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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yeah, sorry about that title. Anyway, after my enjoyable if exhausting walk following the route of the Fleet, I decided to walk the course of another London river and fellow Thames tributary – the Wandle. This river flows from Croydon to Wandsworth, and I began my walk, as this Londonist article suggests, in Morden.
The Wandle has in its time powered many working mills, despite its current appealing rural-lite setting. It has avoided the fate of becoming a covered sewer and instead is a haven for wildlife (although, with an exception of a few ducks and one perplexed-looking moorhen, I didn’t actually see any on my walk).
I got off at Morden Tube station and headed towards Morden Hall Park, across the Wetlands Boardwalk which is now, apparently, home to newts, frogs and herons. Beyond the park, across the tram line, I walked past Deen City Farm, a working urban farm which introduces young city kids to farm animals – an excited pair I passed on my walk were being taken there by their dad.
After a short walk taking in a housing estate I reconnected with the river as it flowed past Merton Abbey Mills.
Past Merton High Street, I ventured into Wandle Park, through which the river was diverted many years ago. Crossing the river I reached Wandle Meadow Nature Park, a former brickworks and sewage farm. This section of the walk was rather quiet and eerie, but I soon made it to the small River Graveney, passing numerous families out for a walk before reaching the Wandle once again.
I crossed Plough Lane, a busy road near the former Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium, and embarked upon a fairly long section of path on the left hand side of the river. I was surprised to see anglers fishing on its bank, while the electricity sub-station loomed in the background. After a while I reached Earlsfield, passing the familiar Tara Theatre before venturing towards King George’s Park.
Once I’d reached the other side of the park, I found myself in Wandsworth.
I walked through the busy town centre and past the old Ram Brewery buildings before reaching a sluice gate containing a bell, on which is inscribed ‘I AM RUNG BY THE TIDES’. Just a little further and I had reached the island in the middle of the river as it flows into the Thames.
I enjoyed my walk and it was a lovely day for it – clear and cool and crisp. I found the signposts and directions to be somewhat lacking, and had to open my trusty Google Maps at several points, but this may just be because I have a terrible sense of direction. In any case, I was pleased to feel as though I’d accomplished something.
The Geffrye Museum in Hoxton may be closed for refurbishment, but the tours of the restored almshouse are still going ahead. Previously, you had to turn up on the day and hope for the best, but now it’s possible to book in advance for some Tuesday and Wednesday tours. I took the day off work and signed up.
The almshouses were founded by Sir Robert Geffrye, chair of the Ironmongers’ Company. Most of the almshouses have now been converted into the museum, but one still remains, and has been restored to how it might have looked in the past.
On the ground floor, one room looks as it might have done in the eighteenth century, home to a poor pensioner who may have fallen on hard times. The fireplace is large and functional, as the inhabitant would have had to cook their own meals here. They also had to furnish their own room. The chairs here are very low because when their feet rotted – as they would often do in poorer houses – they were cut off and the rest of the chair preserved. Candles were usually made of tallow – the cheapest substance available – and were kept locked in an iron container so they were not eaten by mice. Pensioners got a pension that was roughly equivalent to £8,000 per annum, but they were subject to various rules and regulations, such as a 7pm curfew (9pm in summer), compulsory attendance at church or chapel, and a ban on swearing, fornication, adultery and other undesirable behaviours.
Upstairs, another room is set out as it might have looked during the late nineteenth century. By this time, some of the rules and regulations had been relaxed, and pensioners enjoyed a larger allowance – equivalent to approx £16,000 per annum. However, the owners of the almshouses looked for a “better class” of inhabitants, who had to prove they could supplement their pensions with a small income. Many inhabitants at this time were retired governesses, respectable spinsters with not much money who had no home of their own, having spent their lives in other peoples’.
These inhabitants did not have to cook their own food – and many did not know how to, anyway. Therefore, the fireplace here is much more decorative. Light was provided by oil lamps, though the flickering nature of the ‘fish-tail’ lamps meant that many people still preferred to read by candlelight. There are many more objects in this room than the other, a testament to the industrial revolution which ensured mass-produced furniture and decorative items were available at lower cost. The room is also filled with photographs, popular with Victorians, and with souvenirs of holidays, such as a booklet about Scarborough.
