Greenwich has everything. Royal connections, UNESCO listed architecture, fantastic museums, the Cutty Sark and, of course, the meridian. Now one of the stars of the show, the Painted Hall Greenwich is back after five years shrouded in scaffolding.
Old Royal Naval College Painted Hall Greenwich
Some dub the Painted Hall, Greenwich as ‘The Sistine Chapel of the UK’. She is certainly jaw dropping and a lot less crowded. The hall was designed by Sir Christopher Wren as the ceremonial dining from for the new Royal Hospital for Seaman. Some dining room! You’d want to be looking up, rather than down at your roast dinner.
Sir James Thornhill (incidentally the first British artist to ever be knighted) started painting the hall in 1707 and took 19 years before he put his brushes down. He was paid by the square yard – £1 per yard for walls and £3 for the ceilings. Just to put that in context there are over 4,000 square metres of paintings in the hall.
The best way to view the ceiling is either to gaze into one of the handy mirrors or recline on one of the special benches.
Everything that you see is a work of propaganda, for the Protestant monarchy. In the centre of the main hall you see William of Orange and Mary II looking down at us. The whole idea of the Seaman’s hospital was Mary’s.
In the next room Queen Anne and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, gaze down at us. It was during Anne’s reign the Acts of Union were passed, unifying England and Scotland to create Great Britain.
On the back wall the collected Hanovarians look out at us. At the back with a building on her head is Sophie, Electress of Hanover. She was the granddaughter of James I. The Acts of Settlement declared that only a Protestant could occupy the English throne and that made her and her children the lawful heirs. Her son George I sits wearing the crown. To his left is his heir George II and between them Prince Frederick. An unbroken, harmonious protestant line of sucession. Never mind that the Hanovers come from Germany and George I spoke little English and showed even less inclination to learn more.
It was in front of the collected Hannoverians that Admiral Lord Nelson lay in state for three days. Britain’s greatest maritime hero was bought back from Cape Trafalgar, pickled in a barrel of brandy. Once here thousands of people filed by over three days to pay their respect to heroic Norfolk man.
WHAT TO SEE AT THE OLD ROYAL NAVAL COLLEGE
Stunning though the Painted Hall is, it is not the only place to see within the Old Royal Naval College. Take time to wander around the grounds and discover Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece for yourself.
Victorian Skittle Alley
Turn right when you leave the Painted Hall and follow a rather inviting tunnel.
At the other end you will find a Victorian Skittle Alley, even better you can have a game of skittles. Once you rolled the balls and knocked all the skittles down, you have to walk down the alley put the pins back up and send the balls rolling down a special gully.
Chapel of the Royal Hospital
Just opposite the Painted Hall is the Chapel of the Royal Hospital. Make sure you look inside it is stunning. Even better the students of Trinity Laban Music School put on free concerts ever Tuesday and Friday lunchtime. If you like a church service, Evensong with the college choir takes place every Monday evening at 5.30pm.
Old Royal Naval College as a Movie Set
Take a look at those colonnades, do they look familiar? You might recognise them from many films and TV appearances as the Old Royal Naval College is one of the most popular movie locations in the world. Pirates of Caribbean, Les Miserables, Skyfall and Poldark were all filmed here. Superheroes more your thing? Thor: The Dark World saw a spacecraft land here.
OLD ROYAL NAVAL COLLEGE GREENWICH HISTORY
Greenwich has been home to a royal palace since the 15th century. Henry VIII was born here. He married two of his wives here and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth were also born here. James I wife, Anne of Denmark liked the spot so much she had the Queen’s House built. By the time of the Restoration the old palace had become delapidated and Charles II had it demolished to make way for a new palace. His plans came to nothing. Part of the Tudor Palace has been discovered during the restoration of the Painted Hall and are visible for the first time in four hundred years.
Forty years later Queen Mary II decided the site would be perfect for the new Hospital for Seamen. Christopher Wren was called in and UNESCO Maritime Greenwich site that we know today was created. Forty years later the old sailors moved elsewhere I Greenwich and the site became the Royal Naval College. When I lived in the area, that’s what it still was, open to view but hidden to access. In 1997 the Navy moved out and the site became open to all. Some buildings are occupied by the University of Greenwich and the Trinity School of Music.
OLD ROYAL NAVAL COLLEGE CAFE
As regular readers will know, no cultural experience is complete without a cafe. Rest assured that the £8.5m restoration project has seen some funds devoted to restoring the undercroft to its former glory and installing a cafe. I can vouch for quality of the coffee, cakes and a rather fine pot of bircher muesli. Whilst you savour your coffee ponder that for two years during the restoration it was possible to go on Painted Hall Ceiling Tours and get up close and personal with James Thornhill’s masterpiece, check out my visit.
OLD ROYAL NAVAL COLLEGE NEED TO KNOW
- Old Royal Naval College, King William Walk, SE10 9NN
- Grounds open: Daily 8am – 11pm
- Painted Hall Open: Daily 10am – 5pm
- Admission: Painted Hall Adults £12, ticket lasts all year. Pay as you wish on first Wednesday of the month. Entry to the grounds and the chapel is free. Card payments only at present due to Covid
- Getting to Greenwich: Mainline trains stop at Greenwich leaving from Kent, Charing Cross and London Bridge. The DLR stops at Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich (the longest name for a stop on the entire Transport for London network). Arrive as Henry VIII would have done, and catch the river boat.