Kensington and Chelsea contain many shades of upmarket. Serious South Kensington is the home of three legendary museums and the Royal Albert Hall, while the shopping quarter of Knightsbridge drips wealth. To the north lie the great stretches of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Attractive Chelsea is more residential but also offers many opportunities to flex the credit card, its bohemian edge now mostly consigned to history, although a few offbeat reminders remain.
From Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge heads west, lined with expensive shops, of which the most famous is Harrods. Further west stands the Brompton Oratory, a flamboyant Italian Baroque building. A short way on is the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the three Victorian museums established in the wake of the Great Exhibition of 1851. On the other side of Exhibition Road is the neo-Gothic pile of the Natural History Museum, which encapsulates the Victorians’ quest for knowledge. The Science Museum in Exhibition Road traces the history of inventions from the first steam locomotive and is a favourite with children.
Behind the Science Museum is the Royal College of Music and nearby is the 1875 Royal College of Organists, with an elaborate, frescoed exterior; and the Royal College of Art, in a rather grim 1960s building. These colleges surround the circular Royal Albert Hall, a huge, ornate building. Every summer the Proms are held here. Opposite is the Albert Memorial, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Prince Consort.
Kensington Gore runs alongside Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, a single open space, but two distinct parks, divided by West Carriage Drive. The lake in the middle of the park, known as the Serpentine, is in fact called the Long Water. Every Christmas Day, hardy swimmers dive in. Beside the lake, on the south bank, is a statue of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. The Serpentine Art Gallery, by the road bridge, stages adventurous contemporary exhibitions.
Kensington Gore eventually turns into Kensington High Street, a major shopping area and a pleasant alternative to the West End.
From Knightsbridge, Sloane Street leads to Sloane Square, with a flower stall and a shady fountain of Venus. Here, Chelsea proper begins. On the east side of the square is the Royal Court Theatre, which dates from 1870. This is where John Osborne’s mould-breaking Look Back in Anger was first staged in 1956, and it still has a reputation for good new material.
King’s Road, leading west, rose to fame in the ‘swinging ’60s’, and was the mecca for 1970s punk fashions. Today it’s far from cutting edge, but pleasantly lined with fashion and homeware shops, cafés and restaurants. The Duke of York Square is home to the Saatchi Gallery and a great Saturday food market, run by Partridges food hall. On the left-hand side of the road stands the Old Chelsea Town Hall.
On Royal Hospital Road, running parallel with King’s Road, is the Royal Hospital, a magnificent building, inspired by the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris and built by Christopher Wren in 1692. This is home to Chelsea Pensioners, retired war veterans who are identifiable by their red uniform jackets. Beside the hospital is the National Army Museum and, close by, behind a high wall, the Chelsea Physic Garden, founded in 1676 for the study of medicinal plants.
At the foot of Royal Hospital Road, where it joins the Embankment at Albert Bridge, sits a statue of Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle. Behind him a fine row of Queen Anne houses make up Cheyne Walk, one of London’s most exclusive streets. Behind it is a network of small, pretty roads where you will find Carlyle’s House, where he lived from 1834–81. The house is preserved exactly as it was: to the point of not having electricity.