen and country so what a wonderful thing it is to spend the twilight of one’s years with good comrades while living in comfort and dignity. Not to mention your own onsite pub. And all of it in peace. Musing on it I rather think that’s exactly what ‘The Merry Monarch’ must have had in mind in the first place. Good old King Charles.
Although the allotments are not open to the public much of the site is.
The great hall and the chapel, the Hospital’s museum, and some of its courtyards are open to the public. The site of the 18th century pleasure gardens known as Ranelagh Gardens now forms part of the grounds of the Hospital, and is open to the public. The National Army Museum is adjacent to the Hospital.
Royal Hospital Chelsea Grounds
Lighthorse Court, Figure Court, College Court and The Chapel are open Monday to Saturday:
10:00 to 12:00noon and 14:00 to 16:00 throughout the year.
The Great Hall is open Monday to Saturday:
11:00 to 12:00noon and 14:00 to 16:00 throughout the year.
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