I’ve lived in some historic places over the years — Paris, Greenwich Village, Washington, D.C. — but it wasn’t until I spent a winter in Chelsea a year ago that I felt as if I were inside a diorama. For historical voyeurism, London’s Chelsea is hard to beat, especially if you incline to artist-writer types.
Winter, I should add, is an excellent time for dead-celebrity stalking. The empty winter streets and brisk, but never too-cold air and golden afternoon sun make for superb and invigorating perambulations.
Every afternoon, 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. Call Harrods a cliché if you insist, but the food courts on the ground floor are my idea of perfect heaven. 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 pounds).
Then came the mile-and-a-half hump back to our place in Embankment Gardens — 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.
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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, where Mary Quant sold her first hem- and eyebrow-raising miniskirts. Diana Spencer and her fellow Sloane Rangers also headquartered there.
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 homestretch, past Wilde’s house, and a few yards farther, John Singer Sargent’s — now homes to ordinary folks (no offense meant).
Looking down the street and seeing the shimmer of lamplight on the surface of the Thames brought a sigh — almost home.
On our 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: 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 Wilde’s 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; 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.
Walking in history
The Royal Hospital, right next to Embankment Gardens, is one of London’s really, really splendid pieces of real estate, commissioned as an old soldiers’ home in the 1680s by Charles II and designed and built by Christopher Wren.
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, who 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. His 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, he built himself a manor next door. Part of its wall can still be seen. As you know, More eventually found himself at odds with the king over certain theological principles, including wife-dumping. As More told his son-in-law, William Roper, “If my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go off.”
The monarch 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, More’s head was hurled into the river and retrieved by his grieving daughter Margaret, wife of Roper. The little enclosed greensward next to the church, once part of More’s orchard, is designated Roper’s Garden.
Chelsea Old Church was almost destroyed during a night of particularly vicious bombardment in the Blitz.
The sculptor Jacob Epstein once had his studio in Roper’s Garden. 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 — Wilde.
I realize I’ve spent most of the time talking about dead people. So let me say for the record that Chelsea is not a mausoleum. It’s a vibrantly alive place.