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You want to go to Chelsea

Kings Road is Memory Lane for Neil Sowerby

Written by . Published on April 26th 2011.

You want to go to Chelsea

On a weekend by the Thames Neil Sowerby looks beneath the surface of today’s smoothed-out Chelsea and finds some surviving gems

IMAGINE a Chelsea without Vivienne Westwood, without George Best propping up a bar, without Roman Abramovich’s millions. A Chelsea far removed from the fading stardust of today’s King’s Road. Imagine instead a lumpen riverside Saxon village, miles upriver from London as it was then.

I almost managed it, staring out at a cold creek lapping the rotting timbers of a wharf, beyond which the great river streamed seawards.
The bank was sticky clay, but there must be chalk beneath. Cealc Hythe are the old words for chalk and landing place, from which the name Chelsea apparently stems.

cheyne walk.jpgWe were staying around the corner from my gazing point – in Chelsea Harbour, a swanky modern take on landing place with a marina, expansive suites and our wonderfully panoramic base, the Wyndham Grand Hotel.

From our seventh floor window we could see all the way to a hazy London Eye. Battersea’s iconic Power Station was obscured by a river bend, but its wonderful little parish church St Mary’s sat on the embankment across the Thames, a sturdy survivor among the concrete and glass.

That site dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, but the present Grade I listed church was built in 1777. JMW Turner used to paint riverscapes from a seat here, still preserved. William Blake was married here. Scratch the surface and history oozes out of London’s pores.
Chelsea has had – and shed – many identities. Fashionable status clings to it still, but it’s money not cool that rules.

Oh, how different it once was. I recall my first visit as a student in the Seventies, queueing with some very louche folk to get into an early performance of the Rocky Horror Show (when it wasn’t a hen party singalong staple). As rainbow hippiedom preened itself, the punks were already gobbing angrily in the squats.

chelsea physic.jpgAt least the Kings Road hasn’t gone the tacky way of that other iconic Sixties thoroughfare, Carnaby Street. It may no longer swing but it has some very good shopping, particularly at the eastern end towards Sloane Square, which boasts the still vibrant Royal Court theatre and some characterful pubs nearby.

I recommend the Cooper’s Arms on Flood Street with Youngs ales and a stuffed bear and, around the corner in Christchurch Terrace, the surprisingly down-to-earth Surprise in Chelsea (Adnams and Fullers). Closer to Chelsea Harbour, the Chelsea Ram, Burnaby Street, offers stripped floorboards and tables, board games, Youngs bitter and simple but tasty food.

The Builder’s Arms, on Britten Street, was one of London’s pioneer gastropubs and is still going strong, though some might find the braying Henries and Sloane Rangers a bit-off-putting, but that is an occupational hazard in these parts.

The otherwise exquisite real ale and food pub, The White Horse in Parson’s Green the other side of Chelsea Football Ground also attracts that crowd.
That’s definitely not the case at the Troubadour Club. This legendary music venue has been programming acoustic music since the 1950s when Bob Dylan et al took to the stage. Today its musical spectrum is broader (and electric). From £6 entrance, you can catch an array of up and coming talent. 263-267 Old Brompton Rd (tube: Earls Court or West Brompton, 020 7370 1434, www.troubadour.co.uk).

Chelsea-Champions2010.jpgChelsea’s still a great place to wander round – from the the tranquil 16.5 hectare Brompton Cemetery (www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/ brompton_cemetery) to the embankment chic of Cheyne Walk (pronounced Chey-nee, once the epicentre of the pre-Raphaelite movement) and adjacent Roper’s Garden. But my favourite green space hereabouts is London’s oldest botanic garden, Chelsea Physic Garden at 66 Royal Hospital Road SW3 4HS. It was founded by apothecaries in the 17th century to investigate the medicinal properties of plants. The world’s oldest rock garden was built here in 1772 using bits of stone from the Tower of London. On a balmy afternoon, I just love to linger among its rare shrubs and scented herbs

In the winter it is intermittently open for “snowdrop days”, but its “season” is from April 1- October 31, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays 12-5pm, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays 12-6pm. Last admission 30 minutes before closing. Some free tours. www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk.

Iwyndham grand.JPGFor a different kind of park there’s Chelsea Football Club. The Double winners (for the time being), with their roster of Terry, Lampard, Drogba and some Spaniard no longer revered in Liverpool called Torres, reside at Stamford Bridge, which is actually located in the borough of Hammersmith. For stadium tours, visit www.chelseafctours.com.

Even Chelsea FC, for all Roman’s empire, is not the same. Flash back to Osgood, Hudson, Charlie Cooke and all those unfettered flash Seventies soccer icons who bestrode the King’s Road like Austin Powers in sideburns and shinpads. As I said, Chelsea has more than its share of glamorous ghosts.


Fact file

Wyndham Grand, Chelsea Harbour, SW10 0XG (020 7823 3000). Underground: Imperial Wharf. One night’s accommodation, room only, excl. VAT starts from: Chelsea Suite - £163.80; Marina Suite - £199.80; River Suite - £235.80.
The hotel boasts an excellent spa, among the best in the capital. For more information or to book visit www.wyndhamgrandlondon.co.uk.

Virgin Trains run up to 50 trains a day between Manchester and London. For details of services and fares, including special promotions, visit www.virgintrains.co.uk.
For timetable information ring National Rail Enquiries 08457 48 49 50.

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