Taking a boat cruise down the River Thames from London to Greenwich Village is a great way to get a different perspective of the city of London. The River Thames used to be the main highway for Londoners and many of the old buildings were built to look their best from the river. Today’s buildings generally aren’t built facing the river in the same way but you can get great views of many of the newer more distinct ones. I had heard some of the names but was amazed to discover that not only did they have the Shard and the Gherkin but also the Cheese Grater and the Mobile phone. I also hadn’t appreciated quite how much the river twists and turns around – it seemed that as we went down river we would keep seeing the same buildings again until I was quite confused as to what direction we were actually heading.
We were heading slightly south-east along the river past the Docklands and the new Canary Wharf development to Greenwich Village. Greenwich is best known for its maritime history and particularly for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time. It was also the site of a royal palace from the 15th century that was the birthplace of many Tudors, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The palace fell into disrepair during the English Civil War and was rebuilt as the Royal Naval Hospital for Sailors by Sir Christopher Wren, and then became the Royal Naval College in 1873. The buildings remained as an establishment for military education until 1998 when they were taken over by the Greenwich Foundation.
From the wharf we wander along the river bank past the Cutty Sark to the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre for a look at the exhibition. We had hoped to have a tour of the Painted Hall, which has ceilings reputed to be the greatest piece of decorative painting in England and even considered to rival Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, but unfortunately it was closed for conservation. We instead opted for lunch at the fascinating Old Brewery before going to explore the Old Royal Navel College Chapel, aka the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul in recognition of their connections with water and the sea. The chapel was originally constructed in a plainer style, following the designs of Sir Christopher Wren, for daily services for injured sailors (there were no pews so they had to stand!). But it was ravaged by fire 1779 and restored and redecorated in Greek revival style. The plasterwork is amazingly intricate but we learn that some of the other decorations were done using Trompe L’oeil (‘trick the eye’) techniques to reduce costs: the imposing columns are not made of marble but rather a mixture of coloured plaster chips mixed with glue; and the life-sized figures of evangelists and apostles in the niches between the upper windows are in fact paintings. The magnificent organ is still used daily (but unfortunately not while we were there).
Then we pass the National Maritime Museum and Queen’s House, and through Greenwich Park to the Royal Observatory – “the home of British astronomy, Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian of the World”. The view from the top of the hill is spectacular, with Greenwich Park and the National Maritime Museum in front and looking back across to London in the distance and the new O2 Stadium off to the side. We started a guided tour of the Royal Observatory but our guide was talking in endless depth about maritime history and lost us fairly quickly. Thankfully we didn’t really need the guide and explored it ourselves – particularly admiring the Octagon Room (one of the few remaining interiors designed by Sir Christopher Wren, 17th century architect). It’s octagonal shape and 13 foot high windows were designed for the long telescopes of the time. The room was used mainly for “observing eclipses, comets and other unusual celestial events”. The observatory museum is fascinating: documenting the history of precision timekeeping for navigational and astronomical purposes. We of course stood astride the meridian line.
Visit to England September 2016:
South East England
Knole House & Knole Park
Penshurst Place & Gardens
City of Canterbury & Canterbury Cathedral
Hinchley Wood, Surrey
Hampton Court Palace
London to Greenwich Village
London Walking Tour