Unlocked Tour – Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

I’ve spent a lot of time at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich over the last couple of years or so, taking tours, exploring and learning more about the area. I was excited to sign up for the Unlocked tour, which promised to showcase even more of the complex.

Former governors of Greenwich Hospital

Inside the Admiral's House

Inside the Admiral's House

Table on which Nelson's body was laid out

Meeting at the Old Brewery pub, we were taken first to the Admiral’s House, with its lists of former governors of Greenwich hospital, and its rich decoration. One corner was bombed during the Second World War and has since been rebuilt, but much of it is original. One particularly fancy room was used in disciplinary cases, so wouldn’t have been too pleasing to the average sailor’s eye. The most notable artefact in this building was probably the long table which is supposed to be the table on which Nelson’s body was laid out in the Painted Hall after it was returned to England after the Battle of Trafalgar.


Model of Greenwich palace

Former location of disco ball

Carved faces

Next, we headed into the building now used by Trinity Laban – I’ve been here several times before for concerts, but had never noticed this particular entrance, leading into a sixteenth-century undercroft fomerly part of Greenwich Palace. Over the years it has been used as a wine cellar, a coal hole, and a bar – a hook left over in the ceiling was used to hold a disco ball in the Seventies. The creepy face carvings were originally planned to cover one of the seventeenth-century buildings, but that plan was scrapped as being too expensive, and they ended up down here, where most of them have lost their noses thanks to Navy recruits practising their swordsmanship.

Skittle Alley

Skittle Alley

Finally, we headed beneath the Chapel to the Victorian skittle alley, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit ever since I heard about it. This space used to form part of the hospital, the underground location handily muffling the cries of patients undergoing operations. In the nineteenth century, the retired sailors living here, bored with the lack of entertainment, asked permission to construct a bowling alley down here. The balls used were practice cannon balls made from extremely heavy wood; it was not unknown for sailors to make bets with people they met in the pub and get them to use a ball that was ever so slightly rugby ball-shaped, thereby ensuring that they would never hit a strike. When it came to the sailors’ turn to have a go, they knew at what angle to throw the odd-shaped ball to ensure they were successful.

Looking out onto the Thames

There ended my Unlocked tour (except for a free drink waiting back at the pub). I’d definitely recommend the tour: my guide was really friendly and knowledgeable and I was very excited to finally get the chance to see the skittle alley.

Old Royal Naval College

Gateway to the ORNC
Gateway to the ORNC

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.

Old Royal Naval College
Old Royal Naval College

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.

Monument to Bellot
Monument to Bellot

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.

Remains of the 15th-century pier
Remains of the 15th-century pier

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.

Gateway to the Thames
Gateway to the Thames

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.

The Queen's House viewed from the ORNC
The Queen’s House viewed from the ORNC

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.

Statue of George II
Statue of George II

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

Website: ornc.org

Opening Hours: 10am-5pm

Prices: Free (charges for some concerts and for Painted Hall Ceiling Tours)

Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre

Greenwich Visitor Centre

Not to be confused with the Greenwich Heritage Centre, which is located in Royal Arsenal, the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre is located near the Cutty Sark, in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College. Housed in the Pepys Building, originally an engineering laboratory for the ORNC, it opened in 2010.

The free Centre offers an introduction to the history and attractions within the Greenwich World Heritage Site. It has information on the history of the Palace of Placentia, models of Christopher Wren’s original designs for Greenwich Hospital, the carved heads originally intended to decorate the exterior of the Painted Hall, and a model of a lion originally intended for external decoration, too. I particularly enjoyed the section about Greenwich Palace, the birthplace of Henry VIII, and the archaeological work that has discovered more about the palace and its layout and decoration.


The Centre has other displays about maritime Greenwich and about the history of the Royal Naval College, which occupied Greenwich Hospital and the surrounding area between 1873 and 1998. It also has a Tourist Information desk and a gift shop.

Greenwich Visitor Centre

This free visitor centre is well worth checking out as introduction to Greenwich.


Address: 2 Cutty Sark Gardens, Old Royal Naval College, London, SE10 9LW

Website: ornc.org/visitor-centre

Opening Hours: 10am-5pm

Prices: Free

Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story Of Franklin’s Final Expedition – National Maritime Museum

National Maritime MuseumIn 1845, a Royal Navy expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin to discover and chart the North West Passage set off on its journey. None of the 129 men on the expedition were ever seen alive again. Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story Of Franklin’s Final Expedition has been developed by the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, Canada), in partnership with Parks Canada Agency and with the National Maritime Museum, and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust.

