Monday, 13 May 2013

Road to Nowhere?

Royal Avenue Looking North 2013 (© Ellen Leslie)
Royal Avenue Looking South 2013 (© Ellen Leslie)

At weekends I like to explore little historic pockets of London. Yesterday I checked out the peaceful streets behind the bustling King's Road in Chelsea.  One of the curiosities I found was a beautiful avenue of Horse Chestnut trees lining a long gravelled open space with gullies either side. The trees were flanked by the fine stuccoed townhouses synonymous with this part of London. Usually, there is a private garden in the middle of these elegant spaces; but not here. What made it different? I checked the street name “Royal Avenue”.  Looking south the trees stopped opposite a fine set of gates that lead to Burton Court and The Royal Hospital (a 17th century home for army veterans established by Charles II and designed by Sir Christopher Wren).  At the other end it met with the buzzing and trendy Kings Road.

1797 Map by Cary, showing "White Stiles"

Looking into this curious yet pretty arrangement, I found that Royal Avenue also owed its existence to Sir Christopher Wren. When it was laid out in the late 17th century there were no houses lining it. But looking further into the history of this small stretch of road, there seems to be a discrepancy between when it was built, for whom and why.

Royal Avenue by William Evelyn Osborn 1900 (© Tate)

The plaque displayed on the site says the Avenue was sponsored by King Charles II, but that on his death in 1685 there was no more money to continue its development. Others say, and they are possibly more reliable sources, that it was built in the early 1690s for William III and Mary II as a direct carriageway  from The Royal Hospital to their new residence Kensington Palace (previously Nottingham House). However, why it went no further than the King’s Road is not known, although lack of funds is the most probable reason.

By 1748 the short road was known as White Stiles, because of the white fencing that lined the avenue, but was eventually renamed Royal Avenue in the early 19th century when the town houses were built around it. Famous residents of Royal Avenue include Fanny Cornforth artist's model and muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti who lived there 1869-1877 and  the film director, Jospeh Losey who moved to the UK in the 1950s to avoid the McCarthy Witch Hunts. One little additional finding .... Avenue Road is the fictional home of James Bond.

Fanny Cornforth

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