diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 31, 2010

The River Westbourne
12) Chelsea

Nearly there. From Sloane Square the Westbourne's lower course followed the approximate line of Holbein Place before crossing Grosvenor Row (now Pimlico Road) and continuing via a giant dog-leg down to the Thames. Once the boundary of London's premier Pleasure Gardens (of which more later), this dog-leg is now lost forever beneath the site of the old Chelsea Barracks. Once occupied by a few hundred soldiers, the Government's 2005 decision to release the land for housing unwittingly kickstarted a right royal planning battle. Too-modern plans to build a cluster of steel/glass towers were silently scuppered by Prince Charles, and so an obsequious masterplanning process is now underway to try to develop an acceptable replacement. Black-branded barriers shield the demolished site from view, but it's possible to peer in through the old security gate and catch sight of the Garrison Chapel (still standing, but threatened) and two extant tower blocks (ugly, empty, doomed). [photo]

Don't be distracted by the tidal inlet at Grosvenor Waterside, an ultra-modern development to the east of Chelsea Bridge [photo]. The central water feature is part of an artificial 19th century waterway, the Grosvenor Canal, and never part of any lost London river. Instead the Westbourne's final few hundred metres ran southwestwards, across what's now tree-lined Chelsea Bridge Road [photo], and into the grounds of the Ranelagh Gardens. For the second half of the 18th century this was the place for London's burgeoning high society to be entertained. Centrepiece of the ornamental gardens was the Rotunda - a rococo cylindrical concert hall to which audiences flocked and in which a prodigious young Mozart once played. But fashionable glory proved ultimately unsustainable, and in 1803 the Rotunda fell silent and the surrounding pleasure park closed down.

Ranelagh Gardens were ultimately remodelled, and exist today as part of the grounds of Chelsea's Royal Hospital [photo]. They may look fenced-off and private, but daily public access is generally permitted. Except during the annual Chelsea Flower Show, that is, when Britain's horticultural epicentre relocates here and echoes of the site's former glory days reverberate [photo]. The Westbourne flowed across the extreme southeastern corner of the present gardens, entering the Thames at a pleasingly oblique angle close to the Bull Ring Gate. That's just to the east of the coach-turning circle, if you're trying to locate it today, and several feet inland because the Chelsea Embankment hadn't been built in those days. But better to find ten spare minutes to trot across Chelsea Bridge to Battersea Park, from whose riverside terrace the Ranelagh Sewer outfall is clearly visible. A gloomy brick-arched portal, dribbling forth across exposed mudflats, marks the final splash of the Westbourne's seven-mile journey downstream from Hampstead. [photo] [photo]
Following the Westbourne: Holbein Place, Pimlico Road, Chelsea Barracks, Chelsea Bridge Road, Ranelagh Gardens, Royal Hospital Gardens, Chelsea Embankment.

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