Category Archives: History

National Maritime Museum

When you think of Greenwich, there are a couple of things that you think of. It’s an important spot in world geography and history because it is where time begins, as it were, marking the meridian line. Clocks were set here and the Royal Observatory was founded in 1675 by Charles II to help measure the time. Sailors would set the clocks on their boats from here, which brings us to the second thing that Greenwich is best known for: its naval and maritime history.

the_national_maritime_museum_newEven the earliest records of Greenwich show that it has had long links to the sea. It was a port for the Romans, the navy has its roots on the banks of the Thames, and it was where many cargo ships came to deposit their imports. There are no places in London, then, better suited to hold our National Maritime Museum.

Britain has always been a maritime nation, partly simply due to the fact that we’re an island, meaning that throughout history the navy has had to be strong simply to defend the coasts. With a navy that has rarely been rivaled and that led to a world in which the sun never set on the British Empire, we are justly proud of our seafaring history. The National Maritime Museum celebrates that legacy, combining history, art and science to showcase our finest moments.

Opened in 1937 by George VI, accompanied by his daughter, Princess Elizabeth (our future queen), the museum has since become a hugely important building, with a collection of over two million maritime-related artifacts. These include artworks, both British and Dutch, manuscripts, maps, navigational instruments, figureheads, ship models and astronomical tools. The museum also houses many items taken from Germany after the events of World War II, and depending on who you ask, these are described as “looted art” or “war trophies”. The argument is unlikely to be settled soon.

Despite appearing to be a scientific museum, it does however have so many portraits of sailors and explorers that only the National Portrait Gallery boasts more. Its wide range of displays related to Horatio Nelson and James Cook, among others, are bigger than any elsewhere.

national-maritime-museumBut even though it is clearly proud of our navigational history, there is also a strong sense of the present and the future. The museum explores how the British changed themselves and changed the world because of their unhampered exploration of the globe, and allows for a greater understanding of not only maritime history, but also cultural, economical and political history, and how these still have consequences today. There is also an exhibition dedicated to how we use the sea now, revealing just how much waste we throw into the oceans and what we need to do to save them before they are irreparably destroyed.

The Museum is also home to the Caird Library, the “largest maritime historical reference library” in the world, containing over 50,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals. Books, charts and maps here date back to the 1400s, and family historians in particular can find answers to genetic questions here.

Although perhaps not as well known as either the National History Museum or the Science Museum, the National Maritime Museum is nonetheless a wonderful look at Britain’s proud – if somewhat complicated and at times controversial – history riding the seas. Britannia rules the waves, after all, and this museum isn’t going to let you forget that in a hurry.

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Denmark Street: Britain’s Answer to Tin Pan Alley

I spent last weekend in London which, ironically, is why I didn’t have time to write about London last week. Fortunately, I kept myself very busy up there, and as such have a number of things I can discuss in more detail. One of the mornings was taken up on a walk around Covent Garden and St Giles. While on this walk – taken from a guidebook – I found myself in Denmark Street. I’d known the name, but I didn’t know much about it, so I endeavored to do a little research.

The 108-foot long street may look unremarkable from a geographical position. At the southern end of Camden, with no tube station to call its own, and traffic only permitted in one direction, one could be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t worth mentioning. Originally situated on the grounds St Giles Hospital, a leper house, opened in the 12th century by Matilda, the wife of Henry I, was here. Having passed through several hands since then, during the reign of James II the area was developed and the street named for Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Queen Anne.

The area around Denmark Street was known as the rookery, an accidental slum. Home to plague, pestilence, many brothels and those who enjoyed a drink or eleven, the street gained a negative reputation. By the end of the 1800s, it had been mostly cleared up, but remains one of the very few London streets to still have “17th century terraced facades on both sides”. It held a number of residents who are still known to us today including Dr John Purcell (a doctor specialising in “the vapours”), painter Johann Zoffany, and Jacobite Sir John Murray who made his home here until a day where he was carried off by some strange men. That may be a story for another time. In the early 1800s, the street became one for businesses and offices to set up, and it then attracted Augustus Siebe, who invented the diving helmet. A blue plaque in the street acknowledges him.

But Denmark Street doesn’t begin forming its later reputation until 1911 when Lawrence Wright, a music publisher settled in and founded the journal for musicians Melody Maker. By the end of the 1950s, the street had become known as Britain’s “Tin Pan Alley”, and was full of music publishers, writers, singers, recording artists and anything else connected with the industry. Singers in the 50s starting taking songs from those writing in Denmark Street, and Lionel Bart, who went on to write Oliver! started working in the industry here.

