When my visit to London was at a formative stage one of the hotels I was looking at was situated in Greenwich so I did a little surfing to find out about the locale. In the end I opted for a scandalously cheap deal in the heart of the city but a seed of interest had been planted in Greenwich so I availed myself of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to find out more. It’s almost worth it for a trip on the fabulous DLR – a driverless transit system first conceptualised in meccano by my uncle in 1962.
Sometimes you visit a new place with some expectations in mind. Greenwich with its prestigious World Heritage Site status is the home of the Royal Observatory and the Cutty Sark not to mention the small matter of the Prime Meridian. How typical of my travels then to spend a highly fulfilling day in the town without seeing any of the aforementioned. My intention was to visit each of these in turn but the bloody incessant rain and preservation work on the historic vessel led me towards some drier alternatives.
Greenwich has a long established maritime and royal history. The Danes sailed up the Thames in the 11th century and moored in the deep waters here before, understandably, invading Kent. Henry VII chose to site his throne here at the Palace of Placentia and Queens Mary and Elizabeth were born here. When this was eventually demolished the replacement buildings were intended to provide Charles II with his new palace but plan that fell through (the builders blamed the architect, who blamed the client, who blamed Kevin McCloud) and instead a royal naval college was established.
A University and a music college occupy some of the imposing waterfront buildings while two magnificent domed structures remain open to the public.
The interior of the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul surprised me with it’s extensive intricate detailing. Almost every surface seemed to be sculpted by master craftsmen and I would imagine it had fine accoustics.
I was equally impressed by the interior of the Painted Hall. This beautiful chamber with its huge painted walls, where Nelson’s body lay in state 200 years ago, was deemed too opulent for use as a seaman’s refectory as originally envisaged.
It served as naval art gallery for some time but today it is primarily a (free) tourist attraction although I can’t help thinking it would make a fine filming location for some posh period banqueting sequence. A little research reveals that the site has indeed served as a film set on numerous occasions.
A peek outside tells me it’s still raining cats and dogs. Any excuse then to visit the Old Brewery, bolted onto Tourist Information centre and home to the ingeniously named Meantime brewery. The poor weather has advantages after all.
The main draw for me today was always going to be the National Maritime Museum. I felt that there was a fairly good balance of display items and information covering a wide range of topics. Themes included the evolution of military ship design, historical navigation aides and nautical exploration above and below the waves.
The displays I found most engrossing were the nostalgic toy boat exhibition, the gloriously evocative 1960’s cruise liner promotional videos and the all-encompassing ship simulator where you could take the helm of a large vessel and gleefully ram it at full speed into the jetty.
A massive section of the Implacable dominates one of the ground floor walls. Launched by the French navy in 1800 she was captured by the British navy and saw action in the Napoleonic Wars. At the end of her active military service she served as a training vessel for 80 years until the 1940s.
Another eye catching highlight was Miss Britain III – sadly just a boat. But not just any boat – she was the first single engined power boat to exceed 100mph, reaching 111mph in 1933.
The museum has a lot more to offer and I could probably have spent half a day there. I won’t begrudge the basic catering facilities as an extensive new wing is due to open next year with radically improved facilities but I do question the total failure to mention two of Britain’s greatest seafaring captains. Perhaps this omission will be rectified by the new extension with dedicated galleries to Pugwash and Birdseye.
With my time in Greenwich drawing to a close I wanted to visit one last “attraction”. Perhaps this is common knowledge but I previously had no idea you could still walk under the Thames. In Greenwich in 2011 you can do just this in the space of 5 minutes via the Greenwich foot tunnel. For some reason the idea of walking under a river really appeals to me.
By the time I re-emerge from my riverside burrow the feeble sun has slunk beyond the horizon and a damp haze hangs moodily over Canary Wharf, dominating the skyline beyond the Isle Of Dogs on the far bank.
Greenwich has seen these days on many occasions and sailors of yore would head down the cobbled gas-lit streets towards welcoming hostelries like The Trafalgar Tavern, The Spanish Galleon or The Gipsy Moth. Tonight that’s not for me – I’m catching an automated glass space age ship towards that city of lights 3 miles and 300 years to the north.