Taking a Boat trip down to Greenwich has to be one of the best days out in London, but unless you know exactly what you want to do when you get there, it’s worth dropping into the excellent Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre first before dashing off like a headless chicken.
If you’re anything like me, a day in Greenwich will be nowhere near enough, but for the purposes of expediency, I’m going to start my virtual tour of the town at the Old Royal Naval College, which the visitor centre is part of.
Greenwich has an exceptional maritime history, and next to the visitor centre is the Old Brewery, which used to supply sailors of the Royal Hospital for Seamen with their daily allowance of 4 pints of beer, but which now serves people like you and me, and although I suggested coming to the visitor centre first, I’m also suggesting that you leave the Old Brewery bar to last – otherwise you might not end up going anywhere.
The magnificent Old Royal Naval College was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and is a major part of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site.
The building sits over the top of the former Greenwich Palace, or the Palace of Placentia as it was also called. This palace, built in the 15th century, is best remembered for being the birthplace of King Henry VIII and his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, but unfortunately all that’s left of it are the foundations buried beneath Grand Square. A stone plaque set into the floor near to the Water Gate marks the position where it once stood.
During the Commonwealth period Oliver Cromwell removed all the palace’s possessions and it quickly fell into disrepair, but with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II started work on building a new palace but it was never completed.
However, what was built was put to good use when foundations were laid in 1696 for a new Royal Hospital for Seamen.
What is now the eastern part of King Charles Court, was incorporated into Queen Mary II’s dream of building somewhere suitable to look after the large number of casualties returning from the country’s naval conflicts.
Queen Mary herself died two years before the first stone was laid, but her husband William III, commissioned Christopher Wren to carry out her wishes. It’s well known that Wren designed the hospital but, what’s perhaps not so well known, is that most of the work was done by Nicholas Hawksmoor, as Wren had his hands full re-building St. Paul’s Cathedral and the remains of what was left of the city of London after the Great Fire of 1666.
The buildings were used as a hospital and retirement home for seamen until falling numbers deemed it unviable and was eventually closed in 1869.
Within 4 years it was re-opened again – this time as the Royal Naval College for the education of officers, and in 1998 it became the ‘Old’ Royal Naval College when the Greenwich Foundation took it over.
The classical layout comprises of four courts – the King Charles, Queen Anne, King William and Queen Mary Courts.
The Queen Mary Court was completed in 1751 by Thomas Ripley, and although the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul was devastated by fire in 1779 it was replaced by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart’s fabulous neo-classical building and enhanced by Benjamin West’s large altarpiece. You won’t need to spend a huge amount of time in here, but see it you must.
In the King William Court opposite the Chapel is the Painted Hall, which has been described as the “Greatest piece of decorative painting in England”.
The Hall was originally intended to be a dining room for the navy pensioners of the Royal Hospital, but it became such a tourist attraction that the old sailors were forced to eat elsewhere.
The person responsible for this quite amazing allegory was a relatively unknown artist by the name of James Thornhill.
The task was completed in two stages between 1708 and 1727 with the Lower Hall being followed by the Upper Hall.
The paintings represent a range of subjects including religion, the monarchy and naval achievements – The Lower Hall ceiling depicts ‘Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny’, the West Wall shows ‘George I, his family and his virtues’, and the Upper Hall ceiling portrays ‘British Naval Achievements’.
Thornhill wouldn’t have realised it at the time of course, but one of the navy’s greatest achievements was still yet to happen.
On 21st October 1805, Vice Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, was fatally wounded at his moment of victory over the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar. His body was brought back to England and taken ashore at Greenwich where he lay in state for three days in the Painted Hall.
Crowds flocked here to pay homage to one of England’s greatest heroes of the day before a state barge took him up the Thames to the Admiralty in Whitehall. On the following day, 9th January 1806, some 10,000 soldiers took his body on a funeral procession to St Paul’s Cathedral for the state funeral. His coffin is placed inside a sarcophagus originally made for Cardinal Wolsey and can be seen in the cathedral’s crypt.
I said earlier, that you should leave the Old Brewery to last, but perhaps it’s more appropriate to pay your own homage to Lord Nelson at the Trafalgar Tavern, which is on the riverside near to the Queen Anne Court (now part of Greenwich University).
I think it’s fair to say that if you come here when it’s busy then you won’t enjoy it as much as when it’s not, but if you can find a table outside, next to the statue of Nelson, then it would seem a fitting place to finish off your visit to the architectural masterpiece next door that was originally built, not as a college for officers, but as a magnificent hospital fit for heroes.