In the 1950s, however, artists had started writing their own songs, and didn’t need writers anymore, so the street went out of fashion for a while, at which point it changed tack and started opening recording studios instead. Songs ranging from “I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” to “You Really Got Me” started to come out of Denmark Street and once it was seen as the place you had to be if you wanted to make it in music.

One of Denmark Street’s familiar faces, the late David Bowie

Once the Rolling Stones had settled in to record there, a panoply of stars made their way to the street. Reg Dwight had started working at a music publisher in 1963, and seven years later he had changed his name and given the world “Your Song“. Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and others all found work here and it became one of the coolest places in London. But it wasn’t just music producers here. In the seventies, guitar shops and a comic book store were installed on the street.

In 1980, disaster struck the street. Several unlicensed nightclubs were running in the street, and with badly maintained fire exits. When John Thompson, a local criminal was ejected one night in August that year, he returned and ignited the ground floor of one of the buildings housing a nightclub. Thirty-seven people were killed, and Thompson spent the rest of his life in prison. Another criminal is also associated with the street – the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. He worked at a job centre in the street and is notable for one Christmas bringing in a large cooking pot to help prepare the Christmas dinner. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, this was the very pot in which he had boiled the heads of his victims. A charming man.

In 1992, the last music publisher moved out of the street, and now the street is almost nothing but instrument shops. The owner of Andy’s Guitars, Andy Preston has tried to have the area rebranded as “Music Land”.

The whole area has been declared a Conservation Area, and the street itself has eight listed buildings, all Grade II, and while there are often talks of the place being redeveloped, there are protests from the current occupants about that who insist that it should retain its original character. To this day, the street will be known by those into music as an important location. Several of the shops specialise in guitars, but others sell sheet music, DVDs, and other instruments. The basement of number 22 is still a recording studio, and has been since 1954.

Although, as anyone can tell you, I am not particularly musically inclined, but even I could sense the importance of the place as I walked down it. It’s so small, and I’ve probably been through it many times before, but I’ve never really acknowledged its significance. Anyone with a love of music should pay a visit, just to say they’ve walked in the footsteps of the greats. May they forever live in, in Denmark Street.

Where It All Began

Hello! I’m back! I hope you all had a lovely Christmas and New Year, and are ready for the next year of London exploration. To kick the year off, we’re going right back to the city’s founding.

The old city (link: http://is.gd/xBboQP)

Londinium, the Roman forerunner to London, was built around 43 AD, meaning that the city is just shy of two thousand years old. But even before this, during the Iron Age, there were settlements up and down the river. Because the English Channel wasn’t fully formed until about 5000 BC, finally cutting Britain off from the mainland, people have travelled freely until that point, and now the British were all but trapped. Despite suggestions to the contrary, it was not Julius Caesar who invaded Britain and founded London. In fact, he didn’t even want the country, being too occupied with taking over France. However, he did visit a couple of times, back in 55 and 54 BC, and it would take almost a hundred years more before the country was finally invaded under instruction of Claudius, with Aulus Plautius leading the army, and Claudius himself later turning up with elephants to help the fight.

The Romans then set about building roads, as they always did, and had to decide where to build their main city. Three major rivers were considered – the Thames, the Severn and the Trent – but the Thames was eventually chosen due to its tidal nature, and because it was the closest to Europe of the three. History would be very different indeed had they picked another river. At the time, the Thames was much shallower and wider, surrounded by marshland framed by two hills, named Ludgate and Cornhill. It was so wide that the crossing that is now London Bridge was once over half a mile across; five times the current width. It’s also interesting to note that because landscapes change so dramatically once humans get involved, that while the river was also a different shape, the Roman streets and buildings would have been around twenty feet below today’s street level.

In around 50 AD, the first settlements had been established for trading purposes, but it would all come to an end just ten years later when the Iceni tribe, led by the fearsome Boudica revolted against the Roman invaders. Angry at the way she had been treated when her husband had died – the Romans had backed out on a deal regarding land, and abused her daughters – she took matters into her own hands and razed the city to the ground. The fire was so disastrous that the entire settlement was burnt and it left a thick layer of burnt clay that was found in later excavations.

