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Chelsea in love: the neighbourhood’s most significant romances

With Valentine’s Day upon us, novelist and screenwriter Rob Ryan takes to the streets of Chelsea and finds that love is all around

Is SW3 London’s most romantic postcode? I ask, not because of any lingering fallout from the constructed romantic dramas of Made in Chelsea, but because on a bitterly cold day recently, I strolled the streets of the borough and came across no fewer than five recently married couples, all braving the chill to pose for photos in various locations.

And let’s face it, the area does have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to photogenic backdrops (and Instagram snaps). There’s the bridge, of course, the colourful houses of beautiful Bywater Street or Burnsall Street, the Saatchi Gallery’s imposing frontage, the Chelsea Physic Garden, and Sloane Square’s Venus fountain, where the famous lovers King Charles II and Nell Gywn are depicted in its basin. Then there is the famous pink LOVE door on Oakley Street and the equally pretty twin pink doors on Glebe Place, which mark the location of JMW Turner’s studio (he worked there from 1811 to 1829).

In his later years, the famed ‘Painter of Light’ lived at 118 and 119 Cheyne Walk with his last love, the widow Sophia Caroline Booth. After his death in 1851, she said that he composed many verses in honour of “herself and her personal charms”, which is pretty romantic – although JMW was apparently a better painter than poet.

Turner’s last words were “The sun is God”, a sentiment I am sure would be echoed by those chilly brides and grooms I came across. I asked two of the loved-up couples why they decided to tie the knot in the area and the answer was swift: for the Registry Office at Chelsea Old Town Hall. Recently given a spruce up, it is one of the most historic and storied wedding venues in the country, let alone London.

The Town Hall’s confetti-covered steps have been graced by the likes of Judy Garland and Mickey Deans (husband number five, 1969), rock star Marc Bolan and June Child (1970), Pierce Brosnan and Cassandra Harris (1980) and Hugh Grant and Anna Eberstein (2018). Of course, there was a near-miss that is equally famous – in 2014 George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin had to move venue (to Venice) as the Town Hall was worried about crowd control. That such a power couple originally chose to marry there is a testament to its romantic pulling power.

One of the guests at Marc Bolan’s small ceremony was the aristocratic Alice Ormsby-Gore, at the time the girlfriend of guitar god Eric Clapton (he was on tour in the US, so missed the T. Rex star’s wedding). The guitarist was well known for his many romantic entanglements, perhaps most infamously with George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd. Both were frequent visitors to The Pheasantry, a building on the King’s Road that became one of the key addresses in West London’s hippie counter-culture scene.

Quite when Clapton became besotted with Harrison’s wife isn’t clear, but she inspired one of the great songs of unrequited love, Layla by Derek and the Dominos. Despite her continued rebuffs while he was living on the King’s Road and beyond, Clapton eventually got together with Boyd. The Pheasantry now houses a Pizza Express that continues the musical connection with live shows in the basement.

Judy Garland and Mickey Deans
Marc Bolan and June Child
Amal and George Clooney

Chelsea might have a history of hosting rock royalty, but long before that, it had noble connections and royal romances. 

Clapton wasn’t the only rock star to live in Chelsea. In fact, a stroll along Cheyne Walk during the ’60s was almost like an episode of Top of the Pops. Rolling Stone Mick Jagger bought number 48 in 1968 and set up house there with Marianne Faithfull after one of the era’s most high-profile whirlwind romances, with the pair being the ‘It’ couple of the day (never mind that she also secretly slept with Jagger’s bandmate Keith Richards… things were different back then). They lasted four years together – Faithfull blamed the constant media attention for its demise – and Jagger sold the house in the ’70s, later purchasing number 98.

Handily, perhaps, Keith Richards lived at 3 Cheyne Walk from May 1968. His partner was Anita Pallenberg, who had first linked up with Brian Jones, the Stones’ founder and guitarist, in 1965. Things became increasingly fraught during their two years together, and Jones took to hitting Pallenberg.

On holiday in Marrakech, Morocco, Richards heard Jones assaulting Pallenberg and went out into the corridor to help, eventually persuading her to leave Jones and do a ‘moonlight flit’ with him.

Later, Richards admitted in his book, Life, that he had long been jealous of Jones’ relationship with Pallenberg and that they had in fact had a brief rendezvous before the Marrakech incident. The pair had some turbulent times but lasted until 1980 and it is clear from Richards’ book that she was one of his greatest loves. Second only, perhaps, to rock’n’roll.

A later generation of musicians used Chelsea as a launch pad to impact the national consciousness too, and it all started (as much youth rebellion does) with clothes. Vivienne Westwood, a catalyst for the punk explosion, left her husband in the early 1970s to move in with the charismatic designer Malcolm McLaren. She was teaching, he owned a shop at 43 King’s Road called Let It Rock, mainly selling clothes and records to Teddy Boys, which evolved into Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die. Then, in October ’74, McLaren and Westwood transformed it into SEX, a store that became the crucible for punk, for it was here McLaren put together the Sex Pistols.

Like punk itself, the couple were red hot but short-lived. By 1980 both had moved on, but the words ‘SEX-Westwood-McLaren’ still conjure up images of love among the safety pins.

Chelsea might have a history of hosting rock royalty, but long before that, it had noble connections and royal romances. Take number 30 Cadogan Place, home to Irish actress Dorothy Jordan (1761-1816). She was mistress to the Duke of Clarence for 21 years, bearing him 10 children (to add to the five she already had). When the Duke tried to cut her allowance, she quoted the notice frequently seen in theatre box offices: “No money returned after the rising of the curtain.” The Duke, incidentally, later became King William IV.

And the Duke wasn’t the only once-and-future king to enjoy a dalliance in Chelsea. Queen Victoria’s son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), had a famous love-in with the actress and socialite Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), the namesake of The Cadogan Hotel’s restaurant, The LaLee. She had strong Chelsea connections as her parents had married at St Luke’s Church on Sydney Street and she herself lived at 21 Pont Street, which became the Cadogan Hotel in 1895.

She spent her final years in Monaco, but the bedroom where she entertained her lovers is now Room 106 of the hotel. The Cadogan was also the setting for the arrest of Oscar Wilde on a charge of gross indecency, thanks to his tempestuous (and sadly illegal) love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (who was a local lad, having grown up at 18 Cadogan Place).

Lucky residents of the Cadogan Hotel, by the way, have access to the otherwise private Cadogan Place Gardens, a little haven of tranquillity, which is virtually unchanged since the green space was laid out in 1886. Its mature trees and shrubbery mean it is a welcome respite from prying eyes or jealous partners, something that many a young lover would be grateful for. They should, despite what Elvis Costello advised to the contrary, go to Chelsea.


Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull
Pattie Boyd and George Harrison
Anita Pallenberg and Keith Richards
Lillie Langtry
Oscar Wilde

Love in Chelsea

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