Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Open House London 2010 : Old Royal Naval College Part One

Having spent the Sunday morning of Open House London enjoying the Jacobean delights of Charlton House, I made my way to the Old Royal Naval College in nearby Greenwich. 

When I arrived at the site I was perplexed to see that scenery had been set up and a banner strung across a walkway in honour of King George. It was significant that the banner did not state which King George was being lauded. I later discovered that the exterior of the Old Royal Naval College was being transformed for its appearance in the latest instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean.  I regret to say that there was no Johnny Depp on hand to whisk me off to sail the high seas with him or even to take a cruise along the river Thames to Westminster. The latter was once the royal waterway graced by the kings and queens of England, as they were rowed in royal barges from their palaces at Whitehall and Westminster to Greenwich. 

Although the original royal mansion, known as the Palace of Placentia, predated the Tudor monarchs, their history was destined to be closely entwined with that of the new palace they had built to celebrate their dynasty. Greenwich Palace witnessed the birth of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth as well as Henry’s marriages to Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves.

Unhappily for lovers of Tudor history Greenwich Palace became, in the words of the Harry Bedford / Terry Sullivan song, “one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit” during the English Commonwealth, when the Republican rulers decided to turn the former symbol of royalty into a prison and later a biscuit factory. When King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 he resolved to build himself a new palace in the Classical style at Greenwich. The exterior had been completed but little progress made on the interior when work on the building was called to a sudden halt. King Charles was never to realise his ambitious dream of a Stuart palace to rival that of the Tudors. In the 1690s his niece, Queen Mary, and her husband, King William decided instead to demolish the near derelict Tudor palace and incorporate the wing of King Charles’s proposed palace into a new hospital for seamen. This hospital for seamen was to rival the one established by the Queen’s uncle, Charles II, at Chelsea.  Mary’s sister Queen Anne continued her family’s redevelopment of the site. Consequently, it is members of the Stuart and not the Tudor royal family whose names are commemorated at Greenwich today.

All that remains of the great Tudor Palace of Placentia is a brick undercroft beneath Queen Anne Court. The undercroft has served a variety of functions over the centuries including as a wine cellar, coal cellar and store room. When the Seaman’s Hospital closed in 1869 it was turned into a training centre for naval officers. In the 20th century the undercroft was used as an informal discotheque by naval officers until it was decided by the authorities that it constituted an unacceptable fire hazard. Now the undercoft houses a pictorial reconstruction of how the Tudor palace might have looked in its heyday, together with stone carvings that Sir Christopher Wren had intended to use on the facade of the Stuart buildings but which proved surplus to requirements.

In 1998 the Naval Training Centre relocated to the County of Surrey. King William Court is now home to the University of Greenwich. Before the premises could be handed over, the Navy had to carefully dismantle a very unusual piece of training apparatus called Jason. It took several years to fully decommission Jason but the Navy could not afford a botched job. When I had taken part in recreations of 17th century court dances within the baroque splendour of the Queen’s House, a matter of yards from the Naval College, I was blissfully unaware of Jason’s existence. The fact that the equipment was called Jason would not have made the fact I was so close to a nuclear reactor any more palatable. Inside the King William building we were shown the current lecture room where Jason used to be kept. The Scottish member of the academic staff showing us around did not seem at all perturbed by the extraordinary use to which the room had been put to in the past. Indeed he seemed to relish the stunned expressions his incredible story generated.

Until I had been told about former tenant Jason, I expressed the opinion that the King William Building alone would have tempted me to enrol as a student. The historic buildings contain visible reminders of its past as a working Stuart naval hospital. Upper storey corridors retain original wooden doors and partitioning. Some windows are shaped like portholes. Several original fireplaces can be seen and there is a particular fine example on the ground floor. Wards in the hospital were named after royal naval ships; a doorway bears the legend Britannia, after one such ship.

In the corner of one room was a pretty cast iron spiral case of more recent vintage. We were spared from having to ascend it, for which I was grateful given that I had already walked up one of the stone staircases to reach the upper levels of the King William Building as well as wandering around Charlton House all morning. Heaven knows how disabled sailors managed to get around in the past.

Analysis of traces of paint found in one of the current lecture rooms led to it being re-decorated in the same muted tones first used centuries earlier. The same chamber had served as an observatory and it used to be possible to open the ceiling mechanically to reveal the night sky. The older and grander Royal Observatory on top of the hill opposite can be glimpsed from windows on this side of the building.


King Charles Court, the nucleus of a would-be 17th century palace, now houses the Trinity College of Music. This is one of the most prestigious schools of music in the world, although it was hard to believe given the cacophony echoing around the courtyard as numerous students practising on their own wafted through the open windows. On one wall the exposed brickwork was said to have been made from bricks supplied by Daniel Defoe, who is better known as the author of Robinson Crusoe. Inside King Charles Court is an elegant staircase by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The latter, who had been an assistant to Sir Christopher Wren, went on to achieve fame his own right as an architect of note.  Hawksmoor’s London churches have served to inspire a number of poets, writers and graphic novelists in the 20th century such as Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and the graphic novelist Alan Moore. Somewhat bizarrely, a recurring theme for such writers is to link Hawksmoor’s churches with satanic activity. I found Peter Ackroyd’s fictional novel “Hawksmoor” to be so unsettling I refused to keep it in the house once I had finished reading it.  

Along the staircase wall hang large copies of Raphael's tapestry cartoons depicting various scenes from the New Testament. The tapestries themselves can be found at the V&A.

Rooms on the ground floor serve as concert chambers. The principal concert room is said to be haunted by the ghost of a man who, when challenged by a member of staff as he seemingly warmed himself by the fireplace, vanished through a set of locked doors at the end of the chamber. The academic staff who had rushed to their colleague’s aid discovered that the fireplace was still warm to the touch despite never having been lit in the history of the college.

A stone arcade, whose wrought iron gates were later glazed in, leads from the concert chamber to the Stuart room. Unfortunately we were not allowed to go in to the latter as the carpets had been freshly cleaned in anticipation of a special guest on the morrow, obliging me to try and take a picture throught the glass panes. We were not told the name of the illustrious visitor but once I spied a painter I knew it must be royalty. British royalty are condemned to wander a world in which wherever they go they are faced with the odour of fresh paint, as over eager bureaucrats, desperate to make a favourable impression, insist that premises are spruced up.

I shall return to this subject anon as I still have yet to describe the Victorian Skittles Alley, the Painted Hall, one of the loveliest Chapels I have ever seen and the Dreadnought Hospital set up for former sailors, who had served in the Merchant Navy.

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