So, back to square one. With Boudica soon killed, Julius Alpinus Classicianus stepped in as governor, deciding not to take revenge on the people, but to work up a system of integration. By 70 AD, the first forum had been established, and was soon followed by bath houses and a palace of the governor, which sat below what is now Cannon Street Station. With a fort built in 120 AD, work soon began on a wall to surround the town, a wall that roughly adheres to the boundary of the City of London. The walls were nine feet thick and added to over the centuries, the East wall having been developed in the fourth century in something of a hurry, as it contained tombstones and other items in the construction mix.

The Romans eventually departed from Londinium in 410 AD, deserting the city and leaving it to the elements. Maybe in another timeline that was the end of the city, but thankfully, in this one, it was only the beginning…

The Ladies’ Bridge

Waterloo Bridge

Waterloo Bridge

The Thames has over two hundred bridges crossing it, which is remarkable given that for much of its history, there was just the one – London Bridge. One of the most interesting of these bridges is perhaps Waterloo Bridge. It may not be the most glamorous looking, but in this week’s quick installment of “Love Letters To London”, I shall explain why I’m particularly fond of it.

The original Waterloo Bridge (known as the Strand Bridge before completion) was built on this stretch of the river, now situated between Blackfriars Bridge and Hungerford Bridge, in 1817, opened as a toll bridge. Its history remains chequered, as during the 1840s, it had become a popular destination for suicide attempts, a reputation that seems to have tragically lingered. In 1878, the toll booth was removed, and people could pass freely across, but in the 1920s, the bridge closed – the structure was becoming increasingly dangerous.

Demolished, plans were afoot to rebuild it, with new technologies to make it safer and longer-lasting. It was also clad in Portland stone, which has the remarkable ability to clean itself when it rains. Despite the start of World War II, the bridge was partly opened in 1942, and completely in 1945, although it holds the dubious distinction of being the only bridge in London damaged by bombs during the Blitz.

It also holds another remarkable distinction – one far less dubious – in that it was built primarily by women. With men all at war, the work force was mostly female and so it has gained the sometimes title of The Ladies’ Bridge in honour of the women who worked on it. My girlfriend likes to acknowledge also the fact that it remains the only London bridge to have been completed on time and under budget.

History, however, seems to have largely obscured this fact. Despite an announcement being made at its completion that thanked all the men who worked hard on its construction, it seems that generally women’s displacement from history in this area was because the records were lost, and not through malice or sexism, but one does wonder.

Waterloo Bridge 2The most thrilling aspect of the 370 metre bridge to me though lies beneath it, rather than on it. Under its final arch on the Southbank sits a book market, one of the most delightful in the country, if not the world. Because they’re sheltered by the bridge, come rain or shine the outdoor book market is open for business, selling second hand and antique books of every genre imaginable. I’ve picked up so many bargains over the years, as well as discovering some genuine treasures.

So that’s Waterloo Bridge, a quick run down of one of the Thames’s many crossings. I daresay more will be forthcoming – we’ve got a lot of time and plenty to get through.

 

Lest We Forget

I wondered what the topic of today’s post could be for a while. It’s been a busy week in London history, as we’ve just had Bonfire Night, which links naturally to the Houses of Parliament. But I’ve decided it makes more sense to link this post to something regarding Remembrance Sunday, since that’s the day, and Armistice Day is not far away.

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, on Remembrance Sunday

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, on Remembrance Sunday

A cenotaph, as you may know, is an empty tomb, erected to commemorate a person, group of people, or even empire, whose remains are elsewhere. Although there are many around the world, just one that I know of would be recognised by just about every British subject – The Cenotaph. So important it doesn’t need a name, just a great big “The”.

With the Great War just over and the Treaty of Versailles signed on 28 June 1919, a series of temporary wood-and-plaster structures were built to commemorate the war dead. When the Victory Parade passed, people saluted them, and in the following days, the base of the original Cenotaph was covered in flowers and wreaths. Pressure mounted on the government to keep it and, a month later, they suggested that a more permanent version would be designed, to become “Britain’s official national war monument”. The new version, made of Portland Stone, is an exact replica of its wooden predecessor.

