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One of England’s most educational historical sites is also one of the most fascinating UNESCO (and World Heritage) attractions you will ever visit and its landscapes and architecture will dazzle your eyes. If you take one of the riverboats on the Thames from London Bridge or Tower Hill it’s only four miles downstream! First you’ll see the Millenium Dome built in celebration of the year 2000, then there is the Royal Observatory which is seated 155 ft above the river, the National Maritime Museum and the adjoining Queen’s House. The Maritime Institute at the University of Greenwich, located in the historic setting of the Old Royal Naval College and Vanbrugh Castle sits a short distance from where you can also get a good look at the Cutty Sark which has been dry-docked there for more than half a century!
All of these are a part of the Greenwich Royal Park, part of Greater London, a southeast London paradise across the Thames from the Isle of Dogs which has been delighting tourists for a couple of decades now but there was a time when it was a very quiet part of London. This royal parkland of 180 acres has been palisaded since 1433 and then surrounded by a wall during the Stuart era and was officially the oldest enclosed royal domain in England. It has been graced with architectural masterpieces since the 17th century and before that was the site of the Tudor Palace originally called Bella Court then Placentia by Margaret of Anjou! The entire complex has featured in many films but the most recent was for the fantasy film, The Golden Compass !
With the Queen’s House, whose greatest importance is that of being England’s first true Palladian Classical building, we’ll start the tour. This was the work of Inigo Jones after his return from Italy. A royal appointment was given to him as Surveyor-General of the Works and, along with the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, was his most revolutionary design. Today it is considered a part of the National Maritime Museum when they took it over in 1934. It has served many functions since 1805 when George III granted the house to the Royal Naval Asylum ( a charity for orphans) but it was originally commissioned by Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I, in 1616, as a pavilion and private retreat for her. Its functionality as a bridge over the Greenwich to Woolwich Road, between the palace gardens and the park is still in evidence but much altered.
The view from across the Thames reveals the Royal Naval College frontage, built by Christopher Wren, on both sides of the Queen’s House, in two halves, so that it doesn’t spoil the river view for the house but makes it appear like a recessed portion of the entire complex of classic and domed buildings! To take in this vista, walk to the embankment, past the white marble statue of George II. Here you can see where the Tudor Palace of Greenwich was cleared away after the mid-17th century for the magnificent court of the Wren Royal Hospital building, twin-domed painted hall and chapel. These have been incorporated, since 1998, as the Greenwich Maritime Institute- a postgraduate teaching and research multi-facility which offers postgraduate degrees in Maritime History, Maritime Policy and Management and an Mphil/PhD in Maritime studies. It also houses the Trinity College of Music.
Wren had a lot of help from some well-known and not so well-known architects on this complex which has never had the exteriors significantly altered. His pupil, Nicholas Hawksmoor was his co-designer initially. After Wren died in 1723, Sir John Vanbrugh, Colen Campbell and Thomas Ripley continued the work with Hawksmoor through until 1751. The interiors of the Painted Hall, one of the domed structures on the west, were decorated by Sir James Thornhill from 1707 to 1726. The Chapel which is located in the east side domed building was reconstructed by James Athenian Stuart after a fire devastated it in 1779.
The Queen’s House was finished in 1638, three years in the perfecting after it had been structurally completed in 1635, with the Great Hall taking center stage on the north wing. Its model was Sangallo’s Medici Villa at Poggio a Caiano. The entrance staircase is very reminiscent of Fontainebleau’s in the Ile de France region of France. Being strictly classical, the entrance hall was a perfect cube being 40 x 40 ft and featuring a geometrically-patterned black and white marble floor. This is surrounded by a gallery and crowned with a ceiling compartmented by well carved beams. All the principal salons were on the first floor with great height and large windows giving the plan a great frame for the magnificent spiral tulip staircase (a misnomer, for certain, because the designs are -in fact- French fleur-de-lys!) Originally the ceiling was painted by Orazio Gentileschi with a series of nine separate paintings- Allegory of Peace and the Arts under the English Crown being the title. Taken down in the early 18th century, the exquisite paintings now grace the ceiling at Marlborough House, at Pall Mall in London, in the Blenheim Room. The beautiful balcony shown here was sometimes used by musicians.
Some structural changes were made by Charles II- the most marked were the addition of two upper east-west bridge rooms forever altering the original “H” plan to a square plan on the first floor. These were added by John Webb in 1662. In the 18th century most of the original windows were changed to Georgian sashes which imparts a more modern external appearance. From 1807-12, Daniel Asher Alexander added colonnades with flanking wings framing the sides of the house. Those were the last alterations made turning the original appearance to a more modern look. Restorations without alteration were carried out during the late 1980s with additional work about ten years ago. Attempts have been made to refurnish the house in its original 1670s style.
