Visiting the Old Royal Naval College has to be one of the best free things to do in London. I went on a special day by coincidence – the anniversary of the birthday of Elizabeth I, who was born on the site – and it seems fitting to recommend a visit to a royal park on the day of a milestone in the history of the British monarchy. Admittedly I was already looking forward to the visit, having discovered the importance of the Painted Hall from the first episode of the BBC documentary series ‘The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain’ (watch the first of three episodes here). But seeing Thornhill’s masterpiece for real is well worth your while, especially now when the ceiling of the Lower Hall section has just been conserved, and the figures of Queen Anne and her husband are aggrandised by their background of once again gleaming gold.
The Painted Hall is not only connected with royalty but also with a British hero, Admiral Nelson, who laid in state here before his state funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral. 30,000 came to pay their respects, roughly the population of London at that time! Another famous person indirectly connected with the project was Captain Kidd, who had his wealth confiscated when he was convicted of piracy; the donation from Queen Anne recorded on a plaque was actually Kidd’s wealth, not the crown’s. This juicy fact comes from the unmissable free guided tour which starts from the Greenwich Museum and takes you around the complex. Whereas I’ve found from experience that guided tours often just summarise the vast range of information already available from signs, the tour here gave participants a unique perspective of the site.
Without guidance I would not have noticed the spot of political etiquette on the same plaque, where a finger is carefully placed to obscure the last two zeros from a sum donated by an aristocrat, so that it may not appear to exceed the sum of the Queen’s donation. Christopher Wren’s snub to Queen Mary II would also have passed me by: she ruined his plans for a large domed tower in the manner of St. Paul’s by requesting that there remain a vista from Queen’s House to the river, and in return he shortchanged her by giving her a restricted view exactly the width of Queen’s House.
Another reason why you should go on the guided tour, apart from it being entertaining as well as informative, is that it gives you access to places closed off to other visitors. By following the guide, you can admire up close the stamp of Benjamin West’s workshop on the Coade stone roundels of the pulpit in the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, see the Franklin Memorial and the canteen of the University of Greenwich, walk through the tunnel from the Chapel to the Painted Hall, known as Chalk Walk because the original top layer of the ground was composed of crushed pieces of pipe broken off by impatient navy smokers, and continue up to the Painted Hall after walking past the room where a scene in the Bond movie Skyfall was filmed (where M inspects the coffins of fallen agents). Talking of filming, the Old Royal Naval College is an extremely popular filming location, playing host not only to fleeting moments but also iconic sets, like the barricade in the 2012 Les Miserables.
While I have found the free National Maritime Museum tedious after a while, and the Royal Observatory and Cutty Sark expensive, the Old Royal Naval College complex had a good mix of things to admire, from architecture to art to artefacts, all for free. I had originally planned to simply turn up and gaze at the paintings in the Painted Hall, but found that you could really turn your trip to the Old Royal Naval College into a full ‘day out’. Do go and experience it for yourself!