Designed and built between 1919-1920 by Sir Edwin Lutyens, it is undecorated for the most part, and if you approached it from the side, you wouldn’t think it was anything special. But the front and back both feature a carved wreath and the the engraving “The Glorious Dead”. Above the wreaths are the dates of the First World War in Roman numerals. At eleven metres high and weighing some 120 tonnes, it is an impressive and staggering piece of architecture. It also has a slightly odd shape; the two sides are not parallel, and would eventually meet if you keep them going up, although it wouldn’t be for about three hundred metres.

On 11th November 1920, it was unveiled by King George V, who laid the first wreath on its stone steps. David Lloyd George, Prime Minister at the time, walked from nearby Downing Street and laid a wreath of his own. In a move that to me now seems remarkably forward, the Cenotaph was not dedicated, because they noted that not everyone who died was a Christian, and it would be disrespectful to those who weren’t to do so.

The flags on the side also were originally met with some debate, as Lutyens wanted them to be carved of stone, but he was overruled, so they’re real cloth flags. As of 2007, the flags include Union Flags, and ones to represent the army, navy, merchant navy, and air force. When the Cenotaph was new, the flags were taken down and washed every six or so weeks, and when this stopped happening, enough people complained to have the process reinstated. This is one of the many signs that people take the Cenotaph seriously. By 1939, the flags were being changed ten times a year, and washed twice before being disposed of. All the old flags are given to the Imperial War Museum.

The Queen bows for no one but those who gave their lives.

The Queen bows for no one but those who gave their lives.

While it could have then stood silent and unchanged since this date, it’s actually continued to adapt. When the Second World War ended, the site became a place of massive celebration, and King George VI unveiled the Cenotaph for a second time in 1946, with the dates of that war engraved on it too. It had originally just been for the First World War, but as more wars have gone on – the “war to end all wars” didn’t – the Cenotaph has come to represent all the fallen. In 1970, it was declared a Grade I listed building, which means it can never be demolished.

Most people recognise the Cenotaph now from its appearances on television every November. The closest Sunday to 11th November is Remembrance Sunday, and service personnel, politicians and the Royal family gather to remember the fallen. When Big Ben strikes eleven o’clock, the nation falls silent for two minutes, to represent the moment when, in 1918, the guns fell silent across Europe.

Those with particular power lay wreaths at the foot of the Cenotaph, and it must be a person with a stone heart who doesn’t feel a chill when our Queen, the one woman who doesn’t need to bow for anyone else, steps up and does her duty. She always lays the first wreath, followed by her children and grandchildren. The Prime Minister follows next, and then other leaders of major political parties, and representatives from the navy, army and air force. Once, survivors of the First World War would have been present too, but with the last solider, Harry Patch, dying two years ago, the trenches have disappeared from living memory.

The Cenotaph is used at other times of the year too. It becomes a focal point for the country when we mark anniversaries of the D-Day landings, the first day of the Somme Offensive, the Falklands War, and campaigns marked by Anzac Day, which are the battles involving those of Australia and New Zealand. Of all the monuments in London, this is perhaps the one most ready and primed to move you and send a chill through your spine.

Other cities around the world have their own cenotaphs, some of which are replicas of this one, but once again, London led the way. I think it’s important that we remember the horrors of war, because maybe one day we’ll wake up to what this monument represents, and stop entering battles that result in pointless loss of life.

Lest we forget.

The Meaning of London

This way, please.

No one knows what the word “London” means. That might seem surprising, but given that the city is about two thousand years old, some of the paperwork is bound to have gone missing in that time.

When the city was founded by the Romans in 43 AD (there was evidence of tribes in the location before this time), it appears to have been given the name Londinium. The prefixes of Londin- and Lundin- were used occasionally around the Roman Empire, but their meaning remains a little confused still. However, some people suggest that it actually is based on a Saxon name, christened for a King Lud who once ruled the city. But was Lud even real? That’s hard to say, because he crops up earliest in books of Welsh myths and legends, and there seems to be some confusion as to the validity of his existence.

There are many suggestions, however, that the name is actually Celtic, not Roman. The pre-Celtic Old European language has a word (p)lowondia, which means “a river too wide to ford”. This could describe the Thames, as even now it’s much narrower than it was, and for a long time it was hard to get across. There’s another ancient language known as Ligurian, spoken by people in what are now southern France and northern Italy, and their word lond means “mud” or “marsh”. Again, this is possible – being on the banks of a large river, prehistoric London would almost certainly have been marsh country.

