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Brian Cummings, MBE, lives on 66 acres of prime residential property in London’s Chelsea district. He is not entirely alone here, sharing this spacious corner of the capital with some 300 fellow residents of the Royal Hospital, the oldest of whom is 104. He greets me at the London Gate in the distinctive scarlet (“Never say red!”) and black tricorne hat of the Chelsea Pensioners, a uniform designed by the Duke of Marlborough in the 1700s, and virtually unchanged since.
“It’s very useful,” he says, explaining that, beyond the two-mile radius of Chelsea and Pimlico, they are permitted to wear either scarlets or civvies. “People are always very respectful and helpful when they recognise you as a Chelsea Pensioner.”
Is there an alternative to scarlets or civvies? “Oh yes. Inside the hospital, and for up to two miles outside it, you can wear blues and a shako” – a cap resembling a French kepi. “You have to be well-dressed at all times, you see, because the hospital is open to the public.”
Cummings is a sprightly 81-year-old, a keen photographer and a tour guide for the Royal Hospital who attributes his youthfulness to “58 years of a wonderful life and a wonderful wife” whom he met at 15 and married at 18. “Four days after our honeymoon, I left for Egypt,” he says, “and didn’t return until I was 21. After that, she accompanied me on all my postings.”
The line of medals on his chest reflects his 33 years in the Royal Corps of Signals serving, inter alia, in Egypt during King Farouk’s deposition, Jordan after King Abdullah’s assassination and Cyprus during the EOKA troubles, as well as in Singapore and Germany. He was made an MBE for his welfare work at the Ministry of Defence, where he spent 14 years after retiring from the army.
Following the death of his wife in 2009, Cummings decided to join the Royal Hospital. Upon qualifying (applicants must be over 65, have no financial dependants, be of good character and have served as a regular soldier) he was invited for the customary four-day trial period. “The moment I arrived, I knew this place was for me,” he says. He sold the family home in Plymouth, packed his remaining belongings into two suitcases and two cardboard boxes, and embarked on his “new life”.
The Royal Hospital was founded by Charles II in 1682 “for the succour and relief of veterans broken by age and war”, expanded under James II and completed under William and Mary in 1692. The country’s best architects were dragooned into service, with Christopher Wren designing the central Figure Court (so-called because of its Grinling Gibbons statue of Charles II in the guise of a Roman Emperor, newly covered in gold leaf) and the flanking College and Light Horse Courts. John Soane added further buildings, while 2009 saw the opening of the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary – along with a contemporary, airy new cafeteria – after much architectural feuding over its design.
“Charles II was inspired by Les Invalides in Paris,” says Cummings. “Then he learnt that Louis XIV had a statue made of himself as Ludovicus Magnus and, not to be outdone, decided he wanted one too.” Before the Embankment was created, the Figure Court stretched all the way to the Thames. The still-extensive South Grounds and Ranelagh Gardens will be familiar to anyone who has visited the Chelsea Flower Show or the Masterpiece exhibition. Across the river rise the towers of Battersea Power Station and the drum of the gasometer. “Never in his wildest dreams did Charles imagine we’d have that for a view,” says Cummings. It is indeed a vision of dystopia when seen against the elegance of Wren’s vision, embodied in dark, handmade brick.
We pass the State Apartments, which had been Wren’s quarters during construction. Used on formal occasions, its grand interior was designed by Robert Adam. Together with the Great Hall and Gardens, these rooms are made available for a limited number of events each year, supplementing the RH’s annual £13m grant in aid. To help fund renovation of the Long Wards, the disused Gordon House – which stands on a triangle of land in the southwest corner of the grounds – was sold last year on a 99-year lease to the Candy Brothers for £75m.
The Long Wards – eight of them in each of the two wings of Figure Court – house the Pensioners’ rooms, known as “berths” because they are made of oak salvaged from captured French vessels. “Originally, each one measured 6ft by 6ft, but they were enlarged in the 1950s to the present 9ft squared,” says Cummings. “When you visit as a ‘four-day man’, they put you up in a 6ft berth – one of which has been retained in each ward – that way, when you arrive [permanently], you are pleasantly surprised. It’s clever psychology!”
As austere as a row of confessionals, each with a stable door and no external window, they are a far cry from the grandeur of the communal areas, reminding one that the Royal Hospital is run on military lines under a governor, the pensioners divided into “companies” – albeit heedless of inmates’ former rank. Rows of uniforms hang on pegs in the corridor. As well as a computer, television and tablet (“a gift from my daughter”) Cummings’s berth is crammed with personal memorabilia – family photos, a Buddha that belonged to his wife, shields of regiments to which he was attached, a champagne cork that he sliced off with a sword, his beloved fishing rod (“I do miss fly fishing”). He apologises for the mess although it appears very tidy. “We’re about to move into the renovated east wing,” he says. “There, all the berths have been extended to include a study and en suite shower room. And yes, we get a window, but I spend very little time in my berth.”
There is certainly plenty to keep the pensioners busy. A large, refurbished Club House and bar offers everything from bingo to bridge – not to mention a poster advertising a “Ms England, Ms Hippodrome and Ms Scuba-Diving Show” later in the month. There are also countless invitations – from West End theatres to afternoon teas at the Kensington Hotel, to excursions abroad. “One pensioner recently went to India, to find a wife,” says Cummings. “But he returned alone.”
Cummings leads the way down Wren’s monumental colonnade, irreverently known as “pneumonia corridor”, to the famous Octagon dome at the centre of the complex. To one side lies the chapel, whence tortured strains of Messiaen boom. “Is that music, or are you dusting the keyboard?” Cummings jests with the (new) organist.
A single vaulted structure, the focal point of the interior is the mural of the “Resurrection” by Sebastiano Ricci in which, Cummings says, 12 of the figures represent Charles II’s illegitimate children.
Some of the elaborately carved pew ends are by Gibbons. “Where you see an open pea-pod,” says Cummings, “it means that [Gibbons’] invoice is still outstanding.” He indicates where Margaret Thatcher used to sit, every Sunday service. “Now, her ashes are buried in the grounds.”
Beyond the Octagon lies the Great Hall with Verrio’s great mural of Charles II, where pensioners take breakfast and lunch at the original oak tables.
Battles, from 1662 to 2003 (Basra), are recorded on the oak wainscoting beneath portraits of kings and queens of England, and there are standards captured from French and American troops. “Sarkozy and the fragrant Carla once visited and were given a tour,” says Cummings. “But they were not shown the painting of the Battle of Waterloo, or the four captured French eagles at the entrance of the museum.” They would, however, have seen the large glass-covered table in the Great Hall – unaware, perhaps, that in 1852, the body of Wellington lay upon it in state.
“There is a great sense of camaraderie here,” says Cummings. “But it’s not for everyone. There was one chap, a VC from the Korean war, for example. He came, and left: couldn’t settle. Not enough fighting, I suppose.”
“I’m not really interested in objects,” says Cummings, pondering the question. Yet there is one item of special importance.
On a shelf above his computer is a little knitted duck called Enty, given to him by an old school friend who has leukaemia.
Unable to travel himself, the friend asked Brian to take the duck on his travels and send him photographs of it, so that they can travel together in spirit.