27 of us assembled to learn about the history of the Hospital and what life is like today for a Chelsea Pensioner and particularly for Dave Thomson, our Guide for the afternoon. I doubt any of us will forget Dave who was a wonderful lively character with an irreverent sense of humour. He greeted us resplendent in his scarlet (never red) doubled breasted tunic with his medals proudly displayed. This was his made to measure tunic rather than the “Dead Man’s Coat” he was given on arrival. He told us he could use his medals on that one to cover the bullet holes!
In the warmth of the Visitors’ Centre he explained the governing structure of the Hospital, which includes a staff of more than 200 to run the organisation; the conditions of entry, which are you must be at least 65 years of age in reasonable health and no spouse, interestingly there is no minimum army service requirement; and that on entry the army pension is forfeit. Average age on entry is 74 and the average age in residence is 82. Currently there are 300 residents both male and female. When we learnt later in the Tour how good the meals and medical facilities are, it is hardly surprising the Pensioners reach such a good age.
We then braved the rather chilly weather and had a tour of the grounds better to observe Christopher Wren’s beautiful buildings, which took ten years to complete and are sited on 66 acres of what was originally farmland and is now prime Chelsea real estate. We admired the golden statue of Charles II depicted as an Emperor as he was “more than a mere king”, gazed over the sweeping lawns where the Chelsea Flower Show is held and delighted at artesian wells, fossils in the paving slabs and then were very happy to move inside to tour the Great Hall and Chapel, which is licensed for christenings and weddings.
In true tour fashion, we then exited through the charming gift shop before going for tea. And what a tea – a wonderful selection of sandwiches, fruit tarts and lemon meringue very daintily served by attentive staff rounded off a lovely afternoon with good friends.