The Welsh phrase Llyn din means “lake fort”, so is that the origin? The Brythonic language has lhwn, which means “grove”; does London come from Lhwn Town? Then there’s the suggestion it’s a reference to the temple of the Roman goddess of the moon, Diana. A temple to her supposedly once stood where St Paul’s now stands, so is the origin Lunadun, “city of the moon”?

In pre-Roman times, defended earthworks built to protect the locals were called duns, thus suggesting another option for the latter half of the name, at least. And just to confuse matters even more, the Vietnamese words lœun and dœun both mean “low, inferior, muddy”, again tying in to other similar theories.

Even some of Britain’s Israelites have wandered into the debate, claiming that the first Londoners were descendents of the Tribe of Dan; lan-dan literally meaning “abode of Dan”. At this point, it’s pretty safe to say that we will never have a complete consensus on what the word means.

London’s familiar curve

So if we can’t get to the bottom of what London means, I wonder if there are any simple explanations for some of the more, shall we say, esoteric place names in the city itself.

The Thames, for a start, is notable for being pronounced completely unlike it looks like it should be, although this is nothing unusual in the English language. The word, however, comes from the Celtic word for it, and means something like “dark”. In Latin its name was spelt Tamesis, and in the Magna Carta, it’s spelt Tamisiam. The th- at the beginning of the name was pretentiously added during the Renaissance because it sounded more Greek. The name was in use by the time the Romans turned up anyway, as a Roman local was called Tamesubugus, named after the river.

OK, so what about tube names? While many – Baker Street, Hyde Park Corner, Holloway Road, Monument – describe exactly where they come out at, some of the names seem a little stranger.

Mudchute is one I’ve always found funny – indeed my friend Claire, mentioned in previous posts, lived here for a while – as it seems to be an unfortunate name for quite a nice area of Docklands. Unromantically, Mudchute was originally a dumping ground for any unwanted products (usually mud) taken from the Millwall Docks to prevent it from silting up. Using a pneumatic chute, the mud was transferred from one side of the road to the other. The Millwall Docks closed in the 1970s, and since then the area has developed and part of it has been turned into a city farm.

Elephant & Castle is probably the oddest name on the tube network, but the mystery behind it isn’t actually that exciting. One imagines, perhaps, some sort of battle when elephants stormed a south London castle, but this never happened. The most common theory bashed about by those without a clue of the truth is that it’s a corruption of “La Infanta de Castilla”, a reference to a number of Spanish princesses. Unfortunately, the name predates the use of the word infanta, and the truth is that it’s simply the name of a nearby coaching inn.

Before it had been a pub, it had been a blacksmiths who used ivory and had his crest emblazoned with an elephant. Shakespeare even mentions the Elephant Lodgings in Twelfth Night. Similarly, Angel tube station gets its name from a local pub too, and there’s still an Angel there, although it’s now owned by Wetherspoon.

The Seven Sisters of London

Seven Sisters is named for seven elms that surround a walnut tree. The originals have been moved and replanted numerous times, and now the seven trees are hornbeams. On the theme of trees, Burnt Oak takes its name from the time it referred merely to a field that contained, yes, a burnt oak tree. Sometimes these things are taken far too literally.

Cockfosters, that name that makes everyone going northbound on the Piccadilly line chuckle inwardly even a little, actually refers to the home of the chief forester, the “cock” being the head of something in old English. Finally you have two odder names on the DLR, Cyprus and East India. No, these are not signs that the tube network is now stretching over Europe to India, but both refer to the times of colonisation and empire. Cyprus is the name of a local estate, but it does indeed come from our historical links to the country, and East India is at the docks where the ships arrived from the Indian subcontinent.

Much of London is absurdly strange, and so the names are of course going to be a little odd. It seems fitting that a city with such a conflicting and conflicted history has a name that escapes explanation, but it’s refreshing to know that even the slightly odder, giggle-worthy names of the city have completely regular explanations, giving further insight into the many faces the city has worn and continues to wear.

The Ghosts of the Underground

The London Underground has existed in some form or another since 1863. London has since sprung up around it and the tracks of the world’s first underground railway have spread throughout the city from the centre, out to its edges. Because of its long-standing history and being present during several great upheavals in British history such as the Industrial Revolution and the Blitz, many people are convinced that parts of it are haunted.

They may be right.

The only way is up.

The only way is up.

