Wintry Wanderings Among Chelsea’s Ghosts

A view of the Thames from Chelsea Embankment.

I’ve lived in some historic places over the years — Paris, Greenwich Village, Washington — but it wasn’t until I spent a winter in Chelsea a year ago that I felt as if I were inside a diorama. The ur-Chelsea, I mean: London, not the quarter of Manhattan that provided Joni Mitchell with inspiration for a song and, in the process, Bill and Hillary Clinton with a name for their newborn daughter. For historical voyeurism, London’s Chelsea is hard to beat, especially if you incline to artist-writer types, or as my late friend Christopher Hitchens would put it, “people of that kidney.”

Winter, I should add, is an excellent time for dead-celebrity stalking. In spring and summer, London thrums and buzzes like a hive. Pubs spill onto the sidewalk, tourists swarm (those Americans!) and the lush city parks that inspired the spare landscapes of Thomas Gainsborough resemble Woodstock re-enactments. Even residential Chelsea takes on the look of a Davos confab or world’s fair.

Immediately next door to our little rental flat on Embankment Gardens, a sweet little enclave hard by the Thames, was the Chelsea Royal Hospital. In May, it becomes the site of the annual Chelsea Flower Show. As splendid an event as it is, the very acme of the floral monde, I was glad not to have been a collateral part of it. The empty winter streets, brisk but never too-cold air, and golden afternoon sun made for superb and invigorating perambulations.

We were in London because my wife was studying for an advanced medical degree in tropical medicine. Every morning she would bravely tootle off in the dark to catch her bus and the Tube. I was a stay-at-home spouse, banging away at a novel, and feeling rather inadequate to the task, given the density of illustrious literary figures who once lived around the corner.

Every afternoon, when the day’s banging away was done and the larder of metaphors and bons mots was finally empty, I’d lace up my sneakers (trainers, as the British call them) and embark on epic walks, culminating with a rendezvous with my darling at the oyster bar at Harrods.

Yes, I know, Harrods: throngs of actual tourists (as opposed to, say, me) and that weird, creepy shrine to Diana and Dodi. Call Harrods a cliché if you insist, but the food courts on the ground floor are my idea of perfect heaven. And sitting at the marble counter with a glass of Sancerre and a dozen Kumamotos sure worked for my darling, after a long day of PowerPoint presentations on loa loa and other revolting filarial nematodes.

Having refreshed, we’d cruise the bright, gaily tiled food courts, gathering up whatnots for supper at home: Scotch eggs, fish pies, aromatic salamis and cheeses, dumplings, fresh-shot pheasant. The food courts are a gastronomic United Nations. On the way out, we’d dip down to the wine department in the basement for a bottle of claret, sherry, Chablis or whatever looked good (and cost less than £10,000).

Then came the mile-and-a-half hump back to Embankment Gardens in the dark, a goodish half-hour, through Hans Place to Pont Street, past Lillie Langtry’s old residence. You remember the “Jersey Lillie” — beauty, actress, muse, concubine to the Prince of Wales (among others). She sat for Whistler and traded quips with Oscar Wilde.

Where were we? Down Pont Street and right onto Sloane Street by the Cadogan Hotel, where Wilde was arrested by detectives for “gross indecency.” Down Sloane to Sloane Square, then west on the King’s Road, epicenter of 1960s Swinging London. Then zigzags down smaller streets and a tree-lined allée that in the late 17th century was the driveway to the Royal Hospital, and down St. Leonard’s Terrace toward Tedworth Square, where Mark Twain lived for a time.

Onto Tite Street, the home stretch, with a brief stop at the corner Tesco convenience store, for milk and a half-dozen newspapers, including the guilty pleasure of tabloids shouting “Gotcha!” at the latest naughty cross-dressing member of Parliament or Prince Philip for telling some derogatory anecdote about Princess Di. Bliss.

Down Tite, past Oscar Wilde’s house, and a few yards farther, John Singer Sargent’s, now homes to ordinary folks (no offense meant). We were groaning now under the weight of our Harrods-heavy backpacks. Looking down the street and seeing the shimmer of lamplight on the surface of the Thames brought a sigh. Almost home.

On the flight home in March after our happy three months, I made a list from memory of what names I remembered seeing on the blue plaques denoting that someone of eminence had once lived there. Some names are perhaps more boldfaced than others: Bram Stoker (author of “Dracula”); Handel and Mozart (you know all about them); Jerome K. Jerome (“Three Men in a Boat”); Dante Gabriel Rossetti (founder of the “Pre-Raphaelite” school of painting); Algernon Swinburne (poet and very naughty); Hilaire Belloc (“Jim, who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a Lion”); J.M.W. Turner (painter); Sir Thomas Carlyle (the Sage of Chelsea, whose manuscript of “The French Revolution” was inadvertently tossed into the fire by John Stuart Mills’s housemaid); Carol Reed (directed “The Third Man”); Henry James; T.S. Eliot; Alexander Fleming (penicillin) and Ian Fleming (no relation, I don’t think); Jacob Epstein (sculptor); Herbert Beerbohm Tree (theatrical producer of Oscar Wilde plays); Sir Thomas More; and, what do you know, Henry VIII.

