With it’s setting on the banks of the Thames, Greenwich certainly impresses. Any ship sailing up the Thames to London has to pass here. These classical-style buildings were designed to show off the power of England at the beginning of the 1700’s. The Old Royal Naval College, The Queen’s House, The Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum are all situated here alongside Greenwich village with its colourful market. So much to see….it is definitely worth the trip and can easily take a full day to visit.
What we see from the river was originally a residence for seamen, veterans of the various wars in the late 17thC. Having seen sailors wounded in naval battles Queen Mary II realised that many would be left destitute on their return home. So the ‘Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich’ was founded. With her husband, William, she created this monumental complex as propaganda to equal the impressive sights in Paris. On the opposite side of London they also built Hampton Court Palace to rival Versailles.
Inside, we find a hidden treasure… When first created the Painted Hall was dubbed ‘The finest dining room in England’. It is now often referred to as Britain’s Sistine Chapel. The cavernous hall is covered with a huge painting glorifying England and the new monarchs who came to bring victory and consequently peace, prosperity and great advancement to the nation. This is demonstrated by the defeat of Spanish galleons and the suppression of King Louis XIV of France, their great rival. Historic characters include Galileo and Copernicus.
The sailors, however, preferred to eat in the under-croft below which was simpler and where they were allowed to smoke. They found the dining room was too grand for their liking. Opposite the Painted Hall is the Chapel of St Peter and Paul, one time chapel for the ex-seamen, it is now a beautiful neo-classical oasis of calm. In 1873 the Hospital for Seamen was closed and handed over to the Navy as a training school and this is why it is now called the Old Royal Naval College. Several buildings are now part of the University of Greenwich and also Trinity Laban Music College.
The esplanade in the centre of the complex is impressive in itself with sweeping views up and down the river. It’s broad terraces make it one of the most sought after locations for filming in the country. At times it has represented Buckingham Palace, the streets of London and even the backdrop for the French Revolution as Paris. Greenwich features regularly in period dramas... in fact, you may reconise this house as the home of the Bridgerton family in the hugely popular Netflix drama Bridgerton. This is the Rangers House, not only a beautiful house but also a wonderful museum - the Werner Collection.
Tucked behind the Old Royal Naval College is the Queen’s House – the first Palladian style building in the country which would have sent shock waves throughout the nation when first constructed. It was so different to everything that had come before. It is linked to the surrounding buildings via colonnaded covered walkways constructed to commemorate the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and Nelson’s great victory over Napoleon. The interior is quite dramatic and there is some fabulous art inside, particularly relating to the Navy and sea voyages…
Perched on the brow of the hill overlooking the Thames is the home of time itself: The Royal Observatory. Constructed 250 years ago it has evolved and expanded over the years and since 1844 has been the site of the Prime Meridian. This is the line where longitude is measured from… and you can stand with your feet on either side… one in the Eastern Hemisphere and one in the West.
There is so much more here too…. We learn about the great quest to solve the problem of calculating longitude, the mapping of the stars above and also the creation of the most accurate clocks, capable of showing the time in choppy seas and tropical temperatures.
Back at the bottom of the hill is the National Maritime Museum… worth the visit just to see the Nelson gallery where tales of his great bravery and tactical skill are told through paintings, model ships of old and even his uniform that he was wearing on board HMS Victory when he died. Other galleries show the adventures of Captain Cook and early expeditions of discovery in Tudor times. There are also frequent excellent temporary exhibitions.
Greenwich is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a joy for photographers, for culture vultures and also for day-trippers who just want to enjoy the beautiful scenery, the air and open spaces. Add to this the large number of bars, restaurants, pubs and shops then it's appeal is universal. Do join me for a tour here…
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