We can’t say for sure that people are haunting the platforms, but what we do know is that there are certainly ghost stations. I don’t mean in the sense of a Twilight Zone station that only exists during a full moon (though I wouldn’t be totally surprised if London did have a few of them), but simply stations that used to adorn the network and that familiar map, but have since been closed, demolished, moved or simply cut off.

Some of these were closed due to a lack of use. Anyone who knows the edges of London well will know that the District Line stops at Ealing Broadway in the west and Upminster in the east. But between 1883 and 1885, the line went as far out west as Windsor. On the other side, the line carried on out until Shoeburyness, closing in 1939. There simply wasn’t the demand at the time and the lines have now been reused by the overground network, meaning that it’s unlikely the two extremities will ever be reconnected to the tube network.

The south of the network has remained largely unchanged and, actually, there are no ghost stations south of the Thames, but to the north it’s a different matter entirely. The Central line reached up to Ongar until 1994, and the Metropolitan line has had fourteen stations lopped off its western end. Where it now terminates at Amersham, it used to carry on though Stoke Mandeville and out as far as the village of Brill. The Brill station was opened in 1872 and the travelling time to get into the City of London was two hours, meaning that it was closed, and then demolished, in 1935. Amersham became the terminus in 1961 with the closure of Great Missenden, which is still in use by Chiltern Railways. Great Missenden is notable for being the stop usually used by Prime Ministers if travelling to Chequers by train.

While most of the ghost stations have since been commandeered by National Rail or demolished, leaving no trace of their former selves, a few have found themselves develop new purposes. York Road still sits empty on the Piccadilly line between King’s Cross and Caledonian Road, and while it saw little use during its lifetime and closed in 1932, it now serves as an emergency exit from the tunnels, with one passageway lit at all times, just in case. The Central line’s Blake Hall still exists but now as a private residence, and when the new Osterley station was built on the Piccadilly line, the old one became a retail unit.

The above ground remains of Aldwych.

The above ground remains of Aldwych.

The most notable of these closed stations though is Aldwych. Once a weird little offshoot of Holborn, it was opened in 1907 but by 1962 was only open during peak hours. In 1994 it closed altogether – the lifts needed replacing and it wasn’t worth it, given its lack of use – but no one was in a hurry to demolish it. In fact, while you might not know the name, you’ve almost certainly seen inside Aldwych station. It is the one that is most often used in television and films to substitute every other station. It has stood in as a backdrop for such films as V for Vendetta, Creep, Atonement, 28 Weeks Later, Battle of Britain, and last year turned up on an episode of Sherlock. It even appears in the game Tomb Raider III, and the video for The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” was filmed here. A train is kept on the track permanently for filming purposes.

Like several other stations, Aldwych is notable because during both world wars, disused parts of the station were used to store art from the city’s galleries. It’s well known, of course, that during the Blitz, scared Londoners would use the tunnels and tube network as ready-made bomb shelters, but it wasn’t just the everyday citizens. This brings us to Down Street, situated between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park. It was closed in 1932, and in 1939 the platform faces were bricked up and the place was divided into meeting rooms, offices and bedrooms. This became the bunker for Winston Churchill and his cabinet during the height of the Second World War. Safe below ground, he could control the war in absolute safety.

One final station that is no longer with us is one that I like simply because it’s named after one of the best buildings in London: British Museum. Originally on the Central line, and opened in 1900, it was threatened fairly quickly by the introduction of Holborn station, just one hundred yards away. At the time the two lines (Holborn was originally just on the Piccadilly line, but now also is connected to the Central line) were owned by different companies. A foot tunnel to connect the two was proposed originally, but in the end it was decided that Holborn was better located and so it was expanded and in 1933, British Museum closed. The surface building was demolished and, below ground, it’s only used for storage. Next time you’re passing between Tottenham Court Road and Chancery Lane, take a peek out the window and you might spot stacks of railway sleepers.

The ghost stations of London are a reminder that while the city is always growing and always improving, it isn’t afraid to make a few errors now and again. Sometimes the past has to be removed to make way for the future.

The Painted Hall, Greenwich

painted hall

Knowing where to begin my journey through London was perhaps one of the more difficult questions in setting up this blog. Do I go somewhere world famous and obvious, like Buckingham Palace, or to one of my favourite locations like the Natural History Museum, or to somewhere completely obscure and off the beaten track like … well, it’s so obscure I don’t know it. But then one location seemed to make more sense than any other. If you’re going to start something, you have to start at the beginning, and that can only mean Greenwich, the place where time itself begins.

