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Walking with the Pensioners of Chelsea

Famed for its expensive properties, Chelsea is also home to the most famous pensioners in Britain.

Distance 3.7 miles (6km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Paved streets and tarmac paths

Landscape Mainly riverside views

Suggested map aqua3 Explorer 161 London South

Start/finish Sloane Square tube

Dog friendliness On lead

Parking Difficult - best to catch tube

Public toilets Royal Hospital Chelsea Museum

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1 From Sloane Square tube walk ahead, crossing Lower Sloane Street. Go past John Lewis and, a few paces on your left, the Duke of York's Headquarters. Turn left into Cheltenham Terrace then bear left into Franklin's Row.

2 Take the first right along Royal Hospital Road. Just beyond the lawns on the right turn left into the hospital grounds at Chelsea Gate. A few paces further on the left, a gravel path leads to the Great Hall, chapel and museum. Continue to the end of the road and turn left on to some playing fields. Now head towards the obelisk, bear right and leave through the gates to the Chelsea Embankment.

3 Turn right along the Embankment and right into Tite Street, where Oscar Wilde once lived. At the top turn left into Paradise Walk. The houses in this narrow, quiet road have window boxes and roof terraces. Turn right and then sharp left towards the Embankment and walk past the Chelsea Physic Garden.

4 At the traffic lights cross Oakley Street and bear right along the narrow Cheyne Walk. Turn right by the quirkily-named King's Head and Eight Bells pub into Cheyne Row, where Thomas Carlyle lived. At the end turn left into Upper Cheyne Row. Turn left again into Lawrence Street - where there is a plaque to mark the Chelsea Porcelain Works - then turn right into Justice Walk. (Don't be fooled into thinking the sign of a red-robed judge is a pub, it merely identifies where the old courthouse used to be!)

5 Turn left into Old Church Street and at the bottom is Chelsea Old Church, with a statue outside of Thomas More, who worshipped here. Walk through Chelsea Embankment Gardens and cross the Albert Bridge.

6 At a 'Riverside Walk' sign turn left through the gate into Battersea Park. Follow the Thames Path, past the Peace Pagoda in the park, along to Chelsea Bridge.

7 Turn left to cross the bridge and continue ahead, passing Chelsea Barracks on the right before joining Lower Sloane Street. Turn right to retrace your steps back to Sloane Square tube.

Pick up any book about walking in London and you will notice one thing: the walks are either north or south of the river - surprisingly few combine both, which doesn't do much to erase the north/south divide that, as odd as it may sound, still clearly exists. So this walk includes not only those elegant streets of Chelsea but also the gratifying expanse of Battersea Park to the south.

Somewhere just off the fashionable King's Road lies a building as majestic as any you're likely to encounter. Some say it's as great as St Paul's Cathedral, and, although this is debatable, Sir Christopher Wren certainly left his mark on it. The building in question, the Royal Hospital Chelsea, was founded by Charles II and built in 1692 for veteran soldiers who had either served in the army for 20 years or been wounded. The minimum age for entry is now normally 65 and there is still accommodation for 500. Living here, the pensioner surrenders his army pension and in return receives a small room or berth, all meals (taken in the spectacular Great Hall where the Duke of Wellington lay in state before he was buried in St Paul's Cathedral), clothing and medical care.

Each year, on 29 May, the hospital celebrates Founder's Day. The statue of Charles II in the Centre Court is decorated with oak leaves to commemorate the time when he hid in an oak tree after escaping from the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

Chelsea Pensioners are easily recognised by their unusual three-cornered hats and their scarlet coats, adorned with military medals. It is indeed a joy to see them, both north and south of the river. Oddly the coats have become a distinguishing feature of the Pensioners' identity. They are modelled on the red coats worn by British troops from the Civil War onwards and can have changed little since the Royal Hospital's foundation.

Before Queen Victoria came on the scene, Battersea Park, as we now know it, was merely derelict marshland with ditches full of water that flowed into the river. But, in the 19th century, Sir James Pennethorne created the 200 acre (81ha) landscape we see today. Battersea is the sort of park that has something for everyone (duels notwithstanding - the last being between the Duke of Wellington and Lord Winchelsea). In the summer months you'll hear anything from jazz music to the thud of a football, and see picnickers enjoying the sun along with joggers and cyclists. And there's also another section of the Thames Path that runs alongside the river, with views over to the Chelsea Embankment and its constant flow of traffic. But over here it's different: it's peaceful and more than just a back garden for the Chelsea set - and, if the Peace Pagoda could speak, it would probably agree.

While you're there

The Army Museum in the Royal Hospital Chelsea gives an insight into the life of a Chelsea Pensioner, including a mock berth of the living quarters. Since Wren's initial design, these berths have increased in size from 6sq ft (0.56sq m) to 9sq ft (0.84sq m).

Where to eat and drink

The fireplaces and wooden interior of the King's Head and Eight Bells attract a lot of tourists for it is said that this was Oscar Wilde's 'local'. You can try your hand at drinking a 'yard of ale' from a long glass that would look more at home in a science lab than a pub bar. It contains 2½ pints (1.4 litres) but, if you manage to down the contents in less than two minutes, the landlord foots the bill. Also worth a visit is the candlelit Bar of the Royal Court Theatre adjacent to Sloane Square tube - it has an eclectic menu and some hearty desserts.

What to look for

Thomas Carlyle's terraced house in Cheyne Row is typical of those built at the time, but he was paranoid about the noise from his neighbour's cockerels and spent 12 years writing Frederick the Great (1858-65) from his attic after blocking in the windows and building a skylight.

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