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.

Undercroft

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.

FACTS

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)

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.