/ The Baby Boomer Travel Guide
Baby Boomers, London — By Andrea Kirkby on July 21, 2010 at 5:34 pm
Filed under: Lifestyle, London, neighborhood, top-feature

Chelsea’s Secrets

Somehow it’s easier to say what Chelsea isn’t than what it is. It’s not edgy. It’s not glitzy. It’s not grand. It’s not touristy. Exactly what it is can be more difficult to define.

Perhaps it’s the fact that it hasn’t got a tube station that has kept Chelsea a secret. True, the London Underground goes as far as Sloane Square (map), home of the Peter Jones department store (map) and the kicking-off point for the King’s Road, the center of Chelsea’s heartbeat – but the tube lines swing away for Earl’s Court and Kensington, leaving Chelsea to the mercy of the red bus. And even the buses desert the King’s Road sooner or later, heading south to Battersea or north to South Kensington  and Gloucester Road.

Back in the Day

Chelsea’s heyday was the Swinging Sixties – though in fact Mary Quant’s Bazaar (map) in the King’s Road had been open since 1955. Quant invented the mini skirt and the smock dress, and the King’s Road became the fashion center of Sixties London. The Pheasantry (map) became the meeting point for the bright young things of the sixties, and the Chelsea Set outraged bourgeois London with both its fashions and its lifestyle for a few brilliant years.

Chelsea Pensioners out and about

They say lightning never strikes twice, but with the emergence of Punk in the 1970s the King’s Road did it again. Malcolm McLaren’s boutique SEX (originally named Let it Rock) lit a fuse that made Chelsea the site of a revolution for another decade.

Alas, when I moved to the neighborhood in the 80’s the fires had died down; London’s ‘last two punks’, their glorious pink mohawks stiff with glue and chains clanking as they walked, stood tamely for photographs in Royal Avenue. Over the years, the King’s Road has gone the way of many high streets, with international brands taking over the shops. You won’t see anything really edgy or revolutionary – even once you’re past Flood Street, which used to mark the place where corporate King’s Road turned into one-off boutique land.

Current Chelsea

Peter Jones dressed up for Christmas

Turn right or left off the King’s Road, and you’ll still find the attractions of Chelsea pretty much untouched. It’s a wonderfully leafy neighborhood – almost every street is lined with great plane trees, the pavements dappled with shade, and one of its best sights is the Chelsea Physic Garden (map).  It’s open Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday afternoons, April to October. This ancient garden was created to contain plants that could be used for medicinal purposes, and is one of the nicest places in London to hang out on a too-hot summer’s day.

Or visit Chelsea Hospital (map), with extensive gardens on the Thames side of the classical buildings. Founded by Charles II to house old soldiers fallen on hard times, it’s one of Christopher Wren’s most lovable works. Chelsea Pensioners will show you round the museum, and you’ll often see them in their blue (undress) or resplendent red (full dress) uniforms in the streets around Chelsea.

At the old Duke of York’s Headquarters, the British Army has moved out and the Saatchi Gallery (map) has moved in, bringing modern art to the center of Chelsea and perhaps adding that bit of lively avant-garde buzz that’s been missing for a while. It’s open 10 am-6 pm every day, with free admission to its shows.

Chelsea may have lost its cutting edge but it still has a number of fine independent shops. You’ll find John Sandoe Books in Blacklands Terrace (map), just off the King’s Road. It’s a quirky little bookshop with an impressive stock located in a Georgian terraced house stuffed full of books on three floors.  If they haven’t got what you’re looking for, they can order it for you.  At the west end of the King’s Road, Green & Stone where the smell of turpentine should alert you to the fact that you can find pretty much any artist’s material you need.

However my old stamping ground Antiquarius, whose gloomy depths were piled high with antiques, old books, picture frames, and dimly glowing chandeliers, has now closed. I really do miss it; what a super place it was to go browsing antiques, even if I could rarely afford anything I really wanted.

A wander round the back streets of Chelsea is its own reward. There are marvelous places to be found in the neighborhood, like Crosby Hall (map), Thomas More’s old house, on the banks of the Thames – a stunning relic of Tudor London. Or Carlyle’s House (map), a Queen Anne house in a quiet tree-lined street, which retains his study and many of the rooms furnished in true high Victorian style, with memoirs of Chopin, Dickens, and other nineteenth century cultural figures. Fine high Georgian houses line the Thames at Cheyne Walk, but my favorites were always the candy-colored cottages of Bywater Street.  John le Carré fans may remember his spy chief Smiley lived at number 9.

