The Glory of the Empire, part 1
(all pictures courtesy of Google Maps)
1. This will be a long one, so start early by making your way through Battersea Park towards the Peace Pagoda.
Developed and maintained by a single Buddhist monk, Gyoro Nagase, who still lives nearby and beats the prayer drum daily, the pagoda overlooks Thames like a meditating guardian.
2. Return to the main road and enter the Albert Bridge – the infamous “Trembling Lady”, upon which the marching soldiers must break step in order not to destroy it with vibrations. Pause to take in the sight of Thames, with the ridiculously iconic Battersea Power Station on one side, and the leafy avenues of Chelsea on the other. Chelsea is where we’re going – and beyond.
Chelsea is a name that evokes nouveau riche tattiness these days, but for millions of gardening enthusiasts it’s been synonymous with the Chelsea Flower Show – a hundred years old exhibition of gardens and flowers on the grounds of Royal Chelsea Hospital. The hospital grounds sprawl on your right hand side just off the bridge. Once a year these get covered with pavillions and tents hosting the show, otherwise they are a great expanse of meadow and trees for use of the Chelsea Pensioners – retired war veterans living in the Hospital.
3. Not much further along the embankment there is another botanical curiosity: Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest botanical garden. Famous for specimens such as world’s northernmost grapefruit or Britain’s largest olive tree, this place is also known for growing the seeds of cotton plant sent to the colony of Georgia – thus being responsible for the growth American South’s cotton industry and everything that followed.
4. Turn right twice, and head back towards the Chelsea Hospital. Along the way you will pass a building of exceptional ugliness, with a couple old guns in front of it: the National Army Museum. If you like war museums, you could do worse than one dedicated to one of the world’s largest and oldest armed forces, involved in pretty much all major wars in recent history. Note, however, that this is not the Imperial War Museum, which is south of the river. Confusing, I know.
5. Circumnavigate the gardens of Burtons Court – also part of the Chelsea Hospital grounds – and you will reach a lovely tree-lined avenue: the Royal Avenue, devised by William III as a link from the Hospital to Kensington Palace (not quite finished, as you can tell from looking at the map).
Upon reaching King’s Road take a look at the McDonald’s on the corner. It’s not often that a local McD’s is an interesting landmark, but this one is: as it’s set in the building of the Chelsea Drugstore, London’s first “US-style” drugstore, which oddly enough had become a part of the Swinging Sixties culture. Rolling Stones sang about it, and Stanley Kubrick filmed Clockwork Orange beside it.
6. Follow the narrow Tryon Street until it joins Sloane Avenue. The buildings along this thoroughfare grow enormous, by London’s standards: immense towering condominiums forming a valley of red and white brick.
At the farther end of the avenue stands an imposing edifice decorated with mosaics of motorists, stained glass and art nouveau stone ornaments: the Bibendum Building, once Michelin’s headquarters and showroom, now a posh restaurant and oyster bar, designed by Sir Terence Conran.
Until recently, there was very little of interest here. The Exhibition Road is the street running towards and along London’s Museum District. But a short time ago a decision was made to experiment on it: mix the car traffic with pedestrian traffic on equal footing, without pavements or street signs. The result is stunning, especially in good weather: a strip of Mediterranean in the middle of London. Good, inexpensive restaurants and cafes line the street, with big windows facing the passing crowds. I found it one of the best places in the city to do people watching.
We’ll make a brief stop here, for some sherry and olives at Fernandez & Wells – or whatever else tickles your fancy – before continuing on to Kensington and Mayfair.