A few things to look for next time you’re wandering around Greenwich! The Old (1), The New (3), and The Wonderful (2).
You can obviously do these in any order, but I’ve arranged them on the map as one example of how you might walk it.
The Old: Greenwich Park’s Ancient Cemetery
I mean, there are some old things in Greenwich, but this is old old. If you head to Coom’s Hill in Greenwich Park you will find this gently undulating landscape. Peaceful and calm, a green oasis in busy east London, it’s probably the last place you’d expect to find an Anglo-Saxon burial ground.
It’s believed to date back to the sixth- or seventh-century. Potentially 1,500 years old. Wow. I hope your mind is suitably blown.
They were rediscovered in the eighteenth-century when some rudimentary excavations took place. Discoveries included glass beads, wool and hair, an iron spearhead, and some shields and swords. It’s believed that they were pagan burials.
The presence of this barrow cemetery is probably less surprising if you know anything of Old English (which I personally don’t, but the internet is a veritable gold mine). ‘Greenwich’ was first recorded as ‘Grenewic’ in the tenth-century. ‘Wic’ is also an Anglo-Saxon term denoting a trading settlement, so the very name of the area is Anglo-Saxon in origin.
People dug around a bit more in the nineteenth-century, and then twelve of the barrows were levelled as a result of plans for a new reservoir, but local protest pushed the reservoir elsewhere. The mounds have also been eroded quite substantially over the centuries which is why they don’t rise very high.
Originally there were possibly as many as fifty mounds, but now many of them are hard to make out. In a few of them, you can just about make out the encircling ditches, which are only recognisable now as minor hollows or grass marks. Unfortunately, almost all of the barrows have been disturbed over the years, but Historic England certainly seems to believe that there is further archaeological and environmental information to uncover.
According to the Royal Parks website, “There are approximately 1000 recorded sites of Anglo-Saxon inhumation burials in England, but only around 40 are barrow cemeteries. This one is amongst the largest, making it especially significant.”
Also, if you think sixth/seventh-century is old, you may want to check out Greenwich Park’s Roman history too. An ancient temple, potentially as old as c.100AD.
The New: Fela Kuti plaque
Now we’re gonna go plaque hunting.
If you know Greenwich, you’re probably familiar with this view. If you don’t know Greenwich, you might also recognise it from Thor: The Dark World, Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Junior, Les Miserables, even the recent Cruella with Emma Stone. There’s a full, overwhelming list of titles here.
This is the Old Royal Naval College. A site commissioned in the seventeenth-century as a Royal hospital or almshouse for Navy veterans. It’s had a number of uses since then, including being home to the National Gallery of Naval Art and today serves a more educational purpose.
Much of the site is home to the University of Greenwich and one block, the King Charles Court, is where you’ll find the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
As implied by the name, this is a music and dance school formed in 2005 after the merging of the Trinity College of Music (founded 1872) and the Laban Dance Centre (founded 1946). They are split over three sites, including the one here in Greenwich. This merger made them the very first music and dance Conservatoire in the UK.
They are an internationally-lauded school and have had many notable alumni, including choreographer Matthew Bourne, pianist and composer Avril Coleridge-Taylor (daughter of composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor), and Fela Kuti, who has recently been commemorated with a plaque on the outside of the building.
Fela Kuti (1938-97) is considered to be the father of Afrobeat and has had a massive impact on the history of music.
He came to England from Nigeria, and while his parents expected him to study medicine like his dutiful brothers, within days of arriving, he decided to pursue music instead. He studied composition and trumpet performance at the Trinity College of Music from 1958. Although his course wouldn’t have been here in Greenwich, as the school was then in Marylebone, the plaque has been installed at the school’s current Faculty of Music at the Old Royal Naval College.
In the 1960s, Kuti formed his band, Koola Lobitos, which played a fusion of jazz and highlife. It was this path which led them to create the genre of music, Afrobeat – a sound he developed which was inspired by Ghanaian and Nigerian highlife, traditional West African and Yoruba influences, and the music of Black America – blues, jazz, and funk. Some of the London venues he performed at included the Flamingo Club, which used to be in Soho, and Abbey Road. The band also went through several iterations, including Nigeria 70, Africa 70, and Egypt 80.
In 1969, they were touring in the US and Kuti became interested in the Black Power movement, which greatly influenced his music. No doubt he’d also been inspired by his mother from a very young age – Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, an educator, political campaigner, anti-colonial activist, and feminist (although maybe not so inspired by the latter as some of his behaviour has been criticised as misogynistic). His music became increasingly political, challenging colonial rule in Nigeria and government corruption. For example, his song Zombie (1977) heavily criticised the Nigerian military. It so enraged the government that they raided his commune and recording studio in Lagos, the Kalakuta Republic, with 1,000 soldiers. Kuti was beaten, his Mum thrown from a window and fatally injured, and the commune burnt down. In retaliation, Kuti’s song Unknown Soldier attacked the official government stance that it had been “unknown soldiers” who had ravaged the commune. He had his mother’s coffin delivered to dictator General Obasanjo’s residence and it was left at the gates of the barracks – the ones who were actually responsible for the attack.
