The charm of Chelsea: wallow in the London district’s history and myth

shutterstock 522884497
shutterstock 522884497

Thomas Carlyle, the major Victorian historian and a one-time resident of Chelsea, once observed the area as ‘a singular heterogeneous kind of spot, very dirty and confused in some places, quite beautiful in others, abounding in antiquities and traces of great men’. Is that still true today?

Well, largely, perhaps, yes. Chelsea remains something of a playground of the wealthy and vibrant and arty and is brimming with green open spaces, historic parks and sublime architecture – and, happily enough, very little of it in the 21st Century could really be described as dirty! Indeed, for those reasons, it’s most definitely the perfect part of town in which to stay for a spoil-yourself-rotten short-break (perhaps at the likes of the San Domenico House hotel Chelsea).

Chelsea’s history

Now, historically speaking, Chelsea only properly got going in the Tudor era when the likes of Reginald Bray (whom helped the future King Henry VII defeat Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth) and the iconic Sit Thomas More set up home in the burgeoning just-outside-London village. Within the next 200-odd years, the legendary Royal Hospital was established by the equally legendary King Charles II right in the heart of Chelsea (its forever after been the residence of the marvellous red-coated Chelsea Pensioners, of course).

Following this, the area slowly began to establish itself as something of a day-tripper’s destination – especially for royalty and aristocrats. Then finally, the Chelsea that’s something like that we’d recognise today began to emerge when the art masters and authors extraordinaire that are Carlyle, Rossetti, Singer Sargent, Turner and Wilde moved in and created and completed some of their greatest works here. But what of the sights of Chelsea you can check-out today that really bring to mind and bring to life that magical, near mythical Chelsea of yesteryear; which ones must you pay a visit…?

Sloane Square

The square that’s home to the Tube station of the same name (which for so many million visitors each year is effectively their gateway into Chelsea and, of course, hotels in Chelsea UK), is still most famed for the fantastic theatre that’s the Royal Court. Sort of an all-encompassing equivalent of NYC’s ‘off Broadway’ playhouses, it developed an exciting, dynamic name for itself in the 1950s and early ’60s for staging important works like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (which premiered in 1956).

King’s Road

Meanwhile, running off Sloane Square and westwards is, of course, King’s Road. Today, it’s a premier retail destination for high fashion and haute couture, but half-a-century ago it was at as much of the beating heart of the Swinging Sixties and psychedelic hippie phenomenon as Carnaby Street; being home to the extraordinary boutiques that were Granny Takes a Trip and Mary Quant’s mini-dress-featuring outlet.

Albert Bridge

Albert Bridge in Chelsea London

Recognisable for its idiosyncratic pink colouring (thanks to a 1992 paint job to ensure passing boats wouldn’t bump into it), the Royal Albert Suspension Bridge opened way back in 1873, an excellent example of Victorian engineering; in fact, back in the 1950s, legendary poet Sir John Betjeman, via a campaign, succeeded in preventing its demolition, claiming it was ‘one of the beauties of the London river’. Its lit up by 4,000 lightbulbs each night ensuring it’s wonderfully illuminated for evening viewing from the riverside.