The fate of Franklin’s expedition has been a mystery for over a century: despite numerous searches, many instigated by Franklin’s wife Jane, few traces were ever found. A handful of artefacts and some human remains have been discovered, but it is only in the last couple of years that the wrecks of the flagship, Erebus, and its companion vessel, Terror, have been discovered. The ultimate reason why the expedition ended in tragedy has never been established. Approaching the National Maritime Museum, you are confronted by a sea of flags; each one represents a man lost on the expedition.

The exhibition starts with an exploration of the Arctic environment and how Inuit peoples live and thrive in such harsh conditions. Centring the Inuit experience is important for two reasons – firstly because their way of life could have – but didn’t – inspire the various British expeditions that tried to survive in the Arctic in the nineteenth century, and secondly because Inuit testimony was frequently ignored when searchers were trying to find out what had happened to the crews of Erebus and Terror.

The exhibition continues with a look at life on board ship, the role of the different crew members, and brief biographies of key figures on the expedition. It explores the route the expedition took, past Beechey Island and round to King William Island, before the trail grew cold. The expedition spent several winters on the ice, in the dark and cold, with little food other than what they had brought with them from England.

Later the focus turns to the many search parties sent out by Lady Franklin and others, before the ships were finally given up for lost. I must say that to someone like me who knows this topic quite well, much of the exhibition up until now was already known to me, and I didn’t really learn anything new. The exciting part comes towards the end, when I got to view several artefacts, recently recovered from the wrecks, including the bell from Erebus, cast at the Whitechapel Foundry specially for the voyage. It’s still possible to read the date stamp on the side. Videos allow you to watch the divers at work underwater, exploring the wreckage of the ships.

No one really knows exactly why the crew all perished, but various theories are put forward: scurvy, lead poisoning, starvation, disease and more. Two crew members who died fairly early on in the journey have been exhumed, and the evidence in their case points to tuberculosis, but this probably did not infect the others on board. Evidence of cannibalism has been found, but it’s impossible to say for certain whether starving crew members killed and ate their fellows out of desperation, or only ate the flesh of those who had already died.

The exhibition is a fantastic introduction to the Franklin expedition for those who don’t know a great deal about it, and for those already fascinated by the topic it allows you to see some incredible artefacts. What will stick in my memory is the single shoe, preserved in the ice, from an unknown crew member – a poignant reminder of the expedition’s human cost.

Death in the Ice runs until 7 January at the National Maritime Museum

Flags marking the dead

Painted Hall Ceiling Tour – Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Painted Hall
Outside the Painted Hall

The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich is currently restoring the famous Painted Hall. The Hall is not, however, closed to visitors during this time: it is possible to book tours of the ceiling, climbing up on the scaffolding to get close to the ceiling and get a close-up view.

Inside the Hall
Inside the Hall

We put on our high-visibility jackets and hard hats in the room at the end of the hall, where we heard a little about the history. The Painted Hall is one of the most spectacular and important baroque interiors in Europe. Its ceiling and wall decorations were conceived and executed by the British artist Sir James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726, the period when the United Kingdom was created and became a dominant power in Europe. The end wall mural, which has already been restored, shows King George I and his large family, alongside symbols of wealth and plenty. The artist himself is in the bottom right corner of the painting.

Sir James Thornhill
Sir James Thornhill
Full mural
Full mural

We headed up the stairs to where a makeshift floor has been built with scaffolding, giving the appearance of a low-ceilinged room. Our guide talked us through the various murals and highlighted some of the key figures on the ceiling, as well as discussing the restoration work.

At the ceiling
On the scaffold(ing)

Among the figures represented are Greek and Roman gods, monarchs, and even one of the Greenwich pensioners, John Worley, who served at sea for 70 years. He is depicted with a long white beard and painted to represent the season of Winter. Over the past few centuries there have been several restorations, and many workers have left their mark on the ceiling, mostly in the corners where they have daubed their initials. One cheeky person, however, added his name and date right in the middle of Queen Anne’s chest. I did take a picture, but it doesn’t show up very well.

