Climb the Dome at the Old Royal Naval College
There’s a new tour you can take in Greenwich!
I was invited to go behind the scenes at the Old Royal Naval College and climb the dome above their beautiful chapel.
But first, a bit of background history of the Old Royal Naval College…
Greenwich had been Royal retreat since the Tudors, but in the tumultuous late 17th century it became the backdrop for one of London’s most extravagant architectural projects.
On 11 April 1689 William and Mary were jointly crowned in Westminster Abbey, inheriting a country divided by religion and politics.
Their reign began after the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’ when Mary’s Catholic father, King James II had been ousted from the throne.
Following uprisings and rebellious threats, in 1692 there was a French-backed attempt to restore James as King. The Royal Navy was forced into the Battle of La Hogue.
Over five days the sea battle ended with victory for the English but at a huge cost to their fleet. Queen Mary sent fifty surgeons to aid the injured seaman and the number of casualties prompted a renewed interest in the idea of a hospital for injured and veteran sailors.
Christopher Wren surveyed the site in January 1693 and offered to design, free of charge, a new hospital. Mary’s death from smallpox in 1694 might’ve stalled plans for ‘the darling object of her life’ but her husband stepped in and issued a warrant for the continuation of the project.
Wren’s Plan for a Royal Hospital
Christopher Wren was no stranger to a tricky brief. Alongside the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral he had designed 51 new City Churches, most with fiddly Medieval ground plans and each with a unique spire on top.
With the Greenwich site he had to create something worthy of the Royal patronage but also take into account an existing block designed by John Webb and Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House built 1616-1635.
Initially Wren proposed a single dome with two wings stretching towards the river, however Mary had been keen to preserve the view of Queen’s House so instead Wren created a twin-domed solution, the iconic greeting for visitors today.
Seeing the buildings you might be inclined with Samuel Johnson who remarked in 1763 that Greenwich was “too magnificent for a place of charity”
Of the two domes, it’s only possible to climb the one above the Chapel. It’s the one on the left in the picture above.
The dome above the Painted Hall has no staircase and when you enter you can look right up to the vestibule, seeing the windows above.
Climbing the Dome
As we start our climb you get a glorious view of the spiral staircase leading to the upper levels.
It’s very reminiscent of the Tulip Stairs in Queen’s House and you can admire 18th century graffiti while you climb!
At the pediment level there’s a nice view onto Queen Mary’s Court and specifically the bell which called pensioners to attend services in the chapel.
Today it’s electric but it was once pulled by a long rope.
We reached one of landings and on the floor is an array of organ pipes.
They are spares for the Samuel Green Organ in the chapel below.
Completed in 1798 at a cost of £1,000, it was still relatively new when it played the solemn music to accompany Lord Nelson’s coffin on its final journey from Greenwich to St Paul’s Cathedral.
The large wooden case running the height of the room and into the upper levels holds the pendulum for the huge clock which still works and is wound by hand each week.
From ground level you can appreciate the working clock. The other dome contains a dial showing the wind direction.
Seen on another level is the haunting reminders of a terrible fire that struck the chapel on 2 January 1779.
It’s thought to have been caused by some late night partying as it started underneath the tailor’s workshop and ‘the men had been at work the preceding day, but had mingled holiday rejoicing too much with their labours’.
The water tanks in the roof storage were empty so Greenwich Pensioners create a human chain of buckets of water from the Thames.
Thankfully it was under control after 5 hours and the rest of the hospital and its Painted Hall were unscathed.
The scattered elements here were once part of a mammoth, triple-decker pulpit that stood in the chapel.
Only the top element survives intact in the chapel, the rest (which looks like wood but is actually Coade stone) was split up in 1952 and survives in pieces here.
With the Chapel totally gutted, it was rebuilt in 1779 by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. The elaborately decorated ceiling by master plasterer John Papworth is – I think – a worthy consolation prize.
There were further near-misses during the Second World War, its proximity to the docks making it a target. In September 1940 classrooms, part of the library and offices were destroyed in the King Charles block, then another attack in 1943 destroyed another part of the same block.
One can only imagine the panic felt by the Fire Watcher tasked with sitting in this chair, in this coat and making arrangements to protect the buildings at all costs.
We then reached the top level, under the wooden supports for the lead dome.
One of the highlights was to then look out of the windows to gain a unique perspective over Maritime Greenwich, the Thames and over to the City of London.
Visit the Old Royal Naval College
There’s plenty to see in Greenwich and the Old Royal Naval College is certainly worth a visit. You can marvel at the surrounding buildings and go inside the Chapel for free.
Wren’s most famous building is undoubtedly St Paul’s Cathedral and you can book a behind-the-scenes tour to see the Triforium levels and plenty of hidden gems. You can read about my visit here.
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