Tudor sites, physic gardens and more: discover historic Chelsea

Chelsea Old Church

Don’t doubt it; Chelsea’s beginnings are intriguingly historical, with its major thoroughfare, (the) King’s Road, originally built and so named thanks to the 17th Century’s King Charles II’s decree a transport route be built through the then village for his safe conduct from Hampton Court Palace to London. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, for there are many more historical sites and curiosities to unearth in the area…

On the tracks of the Tudors

King Henry VIII

Heard of Thomas More? If you’re at all interested in English history you’re sure to have; the one-time close associate of the Tudor King Henry VIII, who denounced the latter’s abolishing of Catholicism across the nation and, in its stead, establishment of the Church of England, so he might divorce his first wife and marry his second (the notorious Anne Boleyn). Considering this, it won’t come as much of a surprise to learn More was a loyal Catholic, so much he had rebuilt an old chapel in Cheyne Walk (now known as Chelsea Old Church), as well as a house for his family in Beaufort Street. There’s a poignant statue of More on the Embankment outside the church (poignant because Henry eventually had him beheaded). It’s also worth noting that on what’s now Cheyne Mews, a manor house once stood that Henry had built as a wedding present to his sixth and final wife; its gardens can still be espied behind the Mews’s walls, including mulberry trees supposedly planted by Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.

Gardeners’ (secret) world

Chelsea Physic Garden

Founded way back in 1673, Chelsea Physic Garden is a glorious natural hideaway on Royal Hospital Road, notable as the UK’s second-oldest botanical garden and founded by an organisation known – rather wonderfully – as the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. Home to an extraordinarily varied and beautiful collection of endangered plant species and rare medicinal herbs, the garden’s centrepiece is a striking statue of one Sir Hans Sloane, the 18th Century Anglo-Irish physician and collector of objects after whom the world-famous Sloane Square (not far at all from hotels near Saatchi Gallery) was named.

Visit the Victorians

Originally built in Georgian times, the red-brick tenement town house at 24 Cheyne Row was later the home of Thomas Carlyle, the famous philosopher and historian of the Victorian era. Even if you’ve not heard of the chap, it matters little, as the place is still worth a visit (especially if you’re visiting Chelsea by staying at the hotel San Domenico House), owing to its preservation to how it more or less must have been in its 19th Century heyday when Carlyle called it home. So, by all means then, bound up to the front door and pull down the doorbell (as was the custom back then) in exactly the manner that the owner’s frequent visitors would have done (the likes of Browning, Dickens, Ruskin and Tennyson, no less). And, once inside, take a look around its beautifully elegant, ornate rooms, filled out with portraits, books and personal possessions of Carlyle and his celebrated letter-writing wife.

Fine art fraternity

It was also in Victorian times that Chelsea first became associated with notable arty types, with the likes of Dante Gabriel Rosetti (16 Cheyne Walk), J. M. W. Turner (at #118-199), Dracula author Bram Stoker (at #27) and James Abbot McNeill Whistler (at several houses on the same street) all setting up home here. Additionally, it’s not for nothing that Carlyle Mansions is known colloquially as ‘Writer’s Block’, with T. S. Eliot (#19), Ian Fleming (#24), Henry James (#21) and Somerset Maugham (#27) all having lived there at one time or another.