Greenwich isn’t an area I know terribly well, but I like it when I do turn up. My friend Claire accompanied me on this journey and, determined to show me something blog-worthy, announced that she wanted to show me one of her favourite places in London.

It turns out that her favourite place in London is among the hallowed halls of the Old Royal Naval College, sandwiched between the Thames and Greenwich Park, most notably the Painted Hall, which I’ll get onto in a moment, as it’s the main reason I’m writing today.

Where the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) now stands was once the location of Greenwich Palace, which was built by Henry VII, and later saw the birth of his two granddaughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. After it was demolished in the 1690s, Mary II saw a hospital was built there for seamen, which was when the famous Chapel and the Painted Hall were introduced. The hospital was closed in the 1800s and was then converted into a training base for the Royal Navy. They abandoned the site in 1998, when it was turned over to the Greenwich Foundation, who restored it and ensured that it would all be opened up for visitors.

If you aren’t sure what building I’m talking about, then I suggest you google it, and you’ll find very quickly that you’ve probably seen its exteriors somewhere before. It makes an appearance in many films including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Tomb Raider, Thor: The Dark World, The King’s Speech, The Golden Compass and Les Miserables.

michael up 1While the outside is a deeply impressive looking building, it is inside where the truly beautiful sights exist. The Chapel is wonderful, gilded and ornate to within an inch of its life. The ceiling was designed by John Papworth, a master plasterer and uses squares and octagons in a neo-classical design. In keeping with the naval theme, there is an anchor and rope incorporated in the floor design, although there are hints of its naval history throughout.

Despite being non-religious, I’ve always found a certain calmness and delight in chapels, cathedrals and the like. They’re peaceful places, and always have an eerie sort of quiet that you don’t find anywhere else. It still serves its original purpose and a service is held every Sunday with supposedly some of the best acoustics anywhere. The organ is still in use, too, and cost £1000 to install in 1798.

Opposite this, across the courtyard, you have the Painted Hall, one of Claire’s favourite London spots and one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Before you even get to the paintings, as you step into the door you can look right up into the dome, ninety feet above you, and then the famous ceiling, all 5683 square feet of it, comes into view. I realised almost immediately that I’d seen it before in a documentary about the Stuarts, but nothing comes close to seeing it for real.

Seated in the middle of a grand oval are King William III and Queen Mary II, the only monarchs to have co-ruled. They are surrounded by their family, and then beyond that symbols that represent the monarchy as a whole, as well as religion and then all the things that one would expect from a place so intrinsically linked to the navy – signs of our maritime power, navigation and trade.

The walls, too, are covered in intricate paintings showing more people and events than it’s possible to even take in. The painter was one Sir John Thornhill, who worked on it in two major phases between 1708 and 1727. For all his work, he became the first artist to receive a knighthood, and quite rightly so. The Painted Hall is known to some as “the finest dining hall in Europe”, and others still call it “the Sistine Chapel of the UK”. Both are completely fair assessments. Thornhill has included himself in the work; he can be found on the west wall, surrounded by paintbrushes, looking down upon his work.

claire upTo save your neck, in the middle of the room there is a mirror on a table, so you can peek up while looking down, making for a very curious experience. The rest of the room feels a little like Hogwarts; long wooden tables lined with candlesticks and awaiting a new class of wizards to come in and enjoy a conjured up feast. Like so many places in London, there is a sense of magic about the place, and very definitely a sense of history. The paintings are currently being restored at great cost to bring back the original vibrancy, but even now they are remarkable things to look at. Claire has since discovered that it’s even possible to get married there, and I do wonder how she’s going to broach that subject with her boyfriend when the time comes.

Finally, just off the main hall is a smaller room dedicated to Lord Nelson. His coffin was stored here prior to his being laid-in-state, and now it holds examples of his coat of arms and a replica statue of the one that stands atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. This one is much smaller, however, being perhaps a couple of metres tall – the real one is five metres tall, although you’d never know it from the foot of the column.

There’s a reason this is a World Heritage Site, and I for one encourage you all to stop by if you’re in the area, and even if you’re not, to gaze upon the incredible artwork in here. Greenwich is great for a day out in general, with the expansive and beautiful park nearby, as well as the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark, Greenwich Market and more besides. But let’s not hurry ourselves. We’ve got plenty to time to get around to discussing those.