Hidden History in Greenwich Park
If you’ve visited, you probably don’t need me to tell you the benefits of Greenwich Park, but you might be surprised to learn it’s Ancient. It’s been used by people for thousands of years and still today provides space from – and epic views over – the rest of London.
It’s no wonder then that the wealthy and important were attracted to it. But that’s only one side of the surprises the park has in store…
A Roman Temple
We mostly associate the Romans with the City of London, however there’s evidence that Greenwich was used as a prehistoric settlement and that during the Roman occupation it was the site of a Temple.
In 1902 an excavation revealed mosaic floors and fragments of walls along with pieces of pottery and coins. With further study in the 1970s it was concluded to be an Romano-Celtic Temple.
It takes quite the imagination to visualise this from the spot today. However there’s a helpful information board with a reconstruction from none other than Time Team!
A Tree Fit for a Queen
Thought to date to the 12th century, this huge oak died in the 19th century and now lies horizontal, but still with a sense of majesty, behind some railings.
It stood upright until 1991 and in its heyday was absolutely massive, reportedly 20ft in diameter! It’s also described as being hollowed out to allow for park rule-breakers to be kept here in a kind of makeshift prison.
The Royal association comes from a story that Queen Elizabeth I – born at Greenwich Palace in 1533 – once picnicked underneath it and further myths proclaim that her father and mother; King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn enjoyed a little dance together around it while he was courting her.
The Underground Water System
Did you know that under your feet in the park is a complex of pipes and reservoirs?
Sadly inaccessible, the only visible part above ground are the conduit heads and the grandest of these is this 18th century brick structure.
Probably designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, clerk of the works at Greenwich between 1698 and 1735. It was originally one of 12 which gave access to the conduits that brought fresh water from Blackheath down to what used to be the Royal Hospital for retired seamen.
In 1845 the old conduit pipes were replaced by a jaw-dropping reservoir, again, not open to the public. Thankfully there are some epic photos from urban explorer Scott Darby here.
The Artistic Treasure Trove
Now known as Ranger’s House, originally it was built 1720s as the home of naval officer, Francis Hosier. He was only there for seven years, dying of Yellow Fever along with thousands of others during a disastrous attempt to block the Spain from smuggling gold out of Portobelo, Panama.
If that name is reminding you of the famous street in Notting Hill, you have good reason. In 1739 Admiral Vernon had more success, capturing the port and the street was renamed to remember that victory.
In 1748 it then became home to the 4th Earl of Chesterfield who was an avid art collector. He added a gallery in 1749-50 on the South side.
Following his death, In 1783 it was sold to fellow art collector, Richard Hulse who added another gallery wing to the North.
Today it houses the Wernher Collection of fine and decorative art. Julius Wernher amassed his fortune from gold and diamond mines in South Africa.
Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons – Sir Julius Wernher by Hubert von Herkomer 1912
Remembered as a successful businessman and generous philanthropist, it’s important to also remember that the diamond industry came at the cost of exploitation of Africa miners, working in incredibly dangerous conditions.
Wernher himself wrote to his father about the ‘constant landslides and collapses’ and the fact that ‘daily men, carts and horses hurtled into the depths, and were dashed to pieces.’
You can find out more about the Wernher Collection here.
On a more frivolous note, this house has recently been in the spotlight for other reasons, featured as the Bridgerton family residence in Netflix’s hit series Bridgerton.
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A Bath Fit For A Queen
It doesn’t look particularly regal today, but this was once Queen Caroline’s bath.
Part of a 19th century bathhouse that was excavated in 2001, the Queen moved here when her marriage to the Prince Regent (later, King George IV) broke down.
It was part of Montagu House, originally built in 1690s and with its own intriguing history (more on that later!) but was demolished in 1814. Today the brick wall – along with the bath – is all that’s left.
Beside the bath and embedded into the former wall of Montagu House is a second white plaque that reminds us of an extraordinary figure from the 18th century.
After leaving Montagu House Sancho married Anne Osbourne and they ran a grocery store in Westminster. As a financially independent male household owner he was eligible to vote and as far as we know he became the first Black British man to exercise his democratic right in 1774.
Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons – Ignatius Sancho, 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough
He was also an active abolitionist, publishing letters against the slave trade.
This plaque was unveiled in 2007, making the bicentenary of the abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire.
The Royal Observatory
Part of the Royal Museums Greenwich, the beautiful Flamsteed House was designed by Christopher Wren 1675-6 for John Flamsteed, the first Royal Astronomer.
Perched on top of Greenwich Park the large red ball is a time ball, dropping every day at 1pm so that the ships docked in the Thames could set their clocks.
In 1894 this serene scene was disturbed when Martial Bourdin, a French anarchist tried to blow up the Royal Observatory. The chemical explosive he was carrying detonated prematurely and severely injured him. Missing a hand and with a hole in his stomach, he was taken to a Seamen’s Hospital but didn’t give up any information before dying within 30 minutes.
Seen as the first international terrorist incident, Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent is based on the story.
And if you needed another reason to visit Greenwich Park, it’s worth going simply to soak up the ever-changing London skyline, juxtaposed with the domes of Wren’s Old Royal Naval College.
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