At the heart of Chelsea
With Michael Allen at his home, the Royal Hospital Chelsea
Just a short walk from the bustle and hustle of famous King's Rd there is a place that has been at the heart of Chelsea for over 300 years. The Royal Hospital Chelsea was founded in 1682 by King Charles II as a home for retired soldiers and it still fulfils its role in 21st century. I've visited this place many times and often admired the elegant buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren and other architects. On most of occasions sooner or later I end up chatting with some Chelsea Pensioners. What makes my visit special today is that I'm finally going to meet Michael Allen, a former Royal Military Police officer and a proud Welshman who has been living in the Royal Hospital since 2007.
As we meet by the gate, I can hardly believe that this gentleman with a firm handshake, youthful figure and sparkles in his eyes is 72 years old. He is soon to admit that he feels very young at heart. Michael is a tour guide in the Royal Hospital, a lecturer, a Freeman of the City of London and a man of many talents and interests. While our meeting is more a social occasion I am fascinated by his knowledge and his passion for the place. He is after all showing me around his home and it's a home steeped in history. It doesn't mean however that the time has stopped in this amazing place. One of the most important current projects is upgrading the accommodation with all of the berths due to be refurbished by 2015.
When Sir Christopher Wren designed the living quarters, known as "Long Wards", the original berths, measured 6 feet (1.8 metres) square. They were enlarged in 1950s and again in 1991 to 9 feet (2.7 metres) square. You can still see a replica of an original berth if you visit the Royal Hospital Museum and realise how claustrophobic they must have felt. Today Michael is proudly showing me round his new 'berth' that includes a study, and an ensuite bathroom and a bedroom with a window!
'It's wonderful. It is like travelling in time from 17th into 21st century. No more shared bathrooms and blind rooms" he admits and adds that on a clear day he can see the Shard from his window. Among the photos in his room I spot one which shows Michael with a lovely looking lady.
"That's my girlfriend" he smiles and I can't help but ask him how they met. That brings us to the story of "The Chelsea Pensioners - Men in Scarlet" with beautiful songs recorded in 2010 by a group of In-Pensioners including Michael. This album also features Katherine Jenkins and Janey Cutler. The Chelsea Pensioners' earnings from sales of the album go towards the project to improve their living quarters at The Royal Hospital.
"It was a huge success. We got hundreds of letters from fans and decided to reply to all. One of the letters was from Sarah." He explains. As we are about to walk out from the room, I notice a laptop on his desk and laugh: "So that's where you tweet from!" I find it amazing how Michael has embraced the world of technology and social media. He is on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn and happily uses not only his laptop, but also IPhone and Kindle." I used to run a cyber café here in the hospital. My oldest 'student' was 93. It didn't take him long to learn how to use email and internet." Needless, to say I'm more than impressed by now.
I can't help but stroke his scarlet uniform hanging outside the door. I also study the information poster on the uniform rules with an interest. The scarlet uniform and the tricorne hat can be worn only on ceremonial occasions. One of them is The Founder's Day that commemorates the escape of the future King Charles II after the Battle of Worcester and is held close to his birthday on the 29th May. The blue uniform can be worn within the radius of 2 miles from The Royal Hospital. As if guessing my thoughts, Michael offers to put his scarlet uniform on and happily poses for photos.
We pop into the beautiful Chapel and then stroll around before we sit down for a drink and a chat in the club. This is a private club, only for Chelsea Pensioners and their guests. The whole place together with the lovely library and tea room embraces the past and the present. With its comfortable armchairs, sofas, fireplace and paintings on the walls it is a great place to socialise.
"You can't feel lonely here at the Royal Hospital. We look after one another. There is this spirit of the camaraderie and banter that we know from the old times." explains Michael as we sip our drinks. I look around and spot some pensioners chatting happily. They must be in their 90s. "The average life expectancy here is much longer than in other places. We are well looked after here" he adds. That reminds me that after all the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a charity and as such it needs to raise funds. It needs to cover the costs of running a home to some 300 Veteran soldiers.
"Michael, you are going to do a flight on Europe's longest zip wire soon. It sounds adventurous! Why are you doing it?" I ask quite openly.
"Yes, on the 8th October at 11.30 I'm jumping off the mountain in Snowdonia National Park" he grins. "I really wanted to do something special, something that hasn't been done before. I thought of parachuting first but one of us has already done it. The idea is to raise funds for this place" he adds and I can see clearly how much he cares about this place. I'm also glad to hear that his girlfriend will be there to cheer him up as he 'flies' with the speed of up to 100 mph. She will be there to take some photos, on his no doubt triumphant 'landing'.
Time flies as we chat about the Royal Hospital and life and it's time for lunch. We sit down in the beautiful dining hall where once Duke Wellington lay in state. I'm enjoying my lovely and healthy meal under watchful eyes of kings and queens looking down from the paintings on the walls. Soon it's time for me to go, but we pay a flying visit together to the museum shop where I finally get a copy of "Men in Scarlet". Needless to say, I spent an evening thinking about that amazing place at the heart of Chelsea and listening to the album. "There's something about the soldier" sing the Men is Scarlet and I couldn't agree more...
Please sponsor IP Michael Allen who is raising funds for The Royal Hospital Chelsea
You can find him on Twitter @michaelredcap
Please visit The Royal Hospital Chelsea. It's free and open to the public. The best way to learn about this place is to book a tour with a Chelsea Pensioner – a tour guide like Michael Allen.
Learn more about The Royal Hospital and how you can help http://www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk
All photos by Nika Garrett, an 18th century print showing the Royal Hospital Chelsea and the rotunda of Ranelegh Gardens (on the right) is by Thomas Bowles.