As an Encore Tour Manager, I have had the pleasure for many years of taking visiting choirs and other ensembles around the British Isles for performance tours. Encore organizes concerts for these ensembles in venues, large and small, from cathedrals, churches, halls, and local schools. Attending the performances are audiences made up of the local people – maybe those just passing, or those who have seen the posters and take the opportunity of a free concert – and sometimes even dignitaries or special guests. It is fascinating to watch as these audiences are continually thrilled to hear the extraordinary standard of these young singers and their dedicated musical directors. I am no longer surprised by the high caliber of these performers and I love seeing the delight of others as they discover it for themselves.
It is always exciting, of course, for the ensembles to perform in London and a regular venue is in the heart of Mayfair in central London (a very fashionable part it must be said!) in a lovely elegant church, the Grosvenor Chapel, not far from where the US Embassy currently resides. At this venue, Encore offers an invitation to some very special visitors indeed: they are the Chelsea Pensioners.
Who are the Chelsea Pensioners? Well, to us in Britain, and especially here in London, they have a place in all our hearts and are an integral part of our wonderful city. They are immediately distinguished by their famous scarlet uniforms and are residents of what is known as the Royal Hospital Chelsea. It is not a ‘hospital’ in the modern sense, but in its earlier meaning of a respite place, a ‘hospice’. The Royal Hospital was the idea of Charles II in the 17th Century who realized that there were a growing number of soldiers no longer fit for active service and that a safe home was needed for these veterans. He commissioned his great architect Sir Christopher Wren – yes, he of St. Paul’s Cathedral fame – to make such a home and now it is one of the great glories of architecture in the west of London in Chelsea on the banks of the Thames.
It is the home of many current veterans who all served at some time or other as ordinary soldiers. It was only in 2009 that female veterans at last broke the male bastion of the Pensioners but even then they had to live in separate accommodation because of limited bathroom facilities. This year, however, saw the first of their number move into the revamped Long Wards in the beautiful building itself. The Royal Hospital provides sheltered, independent living, supported by full medical care and catering services and is set in beautiful grounds. It does receive some Government funding but every year it raises over £2 million pounds.
It is possible to visit the Royal Hospital and this can be arranged via their website. The Pensioners often welcome visiting VIPs, most recently the US Under Secretary of Defence for Personnel and Readiness, Jessica L. Wright.
And how wonderful it is to see a couple of their number attending each of the Encore concerts in London. They have specially reserved seats right up the front and love the music and the chance to meet the young performers afterwards. It was a delight for me too to see and hear how the young people became involved with these very special veterans. I’m sure it was a memorable and unexpected extra part of their Encore performance tours experience.
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