The oldest of the royal parks, the 74 hectare (183 acre) Greenwich Park has been associated with royalty since at least the 15th century.

The area covered by the park had been occupied by the Romans (there are some remains of a building, possibly a temple, near Maze Hill Gate) and later the Danes, who raised protective earthworks here in the 11th century. After the Norman Conquest, it became a manor.

Its enclosure only happened in 1433 after the land came into the possession of Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester and brother of King Henry V. At the time regent to the young King Henry VI, Duke Humphrey also built a tower on the heights above the park – where the Royal Observatory now stands.

Following the duke’s death in 1447, the land was seized by Margaret of Anjou – wife of King Henry VI – and subsequently became known as the Manor of Placentia. King Henry VII later rebuilt the manor house, creating what was known as Greenwich Palace or the Palace of Placentia.

Not surprisingly, it was King Henry VIII, who, having been born at Greenwich Palace, introduced deer to the park. Indeed the park was to have strong associations with others in his family – the king married Catherine of Aragorn and Anne of Cleeves at Greenwich Palace, and his daughters, later Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I, were born there while his son, King Edward VI, died there in 1553 at the age of only 15. (There’s a tree in the park known as Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, which is said to be where she played as a child).

In 1613, King James I gave the palace and accompanying park – which he had enclosed with a high wall – to his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, apparently as an apology after swearing at her in public when she accidentally shot one of his favorite dogs. Queen Anne subsequently commissioned Inigo Jones to design what is now known as the Queen’s House – for more on that, see our earlier post.

Following the Restoration, King Charles II ordered the palace rebuilt and while this work remained unfinished, the king did succeed in having the park remodelled – it is believed that Andre Le Notre, gardener to King Louis XIV of France, had a role in this.

The works included cutting a series of terraces into the slope – these were known as the Great Steps and lined with hawthorn hedges – as well as creating a formal avenue of chestnut trees (now known as Blackheath Avenue), and some woodlands. Work is currently taking place on restoring an orchard which dates from 1666 at the park.

King Charles II also commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to build the Royal Observatory that still stands on the hill overlooking the park – it stands on the site once occupied by the Duke Humphrey Tower (the Royal Observatory is home of the Prime Meridian – see our earlier post on the Royal Observatory for more).

King James II was the last monarch to use the palace and park – his daughter Queen Mary II donated the palace for use as a hospital for veteran sailors and the park was opened to the pensioners in the early 1700s. The hospital later become the Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum later moved onto the site (for more on this, see our earlier post).

As an aside, Royal Parks say the truncated shape of some of the trees in the park is apparently due to the fact that when anti-aircraft guns were positioned in the flower garden during World War II, the trees had to be trimmed to ensure a clear field of fire.

Facilities in the park today include a tea house, a children’s playground, sporting facilities such as tennis courts and, of course, the Wilderness Deer Park where you can see wildlife at large. Statues include that of Greenwich resident General James Wolfe, an instrumental figure in establishing British rule in Canada – it sits on the crest of the hill opposite the Royal Observatory looking down towards the Thames.

The park, which is part of the Greenwich World Heritage Site, is slated as a venue for next year’s Olympics – it will host equestrian events and the shooting and running events of the pentathlon.

WHERE: Greenwich Park (nearest DLR station is Cutty Sark – other nearby stations include Greenwich, Maze Hill and Blackheath); WHEN: 6am to at least 6pm (closing times vary depending on the month); COST: Free entry; WEBSITE: www.royalparks.gov.uk/Greenwich-Park.aspx

Long an admired landmark of Greenwich, the origins of the Queen’s House go back to the reign of King James I.

It was the Queen, Anne of Denmark, who commissioned the building of The Queen’s House in 1616 and gave it the name by which it is still known. Sadly, however, she died before it was completed.

King James I was said to have been a frequent visitor to the Tudor Palace of Greenwich (the building had earlier been known as the Palace of Placentia and was the birthplace of King Henry VIII in 1491).

King James  is traditionally said to have awarded the Manor of Greenwich to Queen Anne as an apology after he had publicly sworn at her when she had accidentally shot one of his favorite hunting dogs.

In 1616, Queen Anne decided to build a new property on the site as both a private retreat and a place where she could entertain and it was to the rising star Inigo Jones that she turned to for the design (in recognition of his growing status, he was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works the following year).

The house was Jones’ most important job to date and the design he came up – based on a H with the two sides joined by a bridge over the Greenwich to Woolwich road – with is said to be the first Classical building in England.

Among the original features which survive to this day are the striking black and white geometrically patterned marble floor of the Great Hall (the room having been designed as a perfect cube), the painted ceiling of the Queen’s Presence Chamber and the iron balustrade the Tulip Stairs – said to be the first “geometric self-supporting spiral stair in Britain”.

Queen Anne became ill in 1618 and died the following year without seeing the end result of her commission. The work subsequently was shelved and only restarted (and completed in 1638) after King Charles I gave it to his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria.

She only had possession for a short time before Parliamentary forces seized it during the Civil War. After the Restoration, the Queen’s House was returned briefly to her by her son King Charles II (it was at this time that the original H-shape of the house was altered to a square) before part of it as later used as studio for painters and then as grace and favor apartments.

With the Old Royal Naval College now occupying the surrounding site, in 1805, King George III gave the property to the Royal Naval Asylum – a charity caring for the orphan children of seamen – and it later became part of the Royal Hospital School.

