Some cups of tea make you want to linger over them, and others you slam down and get on with things. That was the case with this last cup, it was time to move on and walk along the river past the Royal Naval College. The view from the river is simply – a breathtaking oil painting come to life. Christopher’s Wren’s twin domed masterpiece is without any doubts– the perfect example of the beauty of symmetry.
Christopher Wren donated his services as architect for this massive project at Greenwich. What a wonderful gift to the country! When you stand and look at the buildings from the river, you are at loss for words.
There are two main buildings in the Royal Naval College, the Chapel is in Queen Mary’s Court, in the left building, and in the right, the Painted Hall. Between these two great buildings, built as to have an unspoiled view of the river, is the Queen’s House. Queen Mary demanded that nothing spoil her view and she got her way! Christopher Wren wanted a great dome in the centre, but you don’t argue with a Queen, and so the Queen’s House remains to this day with an unspoilt view of the river. The buildings were originally built as a hospital for the Seamen and closed in 1869 to reopen as the Royal Naval College in 1873. Buildings have a way of staying alive and now the sounds of the cello and the voices of young music students grace its halls. The buildings are one of London’s great river views and in certain light, you can say Venetian, and where else can you say time splits into two, as the Meridian time line runs straight down the centre path of the two great cupolas.
Step inside the great buildings of Wren and there are two very different stops to make. The first is The Painted Hall with its neck breaking glory and where Lord Nelson was laid to rest. Here, one can lose all sense of time and space whilst spending hours gazing at the murals. It took James Thornhill nineteen years to paint the spectacular murals on the walls and ceilings all expressing the glory of the British Naval Empire.
In 1708 Thornhill began the painting of the great hall. What a labour of love that was and by the time he was finished, it was thought too great and marvelous for its original purpose, a dining room for the naval pensioners, and so respectable (ahem) visitors were allowed to view its wonder for a small fee. The tour guides to this great work of art were the Greenwich pensioners. Now, I would have thought that this great labour of love had made Thornhill’s fortune, but he was paid only £3 per square yard for the ceiling, and just £1 per square yard for the walls. When I think of all the laborious hours spent on these paintings, I just shake my head in awe. He did in the end receive a knighthood for his work, and no one can argue, it is the finest painted architectural interior around.
After being stunned into silence in the Great Hall, I wandered over to the splendid Queen’s Chapel. The Chapel’s ceiling is dizzying in its yellows and gold. It was too high up for me to capture the minute details properly. Each little flower in this photo is a plaster relief, and hand painted. The hours it must have taken to create just this one section of the ceiling, it is mind-boggling. How strange to think that the pensioners were forced to attend services every day. It must have been an odd life for them, first the highs and lows of doing service for the nation, then eating tough beef, and apparently soured beer, and what was there to do? Stare up at the ceilings? I just can’t picture these rough and tough men of old, admiring the muted flesh tones on one of the painted angel’s thighs. There is a bowling alley, but, for men of action, life must have suddenly slowed to a stop. The last pensioner trod its glorious chapel in 1869.
It was time to leave the splendid rooms and head back outside and down to the windy river walk. The juxtaposition of old and new buildings somehow works, reminding me that the river is alive and therefore always changing.
The River Walk brings you to the greatest tea clipper of all time. The Cutty Sark. In 2007, I with the rest of the nation was heartbroken when the Cutty Sark went up in flames. Luckily quite much of the ship had already been taken away for restoration. Still, when something from the past goes up in flames, I despair. It’s not that I am in love with the ship, but I tremble at the loss of the past. The Cutty Sark was a great tea clipper. The sails take up the area of 23 acres! She was built in 1869 for the China Tea trade but made her fortunes in bringing the highly desirable wool from Australia. She could go 300 miles in a day, which was astounding for its time. Not being a sailor myself, it sounds fast for even today. The restoration is amazing. The cost of the Sark? A stunning 16 and half thousand pounds to build and 50 million pounds to restore. I love the restoration of it. You can walk under the ship and see its bottom. (Surely not the proper nautical term!)
Just a few feet away from the ship is a round tower structure with a fabulous glass dome. It is the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel that goes under the river to the Isle of Dogs and comes out near the Island Gardens. The Island Gardens were once a subterranean forest of majestic elms oak and fir trees and believed to have been destroyed by an earthquake. This forest was rediscovered and recorded in Cowper’s History of Millwall. During the middle ages, this area was known as Stepney Marsh. The land was drained probably in the 13th century. The Isle of Dogs only became an Island when the peninsula was cut through in 1805 for a canal.
The old Victorian Tunnel leads you to the Isle of Dogs. It’s a stiff climb down the steps into the tunnel. This tunnel was opened on 4 August 1901 to aid workers living on the south side of the Thames allowing them to get to their jobs in the docks. The ferry service had been notoriously unreliable. The tunnel itself is cast iron and some 1215 feet long and 50 feet deep! A cast iron tunnel this old under a river makes me think only one thing, if you hear water dripping, start walking faster!
Ah, the Isle of Dogs, as a child, I firmly believed that is where all dogs came from. I was only five and how I begged my father to take me there to get a dog. When I got older, I was highly disappointed to learn that names probably came from the fact that the Royal Kennels once housed their packs of hounds there, and if any dogs were still hanging about, they were not for me anyhow. I knew it was a childish dream, an island of dogs of all sorts, romping around on green grass in the middle of London, but there you go. The name could also just be a nickname of contempt in a class driven society. I prefer my childhood idea of—this is where all dogs in the world comes from!
Part Three, The Royal Maritime Museum and a long walk to time.