Adjacent to the two almshouse rooms are two small exhibition spaces, looking at the history of the almshouses. In the basement there is an indoor toilet, installed during the nineteenth century, and a laundry room, though many of the Victorian inhabitants would have sent their laundry out.
The almshouse tour is only £5 (plus booking fee if pre-booked via Eventbrite) and is run by knowledgeable volunteers. While the main Geffrye Museum is closed, it’s well worth checking out.
I’ve wanted to visit Warwick Castle for years – it’s one of the major historical sites in the UK and every time I go to Stratford on the train I go through Warwick and see the signs to the Castle. As a birthday treat to myself I decided to finally visit.
The beginnings of the Castle go back to 914 when Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, ordered the building of a ‘burh’ or an earthen rampart to protect the small hill top settlement of Warwick from Danish invaders. In 1068, William the Conqueror founded a motte and bailey fort, consisting of a large earth mound with a timber stockade around both the top and base. This mound is still visible as part of the Castle today.
Henry de Beaumont was appointed the 1st Earl of Warwick in 1088. Successive Earls followed until the title passed to Richard Neville, who married the prior Earl’s sister, in 1449. This is the part of Warwick Castle’s history I’m most familiar with, because of Neville’s role in the Wars of the Roses and his unofficial title of ‘Kingmaker’. Later, the Castle lapsed into disrepair until James I presented it to Sir Fulke Greville in 1604. In 1871, a fire damaged the Private Apartments and the Great Hall and over 100 years later the Castle was bought by the Tussaud’s Group, marking its beginnings as a tourist attraction.
I booked online because it was a bit cheaper – also you get to skip the queue once you get there. The Castle is not far from the centre of town so it isn’t much of a walk.
Inside, there is lots to see and do. I decided to do all the rampart-climbing in the morning, before it got too hot and before I ran out of energy. There are great views over the Warwickshire countryside, and there are informative panels that explain the history of different parts of the Castle.
Underneath the main building there is a walk-through display which shows the Earl of Warwick preparing for battle. Some of the wax figures are a little creepy, but this area is also pretty informative about what is probably the most famous period of the Castle’s history. Across the grounds, there is a ‘time machine’ exhibition which uses video technology to take you through the many centuries of the Castle’s history, with Horrible Histories-style humour.
I climbed to the top of the hill, formerly the old motte and bailey castle, and then decided I wanted a rest. This proved opportune as I was just in time for a birds of prey flying display, which was amazing. I actually ended up seeing two of these, and they were fascinating, featuring kestrels, eagles, an Andean condor, and my favourite – Ernie the owl.
I left the big part of the Castle until last. This part was rebuilt after a fire in the nineteenth century. It explored the history of the Castle as a retreat for the great and the good in later centuries, with waxworks of Victorian worthies demonstrating the weekend parties and lavish entertainments that went on here.
I didn’t visit the Dungeons, being somewhat squeamish – this part costs more to visit anyway. I didn’t visit the Princess Tour either, that being aimed at very young children.
Nevertheless, I found that there was plenty to do – I think all ages and temperaments would find something to entertain them here. I’d definitely recommend Warwick Castle for a day out.
Opening Hours: 10am-4/5pm depending on season/event
Prices: £36 for an open-dated ticket for one adult that allows you to visit the Castle and Dungeon at any time within 12 months; discounts are available for booking a selected day in advance (as opposed to just turning up), omitting the Dungeon, and for children or concessions. Check the website for special offers. Short breaks are also available.
I can’t even remember where I found out about Pope’s Grotto, but this unique curiosity is well worth visiting and the Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust, supported by Radnor House School, the owners of this grade 2* listed site, is hoping to repair and conserve it. The grotto is the last remaining part of Alexander Pope’s villa, which he built in 1720 on the banks of the Thames at Twickenham. The villa was demolished in 1808 and the site has been developed numerous times since then – but the grotto still remains.