The Different Sides of Chelsea

Chelsea has always been a bit of a suburb – a place where people lived, not worked. You went to the City to work, to the West End for the theater or the opera, though Chelsea still has the famed Royal Court Theatre (map) in Sloane Square, which premiered many of the Angry Young Men’s plays in the 1950s and 1960s, and hasn’t yet stopped being controversial. And that explains some of its leafy charm – it’s a great place to live, with its laid back lifestyle and lack of hustle.

But another side of Chelsea is much livelier – it’s the hard partying clubber’s paradise. That strand of Chelsea life goes right back to the 1960’s and it hasn’t stopped yet. The King’s Road remains the life and soul of this party, with clubs like Tuatara (map) with its opulent styling, and Embargo 59 (map), famous for its mirrored ceiling and rum punches. Both clubs have roof top terraces – what better place to deal with the sticky London summer?

For those who fancy a lively conversation and a pint or a gourmet meal, rather than partying till they drop, Chelsea offers some excellent pubs and restaurants. Tom Aikens (map) at 43 Elystan Street showcases inventive modern British cooking, or you could choose La Poule au Pot (map) at 231 Ebury Street for a Gallic style evening. That’s at the top end of the market – or go for something cheaper in the Stockpot (map) on King’s Road, which used to be the Chelsea Kitchen. It is reputed to have the rudest manager in London, but portions are large and the food is good home-made stuff.

Chelsea has a few fine old pubs too, as you might expect – but they come with a particular Chelsea twist, particularly on the gastro-pub side. For instance the Pig’s Ear (map) on Church Street features Victorian collector’s cases full of curiosities, as well as fine food and ale from the Uley Brewery, Gloucestershire, while the Cross Keys (map) on Lawrence Street serves Theakstons real ale alongside fine food.

The Overall Chelsea Experience

You’ve had your day in Chelsea; drunk your pint, seen the sights, eaten out, gone clubbing. Now the bleak gray light of dawn is visible, what’s left to do?

Remember how the buses never go all the way down the King’s Road? It’s time for us to be brave, and stride out towards the great unknown. And if you do, just past a kink in the road you’ll find you have come to a remarkable place, an eschatological epicentre. It’s up there on the sign in black and white:  World’s End.

Because after Chelsea, there’s nothing else! And of course it makes a fantastic boast to your friends – they may have been to London, but have they even been to the World’s End?

Photo credits – Chelsea Pensioners by Zorilla on flickr; John Sandoe Books, from Ewan-M on flickr; Peter Jones Christmas cascade by Monica Arellano-Ongpin on flickr; Cover photo by Adriana Lukas on flickr

Related places:
  1. A
    Sloane Square
    Sloane Square, London, UK
    View Details and Book
  2. B
    Peter Jones
    Sloane Square, London SW1W 8EL, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  3. C
    Mary Quant
    7 Montpelier Street, London SW7 1EX, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  4. D
    Pheasantry House
    4 Jubilee Pl, Kensington, London SW3 3TQ, UK
    View Details and Book
  5. E
    Chelsea Physic Garden
    66 Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4HS, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  6. F
    Royal Hospital Chelsea
    Royal Hospital Rd, London SW3 4SR, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  7. G
    Saatchi Gallery
    Duke of York's HQ 4SQ, King's Rd, London SW3, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  8. H
    John Sandoe Books
    10 Blacklands Terrace, Kensington, London, UK
    View Details and Book
  9. I
    Cheyne Walk
    Crosby Hall, Cheyne Walk, Kensington, London SW3 5AZ, UK
    View Details and Book
  10. J
    Carlyle's House
    24 Cheyne Row, London SW3 5HL, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  11. K
    Royal Court Theatre
    50-51 Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AX, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  12. L
    TUATARA by Soiree Nights.com
    107 King's Rd, London SW3 4PA, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  13. M
    Embargo 59
    533b King's Road, London SW10 0TZ, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  14. N
    TOM AIKENS
    43 Elystan Street, London, England
    View Details and Book
  15. O
    La Poule Au Pot
    231 Ebury Street, London SW1W 8UT, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  16. P
    The Stockpot
    273 King's Road, London SW3 5EN, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  17. Q
    The Pig's Ear
    35 Old Church Street, Chelsea, London SW3 5BS, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
  18. R
    Cross Keys
    1 Lawrence Street, London SW3 5NB, United Kingdom
    View Details and Book
Tags: Lifestyle, London, neighborhood, top-feature

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