Queen Anne
Queen Anne
John Worley
John Worley

The tour is fascinating and well worth the effort. Tours can be booked online for days throughout the week and are due to continue for the duration of the building work.

Cutty Sark

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Entrance to the ship

My parents came down to London to visit me a couple of weeks ago. They left around midday on the Friday and as I had an afternoon free, I decided to visit the Cutty Sark.

The Cutty Sark is a tea clipper, the last one to survive. She was named from the poem  ‘Tam O’ Shanter’ by Robert Burns, in which the character of Nannie the witch wears a ‘cutty sark’ – an old Scottish term for a short nightdress. Launched in 1869, she enjoyed a varied career transporting tea from China, wool from Australia and various cargoes to and from Portugal and the Americas before being severely damaged in 1916. In 1922 a retired windjammer skipper, Wilfred Dowman, set out to buy her and brought her back to the UK where she was restored. The ship was towed into a dry dock in Greenwich in 1954, where she has remained ever since.

When I was a child, I visited Cutty Sark with my family although we didn’t actually look round the ship: there are, however, several photos of us standing outside it. At the time it was rather run down, so I was pleased to hear that a refurbishment programme was planned (this began in 2006). Though severely hampered by a fire partway through the restoration, the programme was completed and the Cutty Sark reopened to the public just over a year ago, on 25 April 2012.

I was astounded when I walked up to the ship from the DLR station that shares its name.  It is exactly where it always was, but the ship and its setting have been transformed. The ship rests on a raised glass canopy, beautifully restored.

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The Cutty Sark seen from the front

I paid my entry fee and headed to the centre of the ship. I sat and watched a short video surrounded by a number of boxes and the smell of tea. It was very atmospheric. Next I headed to a higher floor with more exhibits. My favourite thing was the seat designed to mimic the movement of the waves: sitting on it was so relaxing!

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Inside the ship

I went on deck and explored further: the outside has clearly been just as painstakingly restored as the inside.

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On deck

Here, I stopped to look round the captain’s quarters, which were fairly swanky, a clear improvement on the narrow bunks used by the crew. Still, I don’t suppose it makes a great deal of difference where you are when the ship is swaying every which way.

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Inside the Captain’s quarters

I went down in the lift to the lower ground floor, which has been cleverly designed to fit under the ship while still letting through plenty of natural light. I enjoyed looking at the motley collection of figureheads.

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The view of the ship from underneath is pretty impressive.

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Underneath the ship

Visiting the Cutty Sark is pretty expensive, but it’s worth it just to marvel at the brilliant job the restorers have done with it. I was hugely impressed.


Address: Cutty Sark Clipper Ship, King William Walk, Greenwich, London, SE10 9HT

Website: rmg.co.uk/cuttysark

Opening Hours: 10am-5pm

Prices: Adult £13.50, Concession £11.50, Child £8.50; under-5s free. Combined tickets with the Royal Observatory are also available.

The Fan Museum

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Yesterday I visited the Fan Museum in Greenwich, and found out more information than I ever thought existed about fans. It’s the UK’s only museum dedicated solely to fans, and has more than 4,000 fans in its collection. It opened in 1991 in a restored 18th century Grade II listed building in Greenwich town centre.

The permanent collection displays notable and interesting fans and fan-related paraphernalia, as well as information about the different kinds of fans in existence and the materials and techniques used in their construction. Interesting items include a fan painting by Paul Gaugin and a ceremonial Chinese fixed fan.

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The museum has a programme of temporary exhibitions and the current exhibition is called The Fan in Europe: 1800-1850. Most fans in this period were relatively small and there are some absolutely exquisite examples of fans on display. This is one of them.

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If you’re in Greenwich, it’s worth taking a break from the big attractions and paying a visit to this little specialist museum.


Address: 12 Crooms Hill, Greenwich, London, SE10 8ER

Website: thefanmuseum.org.uk

Opening Hours: 11am-5pm Tues-Sat; 12pm-5pm Sun

Prices: Adults £4, concessions and children £3

Firepower: the Royal Artillery Museum

After popping into the Greenwich Heritage Centre, I went to visit Firepower: the Royal Artillery Museum. The museum covers the history of the Royal Artillery, which was first formed in 1716. This particular building was opened in 2001, but before that the collections were housed in the Rotunda on Greenwich Common from 1820, and prior to that the Royal Artillery Museum was known as the Royal Military Repository, established in 1778 by a Royal Warrant issued to Captain William Congreve RA by King George III.

