I began my visit by catching the Docklands Light Railway from the centre of London to Island Gardens where a short walk down a footpath opposite the main entrance to the station brings you to Island Gardens Park. This is a lovely little green space with a cafe and the most amazing view across the river to The Old Naval College, The Queen's House & beyond to the Greenwich Observatory, all in perfect symmetry!
I've always been interested in the foot tunnels below the Thames so planned to take the tunnel between Island Gardens Park & Greenwich (Cutty Sark), the feat of victorian engineering and their place in the social history of London fascinates me. Whilst I was pleased I took this alternative route to Greenwich I have to admit to being a little underwhelmed! Slightly cool & damp was a welcome relief on another stiflingly hot day but slightly musty with a hint of wee and the unanticipated disturbance of groups of screaming children listening for their echo from the tile lined walls was a little disappointing. In hindsight I think I had visions of Brunel's Rotherhithe tunnel in mind (I'll blame Google's image search for that!).
The Old Naval College is particularly famous for the Painted Hall & Chapel. I had heard that the Painted Hall was undergoing conservation at present but could still be visited and I was keen to see this in person. The Painted Hall contains the countries largest painted ceiling and one of the most spectacular and important baroque interiors in Europe. Conceived & painted by Sir James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726 the interior, including the ceiling includes scenes of & influencing a pivotal moment in English history as it became a dominant european power. It's well worth reading the detail of the individual paintings on the College's website and it's safe to say George I & Thornhill had a lot of fun weaving stories, messages & lessons into the paintings.
As part of a major conservation project the Hall has been filled with an extensive scaffold structure to install a false, suspended floor just below the ceiling, 60ft in the air. It's from here that a team of conservationists are painstakingly cleaning & conserving the painting.
Until September 2018 visitors are able to take a Painted Hall Ceiling Tour, accompanied by expert guides climbing a temporary staircase to the suspended floor, just 8 feet below the ceiling to view hitherto unseen details within the painting and watching the conservationists at work. It's an extraordinary experience to be almost within touching distance of a masterpiece overhead, to be able to clearly see individual brush strokes, details hidden from a distant view as well as some of the issues requiring such drastic attention.
The Painted Hall Ceiling Tours really are an opportunity not to be missed, find out more and purchase tickets at the official Old Naval College website here
The ceiling tour really got me thinking about visiting historical sites & experiencing their modern history. We always look back and very rarely look to the future to imagine what visitors in a hundred years time will think and say about our activities, conservation & management. It was fascinating to hear that all the conservation methods must now be reversible in case future technology allows for improvements, this was not always the case as a rather naively painted blue shawl on the ceiling lays testament to.
Visitors (and particularly photographers perhaps) regularly criticise & bemoan disrupting & 'inconvenient' activities that block & prevent access to locations, iconic views and details so inviting visitors to share this suspended platform with conservation activities offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only see the painting up close but truly appreciate the expert work being undertaken. I can't help but think this is an example of 'conservation tourism' that many other historical sites could do well to study.
Mirroring the Painted Hall within the King William Court, the Queen Mary Court contains the Chapel. A beautifully ornate interior by James Stuart with fabulous natural light and a striking marble floor. Again within the chapel, simple design provides a basis for the most intricate of decoration with the blues within the ceiling being strongly reminiscent of Wedgewood ceramics.