With a relatively new exhibition on the history of Greenwich here along with a beautiful portrait and fine-art collection of permanent and temporary exhibits to see there is almost too much to explore! You will see rare seascapes by the Van de Veldes because father and son had a studio in the house in the 1670s! There are many events and private entertainment is a part of its continuing venue as well as corporate and private hire.
The National Maritime Museum which adjoins the Queen’s House as East and West Wings which were the former Hospital School Building (note: this is not referring to the colonnades which flank the Queen’s House!) stores wonderful marine artifacts and marine history covering everything from Captain Cook’s exploration of the Pacific to Nelson’s battles with the French in twenty modern galleries. Don’t miss the Neptune Hall in the west entrance along with its Barge House which has quite a few royal barges that may have belonged to Henry VIII. Galleries on the west wing ground floor have had exhibitions tracing Britain’s marine history since 1937 which include lore of Captain Cook and also has many maritime artifacts such as the 1907 paddle tug, Reliant with working machinery, shipping artifacts, wheels, figureheads from boats along with educational displays explaining the development of wooden boats. Portraits are highlighted by uniforms, logs, guns, maps and navigational instruments, models and the large collection of decorated chinaware which ranges from popular commemorative mugs to gilded presentation pieces.
The East Wing only came into more recent use in 1951. It displays the Royal Navy history in both World Wars, arctic exploration, fishing and whaling, and British merchant shipping. A building design partnership between the management and Rick Mather Architects reconfigured the main galleries around the new Neptune Court which made a streamlined effect between the 1807 wing created by Daniel Asher Alexander and the south and west ranges created by Philip Hardwick in 1862. The Alexander wing still holds the Caird Library built in the 1930s which happens to be the largest maritime reference library in the world. A rotunda at the entrance to this wing was created by Sir Edwin Lutyens in memory of Sir James Caird who was the Museum’s founding benefactor.
In 2012 the NMM will play host to the equestrian events for the Olympics.
The Royal Observatory, which was the work of Sir Christopher Wren, shows his unique inventiveness and his prodigious use of traditional English building materials to bring a new style to England. If he was not influenced by Inigo Jones he certainly took his plans into serious consideration. He also took on the job of Surveyor-General at thirty years of age when the huge task of rebuilding the churches of London (after the Great Fire of 1666) became imperative. It stands today on the former foundations of Greenwich Castle, the birthplace of Henry VIII and may have been built by King Edward I. This castle was a favorite place for Henry VIII to secret his mistresses because he could travel quickly from the palace below to meet with them. He loved this castle and turned it into a vast palace by adding towers and halls, a tiltyard and armoury which once sported an impressive display.
Jones’s challenge in building the Observatory buildings was keeping to the limits of classic rules while making the style accessible to the English Tudor work still going on. Spare building material from the Tower of London, the Tudor Fort at Tilbury and the foundations of Duke Humphrey’s Tower (remains from the castle) were used to save money in construction. Flamsteed House shows true Palladian influence as well. Wren was a mathematician and astronomer so his building was set marking the Prime Meridian of the world (Longitude Zero). Commissioned by King Charles II in 1675, the foundation stone was laid on August 19th on the hill it occupies overlooking the River Thames, the other beautiful Wren buildings and Queen’s House. Today you can stand right next to the famous Greenwich Meridian Line where a laser now marks the spot. You can visit most of the Astronomer Royal’s apartments and see the 1833 time ball- which sits atop the turret of the 20 ft high Octagon Room- fall at 1 o’clock. The time ball was installed by Astronomer Royal John Pond in 1833.
Flamsteed House was the first house built with the express purpose of being a scientific research facility in Britain. Nevertheless, the alignment of the building was 13 degrees away from true North, however exact the building was proportioned, to the consternation of John Flamsteed who was to be the appointed Astronomer Royal. During the forty years that Flamsteed worked here he prepared the most accurate star maps ever produced using a transit telescope mounted on the first established Greenwich Meridian (north/south line) in a small brick shed at the bottom of the garden! The buildings around the observatory have undergone constant change and enlargement in more recent years to accommodate new technology as it has become available. The Observatory is very much an historical and scientific building in every aspect! Telescope Dome
The domed building is the Great Equatorial Building which was added in 1857. It contained a 28 inch refracting telescope which was used from 1893 until the 1960s! It’s still the seventh largest telescope in the world and it was returned to the observatory in 1975 and continues to be used for educational purposes. The current dome of the building is a fiberglass replica because the original dome was taken down after being hit by a flying bomb in WWII !
