Time and tide, royalty and ravishing architecture. Leafy Greenwich in South London has them all and more, as Craig Roberts discovers
The ‘green village’ of Greenwich, with its acres of beautiful rolling parkland, is a tranquil retreat from busy central London. But this isn’t the only reason it’s so popular. Accored World Heritage Site status in 1997, Greenwich is brimming with maritime associations and magnificent architecture, has been the grand birthplace of kings and queens, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and of course, has been associated with zero meridian and the Greenwich Mean Time.
It was the Duke of Gloucester, the brother of King Henry V who in 1427 first built a palace here naming it Bella Court, Bella meaning beautiful. He also enclosed 200 acres of Greenwich Park as he fancied it as his hunting ground, making it one of London’s oldest royal parks. King James I later replaced the fence with a brick wall.
When King Henry VII took over Bella Court he rebuilt it for his wife Margaret of Anjou, renaming it the Palace of Placentia in 1500. His son, King Henry VIII was born here, as were his daughters Elizabeth I and Mary Tudor. He in turn went on to enlarge the palace with a royal armoury and banqueting hall and also introduced deer into the park. He also liked to use the park as his hunting ground, as it meant he could keep an eye on his ships from the top of the hill. His daughter, Mary did not care much for the palace herself, but Elizabeth made it her official summer residence on her accession in 1553. After falling into disrepair during the Commonwealth it was eventually torn down by King Charles II in 1660. The long avenues of trees in the park were designed in the same century by Louis XIV’s landscape gardener, Andre Le Notre though he never actually set foot in Greenwich. The park finally opened to the public in the 18th century.
It was also within the park that two historic events happened. Three years after Henry VIII’s wife Anne Boleyn gave birth to their daughter Elizabeth, he signed her death warrant in the palace, and the park was also the setting where Sir Walter Raleigh famously laid his cloak over a puddle for Elizabeth, to prevent her shoes getting wet.
In place of the palace the Royal Naval College was built. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren on a commission from William III and Queen Mary, it was originally a hospital for seamen built to match the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. It was then transformed from a hospital into the college in 1873. The interior includes a painted hall with walls and ceilings opulently decorated in the Baroque style by Sir James Thornhill, who also painted the interior of the dome at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and took him 19 years to complete. A large central oval on the ceiling shows William and Mary giving peace and liberty to Europe. Also, at the foot of one of the paintings on the west wall is the artist himself, apparently holding out his hand for more money.
Inigo Jones’s Queen’s House is perfectly framed by the buildings of the college and forms part of the buildings that now house the National Maritime Museum. Work began on the house in 1616 when King James I commissioned Jones to build a summer residence for his wife Anne of Denmark, upon Jones’s return from Italy. On her death three years later James gave the house to the future King Charles I, whose wife Queen Henrietta Maria asked Jones to complete it for her. It was the first Palladian building in England and a break from the usual Tudor style. The Queen was so delighted with the design she called it her “House of Delights”.
The National Maritime Museum was incorporated into the Queen’s House with two wings on either side linked by colonnades and opened in 1937. It features the history of the Royal and Merchant Navy and among the exhibits is the blood-stained tunic worn by Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, with a hole in the shoulder where he was shot by the bullet that killed him on October 21st 1805. It also features many naval paintings and is one of the finest maritime museums in the world.
The top of the hill in the park is crowned with the Old Royal Observatory. Originally known as Flamsteed House it was built by Wren in 1675, who King Charles II had commissioned, to house his Astronomer Royal John Flamstead. In the main courtyard is an illuminated strip of blue opaque glass dividing the eastern and western hemispheres and since 1884 this has been the point at which the whole world sets its clocks in relation to Greenwich Mean Time. On the roof of the observatory is the timeball, that falls on a rod at one o’clock every day as it has done since 1833, allowing mariners on the Thames to set their clocks before setting out to sea. It is no longer used as an observatory though, as this moved to Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex, due to the rising pollution levels of London.
Moored in dry dock at Greenwich is the Cutty Sark. Launched from Dumbarton on the Clyde, this clipper gets its name from Scottish dialect meaning piece of cloth. Burns used this in his poem, Tom O’ Shanter. It describes a winsome wench dressed in a 'cutty sark' who chased a drunken Tom. The figurehead on the ship shows her clutching the tail of Tom’s mare on which he made his escape. The ship spent eight years in the china tea trade, but it was as a wool clipper that it made its name setting a new record of sailing 363 miles in just 24 hours. It was sold to the Portuguese in 1895 before being bought back and opened to the public in 1954.
The Cutty Sark dwarfs the other boat set in dry dock at the riverside, the Gypsy Moth. This tiny boat was sailed single-handedly by Sir Francis Chichester, aged 65, around the world in 1966-7. The treacherous journey of 29,630 miles was completed in 266 days in what would have been very cramped conditions on the 54ft vessel. On his return Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in front of the college with the same sword used to knight Sir Francis Drake by Queen Elizabeth I.
St Alfege’s church stands in the centre of Greenwich and was built by Hawksmoor in 1711, replacing the original 12th century church. John James added the steeple in 1730. Hawksmoor spent his career in the shadow of other great architects like Wren and Vanbrugh, but here at Greenwich was a design that showed what the great man himself could achieve and was one of England’s greatest Baroque churches. It is named after the archbishop of Canterbury who was taken hostage by the Danes and brought to Greenwich. After refusing to be put up for ransom he was pelted to death with ox bones by the infuriated Danes. The church, like the Naval College, also features paintings by Thornhill and was later restored after being badly damaged in World War Two.
In the 19th century several drinking establishments and hotels were built to accommodate all the wants of the visitor to Greenwich, be they rich or poor. Among those visitors was Charles Dickens, who regularly drank at the Trafalgar Tavern on the riverside with his illustrator George Cruickshank. He also mentioned it in his novel the Old Mutual Friend. The charming panelled pub, built in 1837 quickly became popular as a venue for whitebait dinners, which in those days was caught locally. The fish still features on the menu, although it is no longer caught in the somewhat polluted Thames.
Other landmarks around the park itself include Vanbrugh’s Castle, a house that Vanbrugh designed for himself on Maze Hill. It’s modelled on the former Parisian prison, the Bastille, where he was imprisoned between 1690-92 on the charge of spying for the British government. In the middle of the park stands the statue of General James Wolfe, the conqueror of Quebec in Canada. It was from here that he left for his last expedition to Canada in 1759 where he was killed on the Plains of Abraham. He now lies buried in St. Alfege’s church.
Running along the opposite side of the park to Maze Hill is Croom’s Hill, one of the best kept 17th century streets in London. Famous residents included John James, General Wolfe as well as James Thornhill. At the foot of the hill is the Fan Museum with its fascinating collection of 2,000 fans made from a variety of materials dating from the 17th century onwards.
Greenwich is very much a place of history and devoted to the study of history. Although only 5 miles from central London it feels far more removed, with an air of tranquillity and is a place with time as its landmark. What more complimentary tribute could it receive, than when described by Robinson Crusoe author, Daniel Defoe as “The most delightful spot of ground in Great Britain”.
All images and text copyright © Craig Roberts 2004