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In London, Honoring the Living Remembrances of War

Veteran redcoats reside at a stately retirement home in Chelsea--and like to show it off.

April 28, 2002|DICK WOODBURY

LONDON — Have you ever seen a war monument walking? Here, you can find distinguished reminders of past conflicts strolling along the avenues of London's West End or window-shopping on Oxford and Regent streets.

Their brilliant scarlet tunics and chests full of medals identify them as British army veterans, specifically residents of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. These grizzled career soldiers served their country in an array of conflicts from World War II to Kenya to the Falklands and Korea. Now they are living out their sunset years in a museum piece of a retirement home at the edge of the Thames River.

Britain has a special place in its heart for its old warriors. For more than 300 years it has billeted them in palatial style, in a cluster of stately Christopher Wren-designed buildings set on a manicured lawn and under stately oak trees in luxurious Chelsea. In this solitude and splendor, 380 veterans enjoy a pampered retirement: meals in an opulent dining hall, lawn billiards, spacious gardens and a pub offering $1.50 beer. Officials encourage visitors, though they discourage overt tourist promotion because, as one explained, "We are an old fellows' home, not a human zoo."

Buttonhole one of the courtly gents--or better still, steer him into a pub--and you'll likely be treated to vivid accounts of the Normandy and Anzio invasions or the 1967 counterinsurgency at Aden. Their occasional braggadocio is to be expected from the old troopers. With time on their hands, most are eager to reminisce and to throw in an opinion or two on modern-day terrorism.

Intrigued by the sight of the redcoats amid Chelsea's shoppers, I followed a couple to the Royal Hospital and was treated to a sliver of London that few tourists ever see. Behind the black iron gates lies a period piece of English architecture as majestic as Kensington Palace, another Wren masterpiece.

Though just three blocks from the trendy boutiques and bistros of King's Road, the Royal Hospital is a world removed, a time capsule beckoning visitors to explore.

It lies next to another little-known treasure, the National Army Museum, a trove of British military memorabilia dating to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The collection of war relics, arms and armor from the Tudor era and Oliver Cromwell's day (1649 to 1658) and dramatic battlefield models and paintings comprise a social history of how soldiers lived, worked and died across the centuries.

The two sites offer a tranquil afternoon's respite from the fast tempo of the West End. And like many London museums now, both attractions are free.

"Hospital" is a misnomer for the elegant soldiers' home, which is largely unchanged from 1682, when it was founded by King Charles II for "the succor and relief of veterans broken by war." Today's vets are less broken than they are lonely. Mostly widowers in their 70s, they have been drawn to Chelsea by the camaraderie and the perks (including the well-appointed social club, billiards room and library, bowling green and allotments garden, where the men can show off their green thumbs). In return for surrendering their army pensions upon entering, the "in-pensioners," as they are known, are assured a lifetime of board and lodging, clothing and medical care, the latter provided by 60 medics, including three doctors.

Wandering through the archways and across the greenswards, I quickly began to appreciate the enthusiasm of the old soldiers for their digs. "Best hotel in the world," one octogenarian veteran of the 1944 battle at Anzio told me as we chatted outside the Great Hall on a damp fall afternoon.

The sense of history and memories of distant battles hung heavy in the gathering twilight, and it was evident that the same calm and majesty that appeals to the old vets also captivates visitors. The trappings of the past greeted me at every turn as my companion led me into the cavernous hall, where rows of solid oak tables and chairs define the dining area and where portraits of Charles II, George II and John, Duke of Marlborough, adorn the walls along with inscriptions of campaigns dating to Waterloo (1815) and before.

In other rooms, Wren's grand sense of scale and imposing form are just as evident and inspiring. In the chapel, a giant painting of the Resurrection, by Sebastiano Ricci, overhangs the apse, and the early instruments of prayer are enshrined, down to the alms dish, flagons, chalices and one of the original service books.

A mainstay of the week is the Sunday morning Communion and matins (visitors are welcome), which is preceded by a small parade of pensioners on the brilliant green turf of Figure Court. Bounded by brooding brick buildings on three sides, the court was Wren's original set piece for the institution; looking south, across the oaks to the Thames, it is easy to see why this 66-acre property is among London's most coveted real estate.

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