It housed many scientific instruments on stellar tables which was supplied by Sir Jonas Moore at his personal expense. Two clocks were installed in the Octagon Room which were built by Thomas Tompion being featured with 13 ft pendulums above the clock faces. They gave an accuracy which was unparalleled for the time period. The prime meridian was established there in 1851 when four separate meridians were drawn through the building. An international conference in 1884 established the spot which passes through the Airy Transit Circle of the observatory and it was marked by a brass strip but is now made of stainless steel. Because of this establishment world time is based on Greenwich Mean Time: each day on planet Earth begins there! Since December 16, 1999 a green laser beam, which shines out northward from the observatory at night, is the official mark for GMT.
During the 20th century most of the activities of the observatory were moved to other places. After 1924 most of the various departments of the sciences went to far flung northern and southern outposts. Much of this was due to various atmospheric and magnetic interferences from railways running near Greenwich and the war caused a decision to move the Astronomer Royal in 1947 to Herstmonceux Castle which is south southeast of Greenwich in East Sussex. In 1990 the RGO was moved again to Cambridge. This was closed in 1998 on a decision by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. Much scientific work along the original order is scattered throughout various facilities of the U.K. and Canada.
The Meridian Building seated behind Flamsteed House is an 18th century compliment to the house as it is built from identical brick and was to house the observatory’s large collection of telescopes and other world time instruments including sundials. It contains Harrison’s prize winning longitude marine chronometer along with many predecessors and other horological artifacts. You can see it in the panoramic photo of the observatory grounds in my ever-expanding London Castles and Palaces photo album!
As part of a £15 million redevelopment project, a 120 seat bronzed venue at the Observatory, the Peter Harrison Planetarium, along with other educational facilities was built starting in February of 2005 and was opened on May 25, 2007. The planetarium was a restoration of the South Building originally finished in 1899 as a astrophysics observatory, and contained the Thompson Equatorial Telescope.
Vanbrugh Castle was built by the architect himself while he was occupied here as an architect (from 1717) and Surveyor to the Royal Naval Hospital being built. It is an eclectic medieval folly and a blue plaque outside the building attests to his occupation of the castle from 1719 to 1726!
This marvelous folly has a tower modeled on the French Bastille and is graced with a more modern-looking manor with the grounds enclosed by a relatively low surrounding wall. It is mostly a riot of gothic towers, turrets, walls and crenellations and precedes its rival- Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill in Twickenham- by thirty years!
If it seems odd that he would build such a structure amid gothic renaissance splendor consider that, given his work elsewhere, perhaps his imprisonment at the Bastille (on charges that he was spying for the British government from 1690-92 ) inspired or ignited thoughts of revenge in him ! LOL
(That last bit of factual info came straight off the internet folks ! )
Until 1975 it was occupied by a school on funds from the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund for the sons of RAF personnel killed in action. Preservation and restoration was carried on by a local Trust- Blackheath Preservation Trust in 1977- and this fantasy castle is now privately owned maisonettes. (Translation for Americans: town homes.) Check it out in the London album.
When you get a chance, go down to St. Mary’s Gate near the pier to get a look at the Cutty Sark and the Gypsy Moth IV. If you don’t know what the Cutty Sark is, then you are missing out on a 19th century racing history wonder! This beautifully masted clipper ship became famous in 1869 for her best day’s run (with 3/4 of an acre of canvas spread) which was 363 miles! The Cutty Sark brought tea from China and wool from Australia to the mainland and at Dumbarton. It takes its name from Robert Burns’ poem, Tam O’Shanter, and still sports the witch figurehead for which the name comes from! She is undergoing restoration currently which should be complete by 2010. Brought to Greenwich as a permanent home in 1955, she is the perfect nautical museum containing important papers, charts, mementoes, models with illustrations on the history of the clipper trade, especially her own! Don’t miss the curious collections of figureheads! Even if, by comparison, it looks rather small, the Gypsy Moth was the boat Sir Francis Chichester immortalized by traversing the entire globe in her, alone, from 1966 to 1967. It’s worth a look.
If your legs aren’t falling off yet you could also check out the Fan Museum which is further southwest of the Croom’s Hill boundary of the observatory and contains a beautiful collection along with the Ranger’s House which has the Suffolk collection of 53 paintings including portraits, Macartney House and the Manor House. You can cool your hoofs down at the Cutty Sark Tavern later.
Much thanks to Christopher Holt for the use of some of his photos in this entry.
Greenwich Park T-020 8858 4422 24 hour hotline 020 83126565
The Fan Museum 12 Crooms Hill T- 0208305 1441 www.fan-museum.org
With love and devotion,
Happy 48th Birthday Obama ! August 4, 2009