Alexander Pope was a 18th century poet whose famous works include The Rape of the Lock; he also translated the Iliad and the Odyssey. While not a household name today, he contributed several popular phrases to the English language, including ‘eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’ (the name of one of my favourite films), ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’, and ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing.’
History of the Grotto
In 1719, Pope came to live in Twickenham, demolishing one of the houses on the site to build himself a villa. He decided to build a grotto beneath the house, inspired by the interest in classical mythology that had prompted his translations of Homer. In later years, Pope decided to redesign the grotto as a museum of mineralogy and mining, after a visit to the Hotwell Spa on the banks of the Avon. He sought help and donations from people all over the country, and friends and acquaintances sent material too: Sir Hans Sloane donated two small pieces of basalt from the Giants’ Causeway in Ireland.
Inside the Grotto
Inside, it’s an eerie but fascinating experience. You enter through the school and walk outside onto the terrace, with a great view of the river, before heading down some steps and to the entrance of the grotto. The entrance takes you into a long corridor, extending to the other side of the road, lined with stones and minerals. There is even fossilised wood from the Dropping Well in Knaresborough.
Above the archway is a sign, requisitioned from an unknown location.
On either side of the corridor there are chambers. To the left, one chamber has a statue, possibly of St Catherine or the Virgin Mary, as well as a tree trunk in one corner.
This tree trunk is supposedly from a willow planted by Pope.
Ammonite casts are placed above the archways on each side.
I spied lots of different minerals on the walls, but I have no idea what they all are.
The second chamber had a statue of St James the Great, and there were lots of boxes of minerals ready to stick on the walls.
The project began with a pilot to conserve the South Chamber last summer. The full project, for which funds are currently being sought, will involve careful cleaning, replacement of the cement floor, new lighting and sound effects, and a digital interpretation.
Pope’s Grotto is well worth a visit, if you can catch it on an Open Day (there are two more in June, and the site will also be open for free access in September during Open House London weekend). It’s a fascinating curiosity, whether you have an interest in Pope or not.
Everyone’s heard of the Thames, but surprisingly few people seem to have heard of its many tributaries – the most famous being the Fleet River. This is perhaps understandable, given that the Fleet (and many other minor rivers in London) are hidden away – but the signs are still there, if you know where to look. I’ve wanted to walk the Fleet for a while, and decided to go for it on Saturday: the weather was slightly cooler at the beginning of the Bank Holiday weekend.
I began my journey on Hampstead Heath, where the Fleet (the name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon flēot, ‘tidal inlet’) still flows overground, at the Vale of Health pond: this pond feeds the Hampstead Brook, the western arm of the River Fleet. You can follow the course of the brook through the woods of Hampstead Heath, though it was almost dried up on the hot day I visited. Further on, the stream flows into the public bathing ponds at the bottom of the Heath.
(I should mention here that another branch of the river flows down from Highgate, but I chose the Hampstead branch, purely because it was easier for me to get to. One day I might go and check out the Highgate branch too).
The Fleet was a major river in Roman times, and its status was largely maintained into the Anglo-Saxon era, with wells, supposedly with healing qualities, built at Clerkenwell and Bridewell. As London increased in size, the river became notorious for filth and sewage, surrounded by prisons and slums. From 1680 the Fleet became the New Canal, lined with wharves frequently used by the coal trade from the North East of England; hence the street names Newcastle Close and Old Seacoal Lane. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, parts of the river were gradually covered over, enclosed in brick-lined sewers, until the 1870s when the final section, up at Hampstead, was covered.
The two branches converge in Kentish Town, before heading down towards the centre of London. I walked away from the calming greenery of the Heath into the built-up and urban Camden, stopping at the Prince Albert pub, where the Fleet flows under an iron grating. It can be heard easily (but not so easily seen, in the sunlight). Sadly, my plan to stop for a drink in the pub was thwarted as it was closed (this also happened with the next pub on my route. Clearly the universe is conspiring against me).
