Historic Old Chelsea

Mrs M lives in Historic Old Chelsea, the old-fashioned neighbourhood between the King’s Road and the Thames. Until Tudor times and Elizabethan England, the Thames was the main thoroughfare for traveling through the city. Anne Boleyn was taken on a barge up the Thames to the Tower to be executed in 1538. At that time Chelsea was open countryside, and the King’s Road was the king’s own road through it.

Henry VIII’s mansion dominated Cheyne Walk , which is named for the Cheyne family, whose tombs are in the Chelsea Old Church. Aristocratic families lived along the Thames beside Tudor palaces. Historic Old Chelsea is valued today for its rich Tudor past and for it’s mystique as the favourite haunt of 19c and 20c artists and writers and the bohemian set.

Mrs M’s London of the 30s and 40s was an idealized, innocent and safe place of well-brought up, soft-spoken people who were generally polite and said “hello” on the street. They dined together and had cucumber sandwiches for tea. Houses were not decorated with today’s identical, white, soulless ‘blank canvases,’ that look like hotel rooms. Personal taste was highly appreciated and the ‘vogue.’ Londoners were not flash or ostentatious like today’s city dwellers. Chelsea was a vibrant place full of artists’ clubs and cheap restaurants, where you rubbed shoulders with artists, writers and intellectuals.

Cheyne Walk runs for eight blocks along the River Thames between the Chelsea and Battersea bridges. Since its heyday in the 15c and 16c Cheyne Walk has been synonymous with elegant salons and the grandest and most expensive houses in London. It has always been a highly prized, “prestige” address. Houses do not often change hands here. The fact that there is no nearby tube stop has protected the area somewhat from modernization by city bonus billionaires. This means it has preserved its old world, backwater atmosphere. Houses have not had the expensive renovations which often destroy their architectural character.

In the 1500’s the river was still the main highway through London. The grandest houses and palaces were along or near the riverside. Sir Thomas More’s farm occupied 114 acres. In 1724 Daniel Defoe described Chelsea as a “village of palaces.” Cheyne Walk was dotted with royal palaces, mansions and gardens, riverside inns, porcelain factories, physic gardens, ateliers of artists and writers, and the homes of aristocrats and historical figures.

Mrs M’s London focuses on this neighbourhood which is largely owned by Lord Chelsea, and extends between the King’s Road and the river, and the Royal Hospital, where the Chelsea Flower Show takes place, and Lots Road, which was once the Old Chelsea Wharf.

Old Church Street is one of the oldest streets in London. At the bottom of Old Church Street on the river is the ancient Old Church, circa 1157, where Henry VIII secretly married Jane Seymour in 1543, only a few hours after Anne Boelyn was beheaded. Catherine Parr, who later became Henry VIII’s sixth wife, brought Princess Elizabeth (Elizabeth I) and Lady Jane Grey to worship here. Henry VIII’s barge frequently moored at the church for him to visit his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, in his riverside palace and to clandestinely visit his mistress, Anne Boelyn. He also dined here regularly with Sir Thomas More at Beaufort House. Both were Henry’s best friends. More’s tomb is in the More Chapel in the Old Church. It was at Beaufort House that Henry met Holbein, who painted his famous portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery.

In 1543 Henry build his own castellated mansion facing the river at what is now 27-45 Cheyne Walk. Anne Boelyn walked these streets, disguised in her cape, hiding from the disgruntled mobs. Elizabeth I frequented these streets with her ladies-in-waiting.

In the 19th and 20th centuries many famous artists and writers lived here including: Whistler, Turner, Sergeant, the Greaves brothers, George Elliot, William de Morgan, Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, Jacob Epstein, Alfred Munnings, Augustus John, Holman Hunt, Wilson Steer, Christopher Wood, Bram Stoker, and Sir Phillip Steere.

Old Chelsea was the centre of the post-war world of Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, The Mitford girls, Daphne du Marnier, Oswald Mosley, Virginia Wolf, Somerset Maugham, John Betjeman.

Other writers who lived on Cheyne Walk include: Sir Thoman More, Thomas Carlyle, Jonathan Swift, Katherine Mansfield, Henry James, Elizabeth Gaskell, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Bertrand Russell, the Sitwells, Sybille Bedford, Halloc Bellow. Because of its’ celebrated history, this area has a romance and allure unequal to any other part of London.

In more recent years Princess Diana was often seen at the Old Church with William and Harry for wedding and christenings of the babies of her close friends.

— Countess du Ruel

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