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.
While 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.
To 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.