The Old Royal Naval College dominates the centre of Maritime Greenwich, being sited not far from Cutty Sark DLR station and very close to the DLR itself. Some tourists initially mistake it for the National Maritime Museum. The site has a rich history. Greenwich Palace, the birthplace of Mary I and Elizabeth I, originally occupied the site; it was known as the Palace of Placentia. Having fallen into disrepair during the English Civil War, it was demolished in 1694. Designed by Christopher Wren, the buildings were conceived as Greenwich Hospital (established by Mary II), and built between 1696 and 1712. The hospital closed in 1869, and between 1873 and 1998 it was the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.
Since 2002 much of the site has been open to the public. I’ve wandered around the grounds frequently, visited a couple of the buildings, and attended concerts, but I decided to take advantage of a free guided tour on the same day as I visited the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, which has lots of information about the site.
Our guide took us along the waterfront, pointing out the memorial to Captain Bellot, a Frenchman who perished searching for Franklin in the Arctic (there is a memorial to the Franklin expedition in the Chapel). As the Thames was at low tide, she also pointed out the remains of a pier established by Margaret of Anjou, who originally had the palace built.
Of course, you can wander around the grounds yourself, but on a tour you are shown things you probably wouldn’t have noticed, like the spot on which archaeological remains of Greenwich Palace were discovered. Apparently it is forbidden to put too much weight onto the grass, in case the site beneath is damaged. The iron gates by the river are where Nelson’s body was brought on shore for lying in state before he was taken to St Paul’s Cathedral for burial.
The tour guide also pointed out just how impressive Christopher Wren’s calculations were: commanded by Queen Mary to ensure the Queen’s House kept it’s view of the river, he ensured the buildings on either side were placed to keep the Queen’s House precisely in the middle.
A statue of George II is also a notable landmark. The statue is made of one single piece of marble and the king is depicted in the guise of a Roman Emperor.
Today, the University of Greenwich leases Queen Mary, King William and Queen Anne Courts and Trinity Laban School of Music and Dance occupies King Charles Court. The latter also performs regularly in the beautiful Chapel. We also popped into the Painted Hall, painted between 1707-1726 by Sir James Thornhill. The Hall is currently undergoing restoration, and I was lucky enough to take part in a Painted Hall Ceiling Tour, which takes you up to the ceiling so that you can view the artwork close up.
The Old Royal Naval College is well worth a visit, and there are so many things to do, from learning about history in the Visitor Centre, taking a guided tour, or listening to a concert in the Chapel.
Address: King William Walk, Greenwich, London, SE10 9NN
Opening Hours: 10am-5pm
Prices: Free (charges for some concerts and for Painted Hall Ceiling Tours)