He often sang in Pidgin English to try and make his music as accessible as possible across Africa; in 1983 he launched his political party, MOP, Movement of the People, to “clean up society like a mop”; in 1989 he and Egypt 80 released their anti-apartheid album Beasts of No Nation; and over the course of his lifetime he was arrested over 200 times. As the Black Plaques Project puts it, “Fela Kuti was more than a musician; he was a revolutionist.”
The plaque was installed just last year, November 2020. It’s only meant to be temporary but it seems to be sticking around for now. While they couldn’t be there in person for the unveiling, Kuti’s son, Femi and his grandson, Made sent their thanks and appreciation from Nigeria virtually (as all of 2020 was experienced…). A lovely legacy, Made Kuti is also a Trinity Laban alumnus and graduated in 2018. Also in attendance (in real life this time) was Dele Sosimi, an old friend of Kuti’s and the rhythm keyboardist and later Musical Director for Egypt 80. He now teaches Afrobeat at Trinity Laban.
The Wonderful: Painted Hall
Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Kuti’s plaque, we arrive at the Painted Hall.
It doesn’t matter how many times I visit the Painted Hall, every time it takes my breath away. It’s looking even more stunning at the moment because it’s home to the jaw-dropping Gaia installation until 1st July. It’s no mean feat, the Old Royal Naval College have acquired themselves a planet, and it hangs suspended in the Painted Hall, appearing to gently rotate. It’s so peaceful just to gently watch it do its thing. Gaia is the brainchild of Luke Jerram and is produced using detailed NASA imagery of the Earth’s surface which is projected onto the sphere.
This 3D, 7m diameter globe already seems vast, but it is, in fact, 1.8 million times smaller than the Earth we’re currently standing on. This means that each centimetre of the model represents 18km of the Earth’s surface. It’s a bit humbling, isn’t it? If you can somehow work out a distance of 211m from the model then you are theoretically viewing the Earth from the moon. Who needs Elon Musk?
Even when Gaia isn’t there, however, the Painted Hall is well worth the visit. London’s Sistine Chapel. When you first walk in, it’s hard to wrap your head around the concept that everything you see is painted. Those aren’t fluted columns, they’re as flat as a pancake. Have a closer look at the fireplaces to see where the marble ends and the paint begins. And no, that is not the most direct exit to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The illusion is a painting technique called trompe l’oeil (literally ‘trick the eye’) and was a popular method to show one’s mastery of paint and realism. To leave the viewer bamboozled about what is real and what is mere illusion. These paintings are the masterpiece of James Thornhill – nineteen years of painstaking work.
The Painted Hall was originally intended as the main hall for the new Royal Hospital, a grand dining room for the naval pensioners. Although it was only used as such very briefly before it was given over almost entirely to ceremonies and special functions! Clearly it was deemed to grand for the daily meals of the pensioners.
The hospital had been the idea of Queen Mary II – a charitable institution which looked after Navy veterans, so more like a retirement home than a hospital.
This is exactly why Mary and her husband William III take pride of place on the ceiling. The general theme of the paintings is a celebration of British maritime power and of the royal family. William and Mary are at the centre, triumphing over tyranny (represented by none other than French King Louis XIV being squashed underfoot – subtle…). William and Mary are also surrounded by the attributes of good government – Prudence, Justice, Temperance – basically everything that makes them the exact opposite of King Louis.
William and Mary aren’t the only British monarchs depicted. A series of them indicate the stable and continuous nature of the succession. As well as William and Mary, you can find their successors, Queen Anne and her husband George. Neptune with his trident, symbolising the Royal Navy, is perched nearby. The British monarch accompanied by the god of the sea, depicted as peers. Then on the West Wall, you’ll find George I – the King at the time of the hall’s completion. His young grandson just to the right and then George I’s son, the Prince Regent and future George II. Monarchical past, present, and future.
It’s looking particularly flash since its restoration, which was only finished in 2019. As part of the project, although the normal majesty of the Hall was temporarily hidden under a complex skeleton of scaffolding, visitors had access to an experience arguably more special. You were allowed to climb the scaffolding and see the paintings up close and personal, in a way that we probably won’t be able to appreciate again in our lifetime. It felt so special to be that close to the paintings. I also developed an even greater respect for the artists (and conservators) because it’s so hard to get a sense of perspective and proportion when you’re that physically close to the work! I found it hard enough to see the paintings, let alone create or conserve them.
The Old Royal Naval College has an excellent virtual tour of the hall if you want to have a closer look (and is probably a more practical long-term solution than scaffolding…).
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