Greenwich is a fascinating area of London, with a host of museums and places of interest for tourists to visit; not least the Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum.
The area is dominated by the Old Royal Naval College, an impressive complex of riverside buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor at the behest of Queen Mary in 1694 as a Royal Hospital for men invalided out of the Navy. The buildings might be familiar with those even yet to visit London, as this World Heritage Site has formed the backdrop to many a blockbuster film; Pirates of the Caribbean, Les Miserables, Cinderella, The King’s Speech, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall …to name but a few.
I recently visited the Painted Hall, known as the UK’s ‘Sistine Chapel’ and originally conceived as a dining room, but soon became a ceremonial space reserved for special functions. Once you go inside, it’s not hard to see why.
As the name suggests, the Painted Hall is covered in frescos, totalling about 40,000 square feet and took Baroque artist James Thornhill (and his team of assistants) nearly twenty years to complete. They began work in 1707.
The Painted Hall comprises three connected spaces; the domed vestibule, the Lower Hall and the Upper Hall. Thornhill’s compositions, which include a cast of over 200 characters presents a vivid and suitably biased picture of early Eighteenth Century Britain, beginning with King William and Queen Mary, then Queen Anne and her consort Prince George of Denmark, and finally the arrival of the Hanoverians with King George I sitting in the midst of a large family portrait.
Baroque painting is not really my cup of tea, but the sheer scale, skill and audacity of the project cannot be disputed. Also, Thornhill’s masterpiece has only recently re-opened to the public following a two year (and £8.5 million) restoration, so is particularly striking and bright.
For those interested in Naval history, you can stand on the exact spot where Admiral Lord Nelson’s body lay-in-state after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 before being moved to St Paul’s Cathedral for his burial in January 1806. You can also view a copy of the maquette made by E.H. Baily for the statue which now stands on the top of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.
Eltham Palace in the Royal Borough of Greenwich (South East London) is a mash up of medieval and Tudor palace and a state of the art 1930s millionaire’s mansion.
The palace began as a moated manor in the 11th century, becoming a Royal Palace in the early 1300s when it was gifted to the future Edward II. By the early 14th century it had become one of the most frequented royal residencies in the country and home to successive monarchs. In the 1470s during the reign of Edward IV, a great hall was built, which has survived to this day.
Henry VIII spent a great deal of his childhood at Eltham and it was at the palace in 1515 that Cardinal Wolsey took his oath of office to become the Lord Chancellor.
By the 17th century Eltham had fallen out of favour as a royal palace and after the Civil War was left to ruin, being used as a farm; the buildings tenanted.
Various attempts were made to repair the buildings and the great hall over the next two centuries, but it wasn’t until 1933 that Eltham really took on a new lease of life when millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld leased the site from the Crown and set about building a new home for themselves.
Although they only occupied the new Eltham Palace for about 8 years, handing over the lease to the Army Educational Corps, it is the period during which the Courtaulds entertained their high profile friends (including royalty) which has been restored to be enjoyed by the public.
The house is a mix of Bond villain lair and backdrop for a Hercule Poirot murder mystery and was kitted out with cutting edge 1930s technology including electric fires, surround sound (for playing records in different rooms), private internal telephone exchange, centralised vacuum cleaner and underfloor heating.
The house adjoins the medieval great hall and sits within 19 acres of gardens and is run by English Heritage.
After a brief wander around Greenwich and a spot of lunch, sitting on the steps of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St Alfege Church in the relative tranquillity of the churchyard, I continued on my journey to the Thames Barrier and threaded my way back towards the river. A dome with a red-bricked base sits by the waters edge; the southern entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which as the name would suggest is a pedestrian tunnel (opened in 1902) that burrows beneath the river to link Greenwich with the Isle of Dogs on the north side. I remember the first time I ever walked through the tunnel. Maybe it’s just me, but the fact that you’re wandering through a 1,215 ft long cast iron tunnel glazed with over 200,000 tiles that feel like they could pop out and let the river come crushing through at any moment is quite exciting. There’s definitely an air of danger in the stagnant air and etched on to the faces of everyone you pass by.
Aside from Nandos, the main dominating feature of the riverside at Greenwich is the Cutty Sark, a 19th century tea clipper, which has been resting there in a dry dock since the 1950s. It is a effectively a maritime equivalent of a listed building and was one of the last and not to mention fastest sail ships to travel all around the world before finally being usurped by the much less romantic steam boats. During restoration in 2007, the Cutty Sark was badly damaged by a fire and was not reopened to the public again until 2012.
I turned right across the front of the National Maritime Museum and the Old Royal Navy College, which built by Christopher Wren is now a World Heritage Site and as far as I can tell, seems to act as the back drop for every period drama … ever. The Trafalgar Tavern with its wonderful riverside views was as busy as expected with drinkers lining the walkway outside. Turning left and walking to the end of the next street I discovered two quite astoundingly different buildings next to each other. Trinity Hospital, originally a 17th century Mercers company almshouses (and still is today), was rebuilt in 1812 and is a Grade II listed building. It stands tantalising beyond a locked gate, all pristine whitewashed walls amongst flowers and shrubs, but directly in the shadow of a vast early 20th century coal-fired power station. It’s quite an incredible architectural juxtaposition.
For the last stretch of the walk, it all gets a bit industrial, with a huge Tate & Lyle sugar refinery on the opposite bank and on my stretch, almost post apocalyptic scenery (which I always find a strange way of describing something as know one actually knows what such a scene would look like), through fenced off areas, beneath what I think was a cement works and around a massive building site that looks like it will be populated by super expensive flats in the not too distant future. I passed the Millennium Dome, or the O2 Arena as I believe it is now called and watched a posse of intrepid explorers making their way over the roof.
Next up was the Emirates Cable Car, which I had never visited before and probably never will, then gleaming in the late afternoon sun, a short distance ahead and stretching across the river like a series of giant alien water beetles was the Thames Barrier, London’s flood defence. It has been operational since 1982 and the idea is that the barrier stops London from flooding during heavy tides or storm surges. And here was the final stage of the walk, strung out like a finishing line. As I made my way through the Thames Barrier car park to find some form of public transport back to my bike, I found it quite amusing to notice that they actually have an ‘overflow car park’.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.