The Royal Arsenal has a military history dating back to Roman times, but the RA itself dates to the sixteenth century. The museum covers the history of the Artillery and the RA, with a special mention for the role the Artillery and the Arsenal played during the war years.

The museum holds collections of artillery of all kinds, including an early 15th century bombard, an early mortar and a 14th century Chinese t’ung, as well as cast-iron and bronze guns. Modern ammunition and medals are also featured. A timeline of artillery places the museum’s collections in context. I’d be lying if I said I was fascinated by armaments, but I thought the displays were well thought-out and engaging. The children I saw in the museum seemed particularly fascinated.

Perhaps of greatest interest to those with an interest in military matters, the museum is worth a visit especially if you have children. The entrance price is very reasonable and there’s a great deal to see.


Address: Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London, SE18 6ST

Website: firepower.org.uk

Opening Hours: Tues-Sat 10am-5pm

Prices: Adult £5.30, Concession £4.60, Child £2.50; under-5s free.

Greenwich Heritage Centre

I visited Greenwich Heritage Centre on my tube jaunt down to Greenwich. The Centre, which is free to visit, is located in Artillery Square in the Royal Arsenal, a short walk from Woolwich Arsenal station.

The small museum is about the development of Greenwich from the earliest times to the present day. It contains a wealth of artefacts including tools that were used in the Royal Arsenal, an Egyptian mummified cat, nineteenth and twentieth-century artworks and material from the Roman temple in Greenwich Park.

The museum takes its unusual logo from an artefact called the Bellarmine Jug. This was excavated in the 1970s from the old Woolwich Dockyard and was made in a large kiln there in the 17th century.

The Main Gallery houses the exhibition Inside the Arsenal, which examines the story of the Royal Arsenal and the Royal Woolwich Dockyard from the time of Henry VIII to the present. The role of the Arsenal during the war years is examined, and there is a piece on the Arsenal football team, who later moved to north London, where they are still.

Alongside the main part of the museum is an exhibition called The Millennium Embroideries, showcasing the incredible talents of local women who have created embroidered panels covering the borough’s history over the past thousand years. When I visited, there was also an exhibition in the Temporary Gallery concerning Asian culture in Greenwich, which was very interesting.

The Greenwich Heritage Centre is a small but free interesting museum, and if you’re passing through the borough on your way to the more famous heritage attractions, it’s worth popping in here to get a sense of the borough’s history.


Address: Artillery Square, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich SE18 4DX

Website: royalgreenwich.gov.uk/heritagecentre

Opening Hours: Tues-Sat 9am-5pm

Prices: Free

A day of DLR-ing

As part of my project to visit every tube station in London (in which I am including both the Overground and the DLR, since they are on the Tube map), I decided to tick off a few on the DLR (the Docklands Light Railway) on Saturday.

I decided to start at the bottom and work my way up, so I got the train from Charing Cross to Woolwich Arsenal, the only DLR station in Zone 4. The area – known as Royal Arsenal – was historically where weaponry and munitions were built from roughly Tudor times up until the Second World War. There are still buildings in existence that were once part of this area, including the Royal Arsenal Gatehouse.

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Royal Arsenal Gatehouse

I visited Greenwich Heritage Centre which has a small exhibition about the development, heyday and decline of the area, which is no longer home to factories but is being redeveloped as a residential area: numerous new and converted flats are dotted around. The area is situated by the river and there are some fabulous views towards central London and downriver.

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I also went to Firepower: the Royal Artillery Museum. As the name suggests, this was all about artillery and weaponry which I can’t say interests me a great deal, although I was amused by the party of little boys marching to the orders of an army major (I think they were having a birthday party or something).

From Woolwich Arsenal station, I took the DLR north under the Thames, first to King George V station (which is in a largely residential area) and then to Pontoon Dock, which is right next to the Thames Barrier and its accompanying park.

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Thames Barrier

Subsequently I got off at West Silvertown, the most notable feature of which is the Tate & Lyle factory, decorated with a large model of a golden syrup tin. To complete my journey, I went north and got off at Stratford High Street, walking through a shopping centre (not Westfields; the other one) to catch the Central line at Stratford.