Rose Dykins discovers Britain’s nautical heritage in London’s next Royal Borough
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The nearest station to Greenwich is Cutty Sark on the DLR, but if you have the time, take the Thames Clipper (thamesclippers.com) from Waterloo pier. The journey takes about half an hour, which gives you plenty of time to take in the iconic buildings that line the banks of the Thames. Boats leave every 20 minutes and a single journey costs £5.50 (£5 with an Oyster, £3.70 with a travel card).
On arrival at Greenwich pier, turn right at the Cutty Sark. This Victorian sea vessel is one of the only teaclippers left in the world. It is being restored at the moment following a fire in 2007, and is due to reopen next spring, complete with exhibitions about the boat’s history.
The year 2012 will also see Greenwich crowned a Royal Borough as part of the celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Greenwich’s links with the monarchy and its global nautical reputation have no doubt helped it to gain this “exceptional mark of royal favour” (the only other Royal Boroughs are Kensington and Chelsea, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Kingston-upon-Thames).
Turn on to College Approach and you’ll see the arched entrance of Greenwich Market. Located in a small square surrounded by stylish boutiques and colourful cafés, the quirky covered market takes place Wednesday to Sunday from 10am to 5.30pm. The set-up changes daily, with homeware, antiques, collectables, arts and crafts, and fresh produce featured on different days, but the delicious food stalls are there every day, and the aroma of all the fresh cooking is the first thing that hits you.
Spend some time browsing through the stalls, where you may find anything from jewellery delicately fashioned from old shillings to vintage tobacco tins. In celebration of the royal wedding on 29 April, Greenwich will put on a “memorabilia market” for the day, where you can purchase royal souvenirs. Visit shopgreenwich.co.uk
OLD ROYAL NAVAL COLLEGE
Pass through the intricate black iron gates of Greenwich’s World Heritage Site, located at the base of Greenwich Park by the river, and make your first stop the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College (entry is free). These days, the college is the site of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and it can also be hired for events (visit oldroyalnavalcollege.org). It was originally built by Christopher Wren in 1712 as a hospital and home for injured seamen and their families. The magnificent Painted Hall was intended to be a dining room for the invalids; however, after James Thornhill had spent 19 years painting it, it was deemed too fine for them to use, and became a tourist attraction instead. Ask a guide to point out the symbolism of different parts of the elaborate ceiling.
Across from the hall is the college chapel, which is also free to enter. As you go in, you will be greeted by another spectacular roof. Take some time to admire the neoclassical décor with both Grecian and naval-themed motifs – the elegant blue and white patterns suggest a cirrus sky. In the entrance to the chapel, the poignant Franklin monument commemorates the loss of the crews on board HMS Erebus and Terror as they searched for the Northwest Passage in Canada in 1845. The chapel is now frequently used for musical performances from Trinity Laban Conservatoire that are open to the public, and it continues to host a Sunday church service every week. Both the Painted Hall and Chapel of St Peter and Paul are open daily from 10am to 5pm.
NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM
Make your way south-west to the National Maritime Museum. Visiting it is a great way to put Greenwich’s nautical associations into context. Check out the Oceans of Discovery exhibition on the second floor, which has footage of HMS Endurance’s 1914 voyage to the Antarctic filmed by a cameraman on board. See the crew try to free the ship from being crushed by pack ice, before six members, including captain Ernest Shackleton, battled their way across the Atlantic on board a lifeboat, the James Caird, to get help. The film also includes extracts from the crew’s diaries. Another must-see is the Maritime London exhibition on the ground floor, which takes you through the history of London’s river trade from the Roman era to the present day. Open 10am-5pm. Entry is free; nmm.ac.uk
THE QUEEN’S HOUSE
Just across from the museum is the Queen’s House, originally built for Anne of Denmark, the wife of King James I. Climb the spiralling “tulip stairs”, named after the beautiful floral design on the banister, and then from the balcony in the Great Hall, stare down at the black and white marble floor – the pattern soon becomes hypnotic. Ask a guide to talk you through the gallery of paintings upstairs, which holds Canaletto’s Venetian-style interpretation of the view of Greenwich from the north bank, and other portraits that throw light on the house’s royal history. Look out for the portrait of Emma Hart, whose affair with Admiral Lord Nelson led to her demise. Open 10am-5pm. Entry is free; nmm.ac.uk
Now for a 15-minute walk up the hill from the Queen’s House, which steepens quite a bit as you approach the Royal Observatory. The look-out point beside the statue of General James Wolfe gives a breathtaking view of London’s skyline. While Flamsteed House and the Time Galleries are worth a walk through, and standing with one foot on either side of the Meridian Line is tempting (it’s here that Greenwich Mean Time is derived), the recent introduction of a £10 entrance fee is controversial. If you are interested in learning about the science of sea navigation then it’s worth putting your hand in your pocket, but otherwise head to the Astronomy Galleries beneath the “onion dome” for free and interactive exhibitions about the universe. Open 10am-5pm; nmm.ac.uk
Greenwich is brimming with traditional pubs. As you head down the hill of the Royal Park, continue on to Park Row and head towards the river. Turn right along cobbled Crane Street and you’ll find the Yacht pub. The exterior is pretty and inviting, and its riverside location offers great views of Canary Wharf and the Docklands. The Yacht offers a weekday lunchtime menu for £5 (the 6oz steak burger is a satisfying option), and other main courses are reasonably priced at about £10. Take a seat by the window and watch the boats go by. Open Mon-Sat 12pm-11pm; Sun until 10.30pm. Tel +44 (0)20 8858 0175.
Go to visitgreenwich.org.uk