A Chelsea Walk.
A LONDON WALK IN CHELSEA
This walk takes you through the quiet back streets of Chelsea where you will see a variety of buildings of all ages and styles. Highlights include the opportunity to visit the Royal Hospital, Thomas Carlyle’s house, which is a genuine time capsule, and the airy St Luke’s Church, where Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in 1836. You will also pass the house where George Eliot died, and the homes of Leigh Hunt, Tobias Smollett and George Gissing.
Start: Sloane Square Station (Circle and District Underground lines).
Finish: South Kensington Station (Circle, District, and Piccadilly Underground lines).
Length: 1 3/4 miles (2.8km).
Duration: 1 1/2 hours.
Best of times: Daytime.
Worst of times: Evenings.
Exit Sloane Square station, go over the crossing, bear left into Sloane Gardens and left along Lower Sloane Street. Cross to its right side and turn right at the traffic lights into Royal Hospital Road.
There follows a long walk, the monotony of which is broken by the graceful faÁade of Sir Christopher Wren’s majestic Royal Hospital on the left, founded in 1682 for men ‘broken by war and old age.’ It is still home to the Chelsea Pensioners, who can be seen about the area resplendent in their scarlet or blue uniforms and tri-cornered hats. You might like to visit the hospital before continuing with your walk.
Continue along Royal Hospital Road. Keep ahead into Cheyne Place, passing on the left at the junction with Swan Walk, the Chelsea Physic Garden, which was established in 1673 by the Apothecaries Company to cultivate plants for medicinal usage. Cross Flood Street, go first right along Cheyne Walk and pause outside
No 4, which bears a plaque informing you that George Eliot (1819–80) ‘died here’.
Mary Ann (or Marian as she later spelt it) Evans came to London from her native Warwickshire following the death of her father in 1849. She first met Dickens at a meeting of writers in 1852 and found him ‘disappointing – no benevolence in the face and I think little in the heart… ’ She had already met the journalist and critic George Henry Lewes (1817–78), a friend of Dickens and a keen participant in his amateur theatricals. By 1854 she and the already married Lewes were openly living together and their relationship, although accepted by their friends, scandalized polite society. In 1856 she began writing The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton. Lewes, needing to disguise the fact that the author was both a woman and a social pariah, approached the publisher John Blackwood on behalf of his ‘clerical friend’ and author of the work, George Eliot.
Later published as Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), her early fiction won critical acclaim and the guessing game concerning this mysterious new author’s true identity began. Dickens was fulsome in his praise, but was not fooled by the nom de plume, and quickly deduced that George Eliot was a woman. ‘I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally, so like a woman since the world began’ he wrote, and also commented that, if the Scenes had not been written by a woman, then ‘should I begin to believe that I am a woman myself’. Later, having learnt the truth, Dickens invited George Eliot to contribute to All the Year Round and was frustrated by her repeated refusals. Following Dickens’s death in 1870, it became a point of irritation to Eliot that John Forster’s life of Dickens outsold what is now her best-known work, Middlemarch (1871–72).
Lewes died in 1878. By 1880 Eliot was involved with the much younger John Cross whom she married on 6th May, 1880. They moved into 4 Cheyne Walk, formerly the home of Dickens’s friend Daniel Maclise, on 3rd December, 1880. But their happiness here was short lived for at 10pm on 22nd December, George Eliot died. Cross was left to mourn. ‘I am left alone in this new house we meant to be so happy in.’
Continue along Cheyne Walk passing No 16, which has a plaque to the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82) and the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909).
Keep walking ahead and cross over Oakley Street. Pass to the left of David Wynne’s graceful statue ‘The Boy with The Dolphin’.
On arrival at the next section of Cheyne Walk, turn left along the grass fringed path to arrive at the seated statue of the great Victorian sage Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), who lived in Cheyne Row from 1834 until his death.
Dickens idolized Carlyle, once saying of him, ‘I would go at all times farther to see Carlyle than any man alive.’ The two were never close friends (Carlyle was not sure of the merits of what he referred to as ‘fictioneering’), but they spent a great deal of time in each other’s company. He was among the select gathering invited to hear Dickens read from ‘The Chimes’ in 1844 and, together with his beloved wife Jane, frequently attended Dickens’s amateur theatricals and later public readings.
