Sunday, 11 May 2008

Chelsea Pensioners

It’s nearly time for The Chelsea Flower Show again, and as usual it will be held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, one of the prime sites in London. Commissioned by Charles I and built by Christopher Wren in 1618, this is the home of the Chelsea Pensioners and must be the grandest old folks’ homes in all of England.

As organisers and exhibitors of the prestigious show labour to transform the gardens of the Hospital into a showground, and the massive machinery of it all lurches into action, spare a thought for whose real garden is being used for the purpose. The Royal Hospital, Chelsea, is home to those who have served in the army and have an army pension, are over 65 years of age and either ill or infirm and none should have any dependents.

In fact the residents watch the building of the show with interest: this is a highlight of the Hospital year and one of their main forms of revenue. When the show is on they change from their normal navy blue uniform into their ‘scarlets’ – a red wool dress jacket – and get to sport their tricorne hats when Royalty visits the show.

This is not just the home of the Pensioners it is their own little world. They refer to the Hospital as a small village: there is a library, pub, post office, billiards and snooker tables, laundry, dry cleaners, workshops for crafts, an art studio and a band. Everything is all found for them: they take breakfast, lunch and high tea in the Great Hall and for single men this is one of the greatest benefits. To give you a sense of the history of the place, the wood that was used for the walls and the floor of the Great Hall in 1652 is said to have come from the captured French Fleet.

The men each have their own ‘berths’ – like wooden stalls – in what are known as The Long Wards, on the top two floors of the building. Berths are each fitted with a bed, chest, desk and chair. There is a hatch which opens onto a communal corridor with windows. But revenue is needed to upgrade these so that each man has his own facilities and a small reading room with a view. If the men are ill or need respite care they are admitted to the infirmary.

And it is because a new infirmary is being built – which will give the men their own en-suite facilities – that the revenue raised by their fund raising events, and Chelsea Flower Show in particular, is so important. When the new infirmary is finished the present one in Light Horse Court – now too small - will be made available for ex-army women. Women? Ye Gods, the men say. But even the pensioners have to move with the times.

Fortunately the formal grass courts that surround the buildings of the hospital are not used for the show during Chelsea week. This means that Pensioners still have somewhere to rest and chat to their comrades. They are on the whole a game bunch and keep a keen eye out for the excitement and public spectacle of the incomparable Chelsea Flower Show.

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