When I lived in Dublin, one my favourite spots in the city was Merrion Square, surrounded by rows and rows of colourful doors which formerly belonged to its literary residents. Almost each famous Georgian door around the Square has a blue plaque next to it as an indication of the house’s historic significance. And it wasn’t only the blue spots giving away the buildings importance; there were always tourists as well, loitering, stopping, snapping a photo or two.
Here, in London’s Cheyne Walk, you barely come across anyone during a hot July afternoon. A few nannies and mums with prams, a lonely jogger, a cyclist whizzing past. I am the only one with a camera, pointing, shooting, stalking the blue plaques. Where are the others? Where are the literary tourists with their maps with red circles on them? Am I in the right place?
But yes, here they all lived and worked, my literary heroes of the past. T.S. Eliot, George Eliot, Henry James and Somerset Maugham. And further back, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Carlyle and Thomas More. How many great ideas have these streets witnessed…if only walls could talk!
The heat makes the tree-lined passages look misty, I am happy to be outdoors and not stuck in a car in one of the traffic lights behind the trees. The Thames looks like it is suffering too, getting stifled under the dry hot sun, which it is not accustomed to. Horns honk, scooters rush past. But that is modern London; here, few metres aside on Cheyne Walk, under the faintly scented flowering trees it is calm and only a light wind rustles the history. Was it better a hundred years ago? Where do the big thinkers of our time live? Probably in the countryside, somewhere out of sight, no chance popping into them in corner shop cafés or taverns and eavesdropping on their wisdom.
I start my journey from Sloane Square tube station, which already has its unfortunate literary connotations: here, on April 5th 1960, the man who gave name to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Peter Llewelyn Davies, threw himself under an oncoming train – after years of loathing the connection with what he called “that terrible masterpiece”.
I take a turn to Oakley Street, where I spot “Speranza” written on a blue plaque: it is a home to Oscar Wilde’s polemic mother, Jane Wilde, who was a successful poet and writer of her time, too. Opposite, unnoted, stands the house where a later polemic lyricist Bob Marley wrote one of his best-known pieces, I Shot the Sheriff.
There is a lot to spot in Chelsea: in Wellington Square lodged Thomas Wolfe in 1926 while writing Look Homeward Angel. It is told that drunkenness alternated with writing spasms, and his rent was paid by his older mistress in America. In 1900, by another square, Markham Square, lived a touch more delightful writer, comic master P.G. Wodehouse. From here he would walk to his uninspiring job at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in the City, and plot his Jeeves episodes. Carlyle Square is renown for the Sitwell family, as sir Osbert Sitwell occupied no. 2. This is the location where his eccentric sister Edith first performed her experimental poetry Façade on 24th of January in 1922.
These are the streets that Leo Tolstoy walked before he hit the fame vain with War and Peace. In St Luke’s Church, Dickens got married in 1836 to a 20-year-old Catherine Hogarth, and A.A. Milne wrote Winnie the Pooh: Christopher Robin is named after Milne’s own son who was born in Mallord Street.
One of the most imposing buildings on Cheyne Walk is the Carlyle Mansions; Henry James lived and died here at No. 21 (his funeral was held in nearby Chelsea Old Church). Later on, in 1946, T.S. Eliot took a flat beneath James’s apartment, at No. 19. Eliot lived in an austere room with bare walls – apart from a crucifix. Four years later, a touch more flamboyant writer moved into the Mansions with his golden typewriter especially purchased to finish his next James Bond masterpiece, Casino Royal.
But Cheyne Walk would not have been astonished by Ian Fleming’s dashing lifestyle, as it had seen it all already. At No. 16 Dante Gabriel Rossetti held his court in the 1860s for writers such as Wilde, Lewis Caroll and Swinburne and tendered his little private zoo of armadillos, a kangaroo and a raccoon. Two doors further, two hundred years before, one of London’s first coffeeshops was opened at Don Saltero’s, where a collection of curious objects were on display. These objects were a part of Saltero’s former employer’s, sir Hans Sloane, collections, which later formed the seed for what nowadays is the Natural History Museum.
At the end of Cheyne Walk one of the greatest Victorian writers, George Eliot, had moved in 1880, just weeks before her death. Eliot had taken a manly pseudonym to ensure that her work would be taken seriously, and led a somewhat scandalous life, yet never letting her intellect down. Quite fittingly, at the other end of Cheyne Walk lived another believer in women’s possibilities: Sylvia Pankhurst, the leading suffragette of her time, whose mother Emmeline Pankhurst, also a suffragette, was and one of the “100 Most Important People of the 20th Century”, according to Times.
The walk, 14 128 steps in total, was a pleasant stroll through London’s literary history, and for me it culminated at No. 34 Tite Street in front of a black painted door. Behind it lived Oscar Wilde from 1885 to 1893, completing some of his early masterpieces, like The Picture of Dorian Gray, and entertained guests. One of the unlucky ones was W.B. Yeats, whose aesthetic tastes came into scrutiny when Wilde disapproved his choice in fashion. Yeats was wearing yellow shoes.
I look down at my own sensible black shoes and wish I had worn something more appropriate for the occasion, maybe the frilly Marie Antoinette heels would have passed the old fashionistas scrutiny? Hopefully, the ghost of Wilde is not loitering about casting his judgement.
What: Cheyne Walk is an affluent street famous for its former residents. Many esteemed writers, artists, politicians and even hermits have lived in Cheyne Walk, and the name catalogue for prominent residents include almost all imaginable walks of life from Bram Stoker and Lloyd George to Mick Jagger and Geroge Best.
Where: Cheyne Walk is situated in southern Chelsea, which is bordered by Fulham in the west, Pimlico in the east, Kensington in the North and river Thames in the South. A close-by tube station is Sloane Square, from where you get a pleasant stroll through Chelsea and its most famous road, King’s Road.
When: Most of Cheyne Walk’s houses were built in the early 18th century, although the 16th-century monarch’s, Henry VIII, Manor House and Winchester House dominated the riverside panorama once. Cheyne Walk is at its best during warm and calm summer and a pleasant stroll gets the most uplifting end at the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries’ garden café, founded in 1673.
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