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The Royal Hospital Chelsea
Chelsea Physic Garden

Friday 17th July 2015

An eight o’clock start from Stocklund Square meant an earlier than usual breakfast for many of the members joining the visit to Chelsea Physic Garden and The Royal Hospital on Friday, 17th July.  We had an extremely good journey, arriving at our destination by half past nine in time for coffee before starting on our tours.

We were divided into two groups and, not being psychic, I can only write about the experiences of those who visited the Physic Garden first, a short walk from where the coach was able to park all day.  What a luxury for our driver, Conrad!

We were able to begin our tour of the Garden just before the general public were admitted and so were slightly ahead of the game!  Our guide, Sheila, outlined its history: it was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673 as a garden in which to grow medicinal plants and rented from Sir Hans Sloane for an annual rent of 5 which amazingly remains the same today!  Many of the plants were introduced and named by Philip Miller who published his “Gardeners Dictionary” in 1731, the most complete work on garden plants at that time.  In its eighth edition Carl Linnaeus’s system of categorizing plants was included.  Before the embankment was built, there were steps from the Garden leading down to the Thames.  The gates here are surmounted by the apothecaries’ crest: Apollo fighting the serpent of disease with a rhinoceros shown above them.

Sheila introduced us to the various gardens, identifying particular plants and the uses to which they are put: for instance sunflowers were used to bring salts up out of the soil after the Chenobyl disaster; the broad bean produces L-dopa, used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease; the humble aspirin, a hundred billion of which are sold every year, can come from meadowsweet.  It is remarkable that about eighty per cent of the world still depends on plants for medicine.

After lunch John Walker, who had served in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty two years, plus four years’ National Service, took us on a tour of The Royal Hospital.  Justly proud to wear his scarlet coat and shako, he outlined the history of the Hospital, the word originally meaning “a place of refuge”, and what it is to be a Chelsea Pensioner.  We proceeded from College Court to the Figure Court with the striking golden figure of Charles II in the centre.  Highlights of the tour were the Great Hall with its mural of Charles II and his children, where the Pensioners have their meals and where the Duke of Wellington lay in state, and Christopher Wren’s fine Chapel.  Every regiment of the three armed services is recognized on the hassocks here.

John’s catchphrase, copied from the sergeant-major he encountered when he first joined the army, was “Any questions? No”, but in fact questions were unnecessary as he was a most informative guide.

Our visit was very enjoyable and we all learnt a great deal.  Many people felt that they would like to return to the Physic Garden to explore at leisure and absorb the atmosphere of this haven of peace in the heart of the London – when there was neither lawnmower nor aircraft!  Fortunately there was the opportunity for a cup of tea before boarding the coach for our return journey: we avoided the worst of the Friday night traffic and were back in Cranleigh by six o’clock.  A most interesting and well-paced day: our thanks should go to all involved in its planning and organisation.

Text by Jane Cross

Photos by Jonathan Cross

Related Links (open in new window):

Chelsea Physic Garden
The Royal Hospital Chelsea