The Royal Hospital Chelsea is close to starting construction on a new on-site activities centre.
Home to 300 Chelsea Pensioners, the hospital’s plans for the £2.7 million facility remain on track for opening in late 2021 despite the financial difficulties posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Featuring nine hobbies and craft rooms over two floors, including a pottery room and a kitchenette, the centre would be the first of its kind available to not only the hospital’s residents, but also to the 85,000 veterans living in and around the London area.
The project’s necessity has been reflected by the hospital’s commissioners promise to match every donation received up to £1 million, and having recently passed the halfway mark for funding, construction is expected to begin soon.
The facility’s importance is largely owed to the inadequacy of current facilities, explained Allan McLaren, the hospital’s head of fundraising and supervisor for the centre’s appeal.
He said: “Currently activities do happen, but they happen in converted meeting rooms, temporary buildings, and some very old laundry rooms that we’ve got. It’s not ideal.
“It means that a lot of pensioners can’t take part. A lot of pensioners want to do things, but they cannot take part in them because of the lack of space and accessibility.
“Those with disabilities, or any life limiting conditions, they need a lot of extra support to be able to do anything so they feel quite excluded from taking part in these things.”
Alongside accessibility, veteran outreach was also a key consideration as the hospital seeks to offer activities and companionship to those living outside the Chelsea grounds.
McLaren said: “We’ll work with other charities and veterans associations to identify pensioners that are quite isolated and alone, those with disabilities who can’t take part in things within their own communities, and bring them in so they can join in.
“They can start building relationships and friendships with many of the pensioners who will all be quite like minded.”
Given the hospital’s emphasis on companionship and comradery, with all residents formerly living alone, the experience of lockdown during the pandemic has been acutely challenging.
Since going into lockdown in March the hospital has lost ten pensioners, whilst social distancing rules have disrupted many of the typical activities that take place in existing small spaces.
“It’s taken quite a heavy toll on them,” explained McLaren. “Some have been accepting, others more difficult.
“I reckon a Chelsea Pensioner when they come in could be out representing the hospital and the wider veteran community 365 days of the year if they wanted to, so the fact that they’ve been locked in makes it even doubly hard for them.
“With this new facility, whether it’s this pandemic or future pandemics, we’ll be able to cope a lot better.”
Alan Rutter, 72, a six-year resident of the hospital who served in the British Army’s Middlesex and then Queen’s Regiment, discussed the pensioner’s experience of lockdown.
He said: “The government made the decision to lock us down quite early, but then that’s because there’s a lot of elderly people here and we have to be very conscious and take good care of people.
“It is difficult, but we’re very fortunate as a lot of people living in flats don’t even have gardens, so who am I to complain?”
Chatting whilst he simultaneously sculpted a round-lidded bowl, it was perhaps unsurprising which feature of the new centre Rutter was particularly excited for.
He said: “Pottery is without a doubt the most popular hobby that’s ever been introduced.
“There’s going to be a purpose-built pottery room, so we’re going to have all that we need here.
“And it’s not just the potters, we’ve got some really good artists here. Some like to work with wood, others have done jewellery making, so there’s lots of different groups that would benefit from a new activities centre, very much so.”
Alongside pottery, Rutter’s other great love is of walking, a passion well reflected in his eight-week long, 610-mile retracing of the Western Front that he completed for charity last year.
Setting off from Dunkirk with little more than a sleeping bag, a phone, and essential supplies, Rutter endured rain and cold to reach his goal at Pletterhouse, raising almost £6,000 in the process.
He explained: “I didn’t take a tent so I slept under the stars. The weather was getting really quite cold as I got towards Switzerland, and I did get soaked on half a dozen occasions during the night.
“I walked on average about 15 miles a day, it was a really good adventure.”
Those interested in donating to Royal Chelsea Hospital and the appeal for a new activities centre can do so here.