Heading down towards King’s Cross, I passed St Pancras Old Church (another blog post to follow). I was fascinated to see a picture showing the Fleet rushing by the Church in the days before it was covered up. King’s Cross was originally named Battle Bridge, referring to an ancient bridge over the Fleet where Boudica’s army is said to have fought an important battle against the Romans. I hurried past the busy King’s Cross station and onto Gray’s Inn Road, before avoiding the traffic and heading into a quieter, more residential area. I passed a housing estate called Fleet Court – clearly I was going in the right direction. My route also took me past the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre and the new Postal Museum.
My next encounter with the Fleet was in Farringdon, outside the Coach pub, where another grating covers the rushing Fleet, though I wasn’t able to hear anything this time. The Fleet’s presence here seems to be more well-known: I overheard someone pointing it out as I loitered. The original Hockley tavern, which stood on the site, was in the midst of an area known for gambling and bear-baiting and apparently, in 1709, a bear killed the landlord.
I walked down Saffron Hill, a small, sloping street, but couldn’t find any signs of the Fleet here although I’d heard that they exist. Never mind – I soon arrived at Holborn Viaduct, a bridge over a valley which was carved out by the widening Fleet over several years. This stretch of the river was once full of ships, loading and unloading their produce (including the stones for Old St Paul’s Cathedral). This part of the river was also known as the ‘Holbourne’.
Towards the end of my walk, I passed Ludgate Circus, which crosses Fleet Street, named for the river. It was originally the site of the Fleet Bridge river crossing. The King Lud pub occupied the building now used by Leon between 1870 and 2005, and it is rumoured that the Fleet could be seen flowing under a glass floor panel.
Finally, my walk came to an end as I reached Blackfriars Bridge. What remains of the Fleet flows out of Victorian sewers into the Thames underneath the bridge, although sadly I couldn’t view the exit as the area is currently undergoing building works. Still, I was very pleased to have finally got the chance to follow the Fleet.
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
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.
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
I wandered past the Twinings Tea Shop and Museum quite by chance on my day off; it’s located on the Strand, a busy street in the heart of London, and still retains its old-fashioned look. Inside, it sells more kinds of tea than you can shake a stick at: from black tea like good old English Breakfast and Earl Grey, to fruit teas and green teas, as well as rather more bizarre flavours like Salted Caramel Green Tea (not recommended). It’s possible to buy a Twinings-branded wooden box (like the kind you get in posh hotels) and fill it with teabags of your choice. I made a mental note of this for future reference.
The ‘museum’, which is right at the back of the narrow shop, has artefacts from Twinings rich history, which dates back 300 years, founded by Thomas Twining who helped to ensure tea became a rival drink to coffee which was then popular in London’s coffee houses. Tea’s popularity rose dramatically, and Twinings was later granted a royal warrant.
There is also a ‘tea bar’ where you can sample different varieties of tea.
The shop is a really worthwhile place to visit, whether you want to stock up on tea, look round the museum, or just sample a few different brews.
We gathered at the entrance by the war memorial and collected some lanterns to take with us on our walk. And we needed them – there are no other lights in the cemetery, and even with the lanterns it was pretty dark. (I apologise for the poor quality of these photographs – I tried with and without flash and they were both pretty dire). Our guides escorted us round the cemetery, stopping at various points to tell us about various notable people buried here.
Dr Rees Ralph Llewellyn – A doctor who performed the autopsy on Mary Ann Nichols, generally considered the first victim of Jack the Ripper
Towards the end of the tour we enjoyed some soul cakes of the kind eaten at Victorian Hallowe’en – they were baked to an original Victorian recipe and were yummy – spicy and delicious. We learned about nineteenth century Hallowe’en traditions and superstitions.
Finally, we were treated to an original Victorian music hall song, originally sung by Alexander Hurley, and based on a real event involving a strongman defeated by a daring rival.
Sadly I didn’t see any bats on the walk – perhaps because they were all frightened off by the fireworks. However it was a fascinating and atmospheric walk.