Unbuilt London: How South Kensington Was Almost Swallowed By A Royal Avenue

By M@ Last edited 7 months ago

Last Updated 19 December 2023

Unbuilt London: How South Kensington Was Almost Swallowed By A Royal Avenue

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A view of chelsea from the air with the route shown in purple dots
The route of the partially built processional avenue, from above. Image Matt Brown

Imagine South Kensington without the Science Museum, the V&A or Imperial College, but instead cut through by a motorway-sized road. That's the London we might be living in had London's longest processional avenue been completed.

Have you ever stood on King's Road and noticed the view (street view) along Royal Avenue towards the Royal Hospital? You're standing on what might have become the central axis of London.

Back in the 1670s, plans were afoot to connect the newly completed Royal Hospital Chelsea to Kensington Palace via a grand avenue through what was then largely empty fields. Christopher Wren had already begun the process of laying out the route to the north-west of his Hospital. He got as far as the King's Road, about a sixth of the way to Kensington Palace.

A blue rectangular plaque giving the history of Royal Avenue
A plaque on Royal Avenue confirms the history. Image Matt Brown.

The plans came to a halt in 1685 with the death of Charles II, who was the main sponsor of the scheme. The short stretch that was built became the modern Royal Avenue, which was lined with houses in the 19th century.

It's interesting to look at what might have been had the Merry Monarch lived another year or two.

The map above shows the intended route. The green section is the part that was built, while the purple line is the unrealised route.

As you can see by zooming in, the triumphal avenue would have carved a path right through the heart of residential Chelsea and South Kensington. The area would have developed along very different lines had the road been built. Its path runs right through the land where the V&A and Science Museum would later emerge. Imperial College's campus is also bisected.

On a lesser note, the band Queen would have had to find a different venue for their first gig, and comedian Benny Hill could never have lived in his house on Queen's Gate.

It is, of course, impossible to know how the area might have developed on that alternate time line, but it's fun to speculate. Quite probably, Kensington and Chelsea would still have matured into well-heeled neighbourhoods, given that a royal avenue reminiscent of The Mall would have dominated the area. Would the area now be considered central London? Would the museums or university still have been built alongside? How different would the tube map be? It'd make a fascinating starting point for an alternative history novel.