A walk around two royal hospitals – (2) Greenwich

The Old Royal Naval College from Island Gardens

The Old Royal Naval College from Island Gardens

At some point in our walk around Chelsea Mary Ann mentioned Greenwich. Later, when we came to think about where we might go the next day, that seemed like a good option. We’ve been to Greenwich before of course, although that was several years ago. On that occasion we visited the Royal Observatory and the meridian line. But we had never been around the Old Royal Naval College buildings (although I have a dim memory of a childhood visit to the National Maritime Museum, which is part of the same site.)

Greenwich Tunnel

Under the River Thames

We travelled to Greenwich via the Docklands Light Railway. This winds its way through a fascinating variety of East End neighbourhoods: the old working class communities of Shadwell and Limehouse, the high rise offices of Canary Wharf, new flats and older social housing in the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. We got off a stop early to enjoy the view across the river from Island Gardens, then walked under the river to Greenwich through the foot tunnel. This is presently undergoing refurbishment in connection with the Olympics (Greenwich Park will host the equestrian and modern pentathlon events). However the work is considerably behind schedule and the lifts are presently not in operation.

We emerged out of the tunnel into Cutty Sark Gardens, presently a building site. The Cutty Sark itself is still not open to the public, though it looks splendid from a distance and the work on the ship seems to be nearing completion. So we made our way to the Old Royal Naval College, stopping off first at the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre. This was opened a couple of years ago in the Pepys building, one of the outbuildings of the naval college, and is a good introduction to Maritime Greenwich.

Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sark sitting on its new observation platform. The building site in the foreground is Cutty Sark Gardens

For a while we wandered around the grounds and courts of the college. The college was designed by Christopher Wren, originally as the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich (usually shortened to the Greenwich Hospital), the naval counterpart of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Wren had also been responsible for the Chelsea Hospital. The hospital was founded in 1694 (two years after the Chelsea Hospital was opened) and completed in 1712. It was built on the site of the royal Greenwich Palace – a number of artefacts from which are now in the Discover Greenwich visitor centre. To the north the Royal Hospital School was founded to provide education to the children and grandchildren of seafarers. (The school moved to a new site near Ipswich in 1933 and the school buildings now house the National maritime Museum.)

Unlike Chelsea, the Greenwich Hospital is no longer used for its original purpose. From 1873 to 1998 the buildings became the home of the Royal Naval College. They are now leased to Greenwich University and Trinity College of Music. However, the whole site is open to the public, including the magnificent chapel and Painted Hall. It has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, considered to be the “finest and most dramatically sited architectural and landscape ensemble in the British Isles”.

The Chapel

The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul

The most obvious feature of the former hospital are the twin domes, one over the chapel and the other over the Painted Hall. Both of these are magnificent spaces; standing in the chapel one could hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as people took in the ornate baroque plasterwork and splendid ceiling. The Painted Hall was intended to be the refectory for the seaman pensioners, but was never used as such, being deemed far too grand and has been a tourist attraction almost since the hospital was opened. (As I write, by total coincidence, a programme in historian Dan Snow’s ‘Empire of the Sea’ television series is on BBC4 and he has just popped up in the Painted Hall explaining the significance of its nationalistic allegories.)

The Painted Hall

The wonderfully over-the-top Painted Hall

By now it was mid afternoon and we were feeling hungry so we walked through the grounds, past the Queen’s House, towards the historical town centre of Greenwich. We had a huge and cheap plate of noodles in Noodle Time, after which there was time to explore the market., which has stalls similar to those you might find at Spitalfields or Camden Lock. We enjoyed the atmosphere though, and enjoyed poking around the stalls and shops for half an hour. After all that walking we felt we deserved a treat and were unable to walk by the Black Vanilla gelateria without having a look at their wares. There is a huge variety of flavours; once Mary Ann spotted her favourite – watermelon – we succumbed. Apparently this is a new business. Although it is advertised as a gelateria and champagne bar but the council is so far refusing to grant a premises licence. As far as I am concerned you can keep the champagne; I’ll stick with the gelati.

Wren's hospital and Canary Wharf

The old and the new: Wren's hospital and Canary Wharf

You can see more photographs of our visit to Greenwich at this Facebook album.

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
This entry was posted in History, London and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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