If you search online, you’ll find dozens more Chelsea residents, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (something to do with music); Eric Clapton; Agatha Christie; Ava Gardner — well, it’s endless. There are some fun sub-themes, such as the two famous fictional spies who lived there: John le Carré’s George Smiley and Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

The Royal Hospital right next to Embankment Gardens is one of London’s really, really splendid pieces of real estate. It was commissioned as an old soldiers’ home in the 1680s by Charles II, and designed and built by Christopher Wren.

We often glimpsed the “Chelsea pensioners,” old men in scarlet tunics and military decorations. (Some female pensioners also live there.) There you’d be, in the checkout line at the Tesco with an armful of lurid London tabloids and your liter of milk, and suddenly you’d notice one of them behind you, bent with age, chest clinking with medals won at D-Day, perhaps, or Operation Market Garden. As an exercise in humility, this is hard to top.

Other sights in Chelsea give you pause to contemplate your place in the universe. A few hundred yards from our flat, west along Cheyne Walk, is Chelsea Old Church. Historians believe it was about here in 54 B.C. that Julius Caesar’s army found a place to ford the river on their way north. About 12 centuries later, a church was built here. Two centuries after that, the church had evolved into the chapel of the local landowner, one Sir Reginald Bray. Sir Reg is buried here in the family tomb. It was he who, after the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, is said to have found the slain Richard III’s crown dangling in a thorn bush. He conveyed it to Richard’s successor, the Earl of Richmond, who became Henry VII, first of the Tudor monarchs and father of Henry VIII.

A few decades later (we’re up to the early 1500s now), the chapel had become part of the estate of Sir Thomas More, chancellor of England. Sir Thomas’s patron and friend Henry VIII visited him in rustic Chelsea. The occasion is beautifully and ominously recreated in the film “A Man for All Seasons.”

His Majesty liked Chelsea so much that he built himself a manor next door. Part of its wall can still be seen. As you know, Sir Thomas eventually found himself at odds with the king over certain theological principles, including wife-dumping. But Sir Thomas had always been realistic about his relationship with the king. As he told his son-in-law, William Roper, “If my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go off.”

Henry did have his friend’s head “go off,” after which it was put on a spike on London Bridge, as a warning to others who might hold views discrepant from his majesty’s. Later, it was hurled into the river, and retrieved by Sir Thomas’s grieving daughter Margaret, wife of Roper. Its whereabouts is unknown. (Roper and Margaret are buried in the Roper Vault of St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury.) The little enclosed greensward next to the church, once part of Sir Thomas’s orchard, is designated Roper’s Garden.

So there, in one tidy spot on the banks of the Thames, is a completed sequence of English history: the tomb of Sir Reginald, who fought alongside the future Henry VII, father of the man who chopped off the head of the later owner of Sir Reg’s chapel.

Chelsea Old Church was almost destroyed during a night of particularly vicious bombardment in the Blitz. One of those killed that April 1941 night was a young mother, a Canadian named Yvonne Green. Yvonne had volunteered to stand fire watch in the bell tower. A plaque outside commemorates her sacrifice.

There are so many plaques. Another notes that the sculptor Jacob Epstein once had his studio in Roper’s Garden. To complete yet another circle: Here Epstein carved the sculpture at Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris that adorns the tomb of someone who once lived just a few blocks away, on Tite Street — Oscar Wilde.

I realize I’ve spent most of the time talking about dead people, like that kid in “The Sixth Sense.” So let me say for the record that Chelsea is not a mausoleum. It’s a vibrantly alive place. King’s Road may not be quite as swinging as it was in the 1960s, but it still hops to the echoing beat of “happenings” that went on there. Mary Quant sold her first hem- and eyebrow-raising miniskirts. John Osborne kicked off the “angry young men” movement of the 1950s when his play “Look Back in Anger” opened at the theater on Sloane Square. Diana Spencer and her fellow Sloane Rangers headquartered there.

One evening as my wife and I were lumbering through the gloaming, backpacks bulging with vittles and bottles of plonk, we weren’t paying attention and took an errant turn off Tite Street. But getting lost is one of the joys of wandering in Chelsea.

We found ourselves standing in front of a pub called, rather neatly, the Surprise. How could we not go in? The Surprise became our regular hangout, the nook to which we’d repair on cold winter nights, to sit by the fire and drink Guinness and chortle over the day’s tabloids.

Why don’t I not give you precise directions, so finding it can be your own Chelsea surprise. It’s there, and with a bit of luck, you’ll get a bit lost on the way.

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