Arriving in Royal Greenwich feels a little bit like a mini-break. Part quaint village, part vestige of a strong seafaring past, I’ve already ventured down a few times (I suggest arriving by boat) and know it will not be my last.
On my last trip, after a little side trip into Greenwich Market for a sneaky Italian pastry or two, I ventured inside the Old Royal Naval College – built by Wren (of St Paul’s fame) as a retirement home for veterans at the suggestion of Queen Mary II. Wren’s original architectural plans for the college saw one giant dome, much like the Cathedral, however Queen Mary complained it would block her view from Queen’s House and so we see the two smaller domes still present today. And it is straight to those two domes you should head when you visit.
With the Thames behind you, the dome on the left houses the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul. The original interior of the chapel was much plainer, and injured sailors had to stand during services. However a fire devastated the building in 1779, and prompted the way for a baroque overhaul. It is a beautiful calm oasis from the crowds of the parks outside and free to visit. Keep an eye out for the anchor and ropes on the floor, which are said to be the same size as on a first class ship.
Cross the courtyard and under the opposite dome, you will find the Painted Hall – otherwise known as the “finest dining room in Europe.” When you enter, find a place to stand off to the side and just look up… the height is dizzying and its hard to think about how it was all painted back in its day. It was originally planned to be the dining hall for the retired sailors, but by the time James Thornhill was done decorating the interior, it was deemed to be too grand for its original purpose. Today, it serves as a function room and can be rented when not open to the public. Every square inch of the hall is painted and it was where Horatio Nelson was laid in state after the Battle of Trafalgar. (You can read more about it here.)
It is one of those places in London where you cannot help but be swept up by a grand history. Where you expect to see a uniformed gentleman peak out from around a column with a powdered wig. Or perhaps just get swept away by a sailor.
The Old Royal Naval College grounds are open every day from 8-18:00 with the halls open from 10-17:00. All entry is spectacularly free of charge.