A sail through the centuries: On his new TV show, John Sergeant delights in the unique history of Greenwich, Britain's latest Royal Borough
21:30 GMT, 22 June 2012
22:21 GMT, 22 June 2012
My earliest memories of Greenwich are of going there as a boy to see the Cutty Sark, which I referred to as ‘My ship’!
It was during the 1950s when she was going to be put into moorings, and I was one of thousands of schoolchildren around the country who sent off a postal order to the Cutty Sark Preservation Society – in return for a badge proclaiming me a ‘shipmate’.
Growing up in Oxford in the middle of England, miles from the sea, I found it thrilling to be helping to get the fastest commercial sailing boat of its day into dock.
Showing the Old Royal Naval College from the water
I would never have believed I’d be back again more than half a century later, walking beneath the hull of that very boat after an ambitious 50m refit following the fire in 2007, which has allowed visitors to view it from below for the first time.
Yet that is what I found myself doing earlier this year for a fascinating ITV programme exploring this vibrant area. In February, Greenwich was awarded Royal Borough status by the Queen, the first in her 60-year reign, in recognition of its myriad regal connections stretching back to the Middle Ages.
Yet at the same time it has also been preparing to go under the world spotlight when it plays host to a large part of next month’s Olympics. I followed those who live and work there in this momentous year, charting its connections to kings and queens, its maritime glory and military might, and its position as a thriving enclave of 21st-century London.
John dressed as a naval pensioner
That combination of the historic and the modern was evident throughout my adventures, and nothing exemplifies it better than the view from the Royal Observatory, commissioned by Charles II in 1675 ‘for perfecting the art of navigation’.
I was taken aback. It’s like a 17th-century scene, absolutely marvellous, with the wonderful Inigo Jones-designed Queen’s House, built for Anne of Denmark in 1616, right beneath you, while if you look a bit further you can see the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Christopher Wren and now a World Heritage Site. Yet across the river you have the corporate towers of Canary Wharf rising up to create the perfect combination of old and new.
This extraordinary vista will be one
of the spectacular backdrops to this summer’s Olympics. Millions of
visitors are going to step into history when they see it. Along with
gymnastics and basketball at the 02 Centre, which will be renamed the
North Greenwich Arena, and the equestrian events at Greenwich Park (the
very same soil that Henry VIII used to go hunting on some 500 years ago)
there’s the shooting at Woolwich Common.
jolly exciting to think of all those people, who might otherwise never
have visited Greenwich, suddenly learning what a unique standing this
place has in British history. Everywhere you look there’s something to
fascinate. Not only was it the site of Henry VIII’s favourite home –
Greenwich Palace – but Elizabeth I was born here and it was in Greenwich
that Sir Walter Raleigh famously laid his coat over a puddle for her.
Over there you’ll find the Trafalgar
Tavern, where Dickens used to dine, and in adjoining Woolwich there’s
the Royal Arsenal where 80,000 people worked during the First World War
making munitions for the Western Front. But Greenwich’s crowning glory
is that it lies at the very centre of the world, on the Prime Meridian
GREENWICH: FACT FILE
Years since the world’s first weather forecast was issued from the Royal Observatory by James Glaisher, a founding member of the British Meteorological Society
The diameter in metres of the Millennium Dome (now the O2 Arena). It’s also 52m high with 12 supporting poles, reflecting Greenwich’s connection with time
The number of years it took to finish the ornate Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College
The speed in mph the Cutty Sark could reach, making it the fastest ship of its day
This, of course, is the meridian decreed in 1884 to be at 0 longitude, the place at which the Eastern and Western Hemispheres meet and which has been the international reference point for shipping, cartography and world time zones ever since.
And all this wonderful knowledge is so accessible. You don’t need to know much about British history to know there was a battle fought at Trafalgar and a chap called Nelson died there. Well, if you go to Greenwich you can see where his body was kept in a barrel of brandy before being laid in state in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College.
That’s not some dusty old school history lesson, but a great story of interest to young and old. Fundamentally, we’re all interested in our past. I’ve always considered history to be ‘ours’ rather than something owned by teachers. Old-fashioned broadcasters used to present it in such a way that you felt you had to be terribly clever to understand it, but not any more. You don’t say it’s history, you just get on and tell it!
Or in my case show it. I dipped into the dressing-up box for this programme – to kit myself out as a naval pensioner. Queen Mary founded a veterans’ home for former seamen in Greenwich – the Royal Hospital for Seamen, similar to that for army veterans at the Chelsea Hospital for Soldiers – where the men had their own bakery, brewery and tobacco allowance, and where a skittle alley was erected to keep them occupied, which I tried my hand at. The last veteran left in 1869 after peace at sea led to a drop in demand for places.
Ships from Greenwich went all over the world to service our great commercial empire, and now people from all those different corners of the globe live in Greenwich, in this great multicultural melting pot. When the Queen came to Greenwich to officially reopen the Cutty Sark in April, people waited in the pouring rain for 90 minutes to see her – and some of those most excited were originally from the Caribbean.
They were delighted to see their Queen, and to see the thread of history continue to weave its magic from the first official visit she made to the borough in 1937, as a princess, just as her father was about to become King.
In fact, given its rich royal history – and connections that run through everything from sport and astronomy to architecture – the biggest surprise is that it’s taken so long for Greenwich to become a Royal Borough. n
Royal Greenwich is on Tuesday 3 July at 9pm, ITV1.