The National Maritime Museum took possession in 1934 and the building now houses the National Martime Museum’s collection of fine art. As an interesting aside, there have been several reported sightings of ghosts in the house, the latest as recently as 2002.

WHERE: The Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (nearest DLR station is Cutty Sark); WHEN: 10am to 5pm daily (check website for closures); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.nmm.ac.uk/places/queens-house

In the first of a new series looking at some of the favorite historical places of Londoners, Lynne Connell, a host at the Museum of London, nominates Greenwich…

“When I was a child my grandparents took me to Greenwich for the day.  I remember being very impressed with Admiral Nelson’s uniform (complete with blood stains) and the haunted tulip staircase in the Queen’s house. While we sat and ate cheese and onion crisps in front of the Cutty Sark, my Grandmother (who was a little eccentric) told me ‘there is so much history here you can feel it’.

“So what can you see in Greenwich today?

“You can visit the Greenwich Observatory, stand on the Meridian line and know you are in the centre of the world! Admission is free there, as well as the National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s House. You can also see the magnificent Wernher collection at Ranger’s House (free to members of English Heritage) and don’t forget the tiny Fan Museum.

“A favourite lazy Sunday morning, includes a stroll in the Royal Park to visit the deer enclosure, a leisurely coffee in one of the two cafes and a visit to the craft market.

“The remains of a Roman villa can be seen in the park and you can visit Princess Caroline’s bath. Don’t miss Queen Elizabeth’s oak, Henry VIII is reputed to have courted Anne Boleyn under the boughs of his ancient hollow tree. It fell during high winds in the 1990’s and is now slowly rotting away.

“Look down from the Observatory Gardens upon the magnificent Royal Naval College and go to visit the beautiful painted hall. Remember, beneath the college lie the remains of the Royal Palace of Placentia, birth place of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

“It is easy to get to Greenwich by over ground train, DLR or (to really pick up the atmosphere) by river boat.

“It is more than 40 years since my introduction to the history of Greenwich, and perhaps I am becoming a little eccentric myself, but my grandmother was right, you really can ‘feel the history’.”

PICTURE: Greenwich Park, © Anne Marie Briscombe (Royal Parks)

Hunkering down on the south bank of the Thames, the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich is yet another Wren masterpiece and the centrepiece of the UNESCO-listed Greenwich Maritime World Heritage Site.

What is now known as the college was originally designed as a ‘hospital’ or retirement home for old or infirm sailors. Established by Royal Charter in 1694, it was King William III who pushed the project into fruition as per the wishes of his then late wife Queen Mary II.

Wren was selected to design the building and along with the diarist John Evelyn, who had been appointed treasurer, laid the foundation stone on 30th June, 1696.

Wren’s initial design – for a three side courtyard facing the river – was rejected by Queen Mary who insisted the view from the existing Queen’s House to the river be maintained. So, instead, the hospital was built as a series of four pavilions, each with its own court, with the Queen’s House standing as it’s centrepiece when viewed from the river.

Wren himself never lived to see the building’s completion – it was in the end completed by a number of other famous architects including Sir John Vanbrugh, Thomas Ripley, and Wren’s pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor. Fortunately Wren had laid out all the foundations which ensured the basic design conformed to his plans.

The first 42 pensioners moved in in 1706 and the numbers grew as buildings were completed to a peak of 2,710 in 1814. However, declining numbers of pensioners by the mid 1800s – thanks to a period of peace on the seas and the success of a program which saw more pensioners living with their families, eventually led to the hospital’s closure in 1860.

In 1873, the Royal Naval College took over the premises, assuming the role of both the former Naval College at Portsmouth and the School or Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering which had been based in South Kensington. The Naval Staff College opened on the site in 1919 and further navy departments including the Department of Nuclear Science and Technology moved there in later years. The Royal Navy left the college in 1998.

Now in the care of the Greenwich Foundation, the college is now used by the University of Greenwich and the Trinity College of Music as well as for public events. The public can also visit certain parts of the former college including the grounds, the spectacular Painted Hall and the Chapel.

The domed Painted Hall, which features a series of classically themed paintings with King William III and Queen Mary II at its heart, was originally planned by Wren to be the hospital’s dining hall but due to the length of time it took for Sir James Thornhill to complete – 19 years – his paintings it was never used as such. Instead it stood empty until the body of Admiral Lord Nelson was brought there to lie in state in January 1806. In 1824 it became the National Gallery of Naval Art but in the 1930s became a dining room again with the gallery’s contents transferred to the National Maritime Museum.

The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul, meanwhile was completed in 1751 to the design of Sir Thomas Ripley but was gutted by fire only 28 years later. It was then rebuilt, largely to the designs of James “Athenian” Stuart with some of the detailing designed by his Clerk of Works William Newton, and was reopened in 1789. Restored in the 1950s, it is said to look “almost as it was” when it opened in 1789. The chapel is still in use for services.

WHERE: Located adjacent to Greenwich Pier with entry from Cutty Sark Gardens, College Approach, Romney Road Gate, Royal Gate or Park Row, Greenwich (nearest DLR station is Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich); WHEN: The Painted Hall and Chapel are open daily from 10am to 5pm (chapel used for worship on Sunday mornings, open for sightseeing  from 12.30pm); COST: Free (Booked guided tours are available for £5 an adult/children under 16 free); WEBSITE: www.oldroyalnavalcollege.org