Michael Palin, Punk And Stargazing At This Year's Chelsea History Festival

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 9 months ago

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Last Updated 01 August 2023

Michael Palin, Punk And Stargazing At This Year's Chelsea History Festival

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A group of Chelsea Pensioners in their red coats, walking away from the camera through the garden of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
The Chelsea Pensioners pace stick performance on History Street during the Chelsea History Festival

Walking tours, free open days and talks by famous faces are on the programme for this year's Chelsea History Festival.

Now in its fifth year, the six-day event is hosted by local institutions the National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Chelsea and Chelsea Physic Garden, offering visitors an insight into local history, as well as national, international and military history.

More than 65 events make up the 2023 programme, offering something for history buffs, book lovers, families — and those of us who just love a good nosey around fancy buildings. Here's our picks of things to book right now:

ROYAL HOSPITAL TOURS: The Chelsea Pensioners themselves take visitors on tours of their home, the Royal Hospital Chelsea, telling its history from Restoration England through to the Napoleonic Wars and into the austerity of two world wars. Takes place on 28 September and 29 September. Alternatively, get a grasp of Sir Christopher Wren's design of the 330-year-old building on an architectural tour, visiting the Great Hall, Wren Chapel and the Figure Court. Takes place 26 September at 10am or 2pm. 26-29 September

STARGAZING: The inaugural stargazing session at the Royal Hospital Chelsea is held in honour of Sir Christopher Wren, who was a knowledgeable scholar as well as an architect. Begin with a glass of wine in the Hospital's State Apartments, as an astronomy expert gives an introductory talk, before heading outside and using the telescopes. 27 September

SW3 ON SCREEN: A Clockwork Orange, Skyfall and Withnail & I are just some of the films which have been recorded in the Chelsea area. Join Blue Badge Guide and City of London Guide Guy Fairbank for a two-hour walking tour around SW3, seeking out the spots which have featured on the big screen. 27 September

The exterior of part of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
Much of the Chelsea History Festival action takes place at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Photo: Matt Brown

WREN 300 CONCERT: The Royal Hospital Chelsea Chapel Choir and Wren Players mark the 300th anniversary of Sir Christopher Wren's death with a special concert in the Wren Chapel at the Hospital. Enjoy pieces written by Henry Purcell in 1692, the year the Royal Hospital opened its doors to the first Chelsea Pensioners. 28 September

HENRY VIII: No self-respecting history festival is complete without some decent Tudor action. Enter historian and Tudor fiction novelist Alison Weir and her new book, Henry VIII: The Heart and the Crown, a retelling of the life of Henry VIII, viewed from the King's own perspective. 28 September

MICHAEL PALIN: The actor/author/traveller discusses his book Great Uncle Harry, about his own relative, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme at the age of 32. Palin had no idea he'd existed until he found a photo of him in the family records, and went on to spend hundreds of hours researching his life to write this book. 29 September

PUNK CHELSEA: In the 1970s, Chelsea's King's Road became a centre for the punk movement, as musicians, fashion designers and artists moved into the area — including Vivienne Westwood's SEX boutique. Tour guide Steven Szymanski leads a guided walk showcasing the punk heritage of Chelsea and visiting some of the legendary sites. 29 September/1 October

Soldiers in red tunics and bearskin hats visible behind flowers
Band of the Scots Guards at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Copyright James McCauley

This is just a small selection of this year's events; further speakers include British Army officer Major Levison Wood and former soldier Geraint Jones; historian Robert Lyman; former Chief of General Staff Lord Dannatt; author and historian Helen Fry; author Honor Cargill-Martin; and historian Estelle Paranque, covering topics ranging from royal fashion to women working in 20th century intelligence services, to the evacuation of Kabul in 2021, to threats facing the United Kingdom today.

History Street, an interactive outdoor experience recreating London's past, returns to the festival for a third time, keeping younger visitors entertained with tales from ancient history to the present day. Full details on family-friendly events and activities will be announced closer to the time.

Chelsea History Festival 2023 takes place 26 September-1 October. Tickets are available now.