During a recital of Pickwick Papers, Carlyle sat in the front bench and laughed so hard that, according to one observer, ‘I thought Carlyle would split… he haw-hawed… over and over till he fairly exhausted himself. Dickens would read and then he would stop in order to give Carlyle a chance to stop.’ Dickens never tired of reading Carlyle’s masterful tome The French Revolution, published in 1837 and used it in his research for A Tale of Two Cities (see pages 126–27). Jane Carlyle died in 1866, and Carlyle became a virtual recluse, occasionally venturing out to dine with Dickens and John Forster. When Dickens died, Carlyle wrote to Forster: ‘No death since 1866 had fallen on me with such a stroke… The good, the gentle, high-gifted… noble Dickens – every inch of him an honest man.’
Continue along the path, taking the next right turn and cross over Cheyne Walk to keep ahead into Lawrence Street. Having passed the Cross Keys pub, proceed to the end where, on the left:-
No 16 has a plaque to Tobias Smollett (1721–71). Three of his novels The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751) and The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771) were amongst Dickens’s favourite childhood books.
Turn right along Upper Cheyne Row and go first right onto Cheyne Row. Pause on the left outside:
No 24, the former home of Thomas Carlyle, now owned by the National Trust. Here, he was visited by Dickens, Forster, Leigh Hunt and many other literary and intellectual notables of the age. He and Tennyson would sit in the basement kitchen and smoke into the chimney in order to spare Jane Carlyle from the fumes. The house is truly atmospheric and you get the distinct impression, aided by touches such as his hat hanging on the clothes peg, that Carlyle might join you at any moment! He died in the first-floor drawing room, and the house’s interior has altered little since.
Backtrack and go right along Upper Cheyne Row to pause outside the pink frontage of:-
No 22, where Leigh Hunt (1748–1859) lived from 1833 to 1840. Hunt and his almost permanent financial difficulties provided the inspiration for the impecunious Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. At first Hunt did not recognize himself in the portrayal, but when it was pointed out to him, it caused him a great deal of distress. Continue ahead, turning right onto Oakley Street. Go over the crossing and keep ahead into Phene Street. At the junction with Oakley Gardens note the blue plaque to the novelist George Gissing (1857–1903). One of Dickens’s foremost early critics, he found much to admire in Dickens’s works, but felt that his penchant for melodrama ‘sadly led him astray’.
Turn left into Oakley Gardens. Proceed clockwise and go left along Chelsea Manor Street. Turn left onto the busy Kings Road. Go right at the traffic lights and keep ahead along Sydney Street until you arrive at the lofty cathedral-like parish church of:-
St Luke’s built between 1820 and 1824. It was here on 2nd April, 1836 that Charles Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in what his best man, Thomas Beard, later described as ‘altogether a very quiet piece of business’. As the bride was only 20 and technically a minor, Dickens had to revisit his old place of employment, Doctors’ Commons, in order to obtain a special marriage licence.
Exit the church and continue right along Sydney Street. Go over the zebra crossing, straight ahead into Cale Street, right onto Dovehouse Street, left along Fulham Road and right at the traffic lights into Selwood Terrace.
It is lined to your left side by a sequence of squat 18th-century houses. Prior to his wedding, Dickens moved into No 11 in order that he might be close to his bride’s family, who lived nearby in, the now demolished, York Place.
Continue along Selwood Terrace. Go right into Onslow Gardens, right onto Foulis Terrace, left along Fulham Road and take the first left into Sumner Place.
Number 28 was the home of Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803–82), the man who invented the great Victorian conveyance the Hansom Cab. Turn first right into Onslow Square and a little way along pause outside No 38, which was the home of Admiral Robert Fitzroy (1805–65), commander of HMS Beagle, on board which the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–82) sailed. Fitzroy lived here from 1854 to 1865, in which year he committed suicide, overcome by guilt for the part he had played in casting doubt upon the veracity of the Bible.
Onslow square’s stylish stuccoed houses were built in 1846 to provide elegant town dwellings for the prosperous Victorian middle classes.
Next along between Nos 32 and 38 there is an easily missed black wall plaque to William Makepeace Thackeray, who lived here from 1854 to 1862. Few who have moved house can fail to sympathize with his sentiments as he began the necessary alterations to his new house. ‘O the upholsterers, the carpeters, the fenderers the looking glass people… O their bills their bills’. Whilst living here he wrote The Virginians (1857) and his last completed novel The Adventures of Philip (1861–2). His daughter, Anne, described the house as ‘a pleasant bowery sort of home, with green curtains and carpets, looking out upon the elm trees’.
Continue, turn left until you arrive at the traffic lights where on the opposite side of the road is South Kensington Station where this route ends.