When The Mister was an exchange officer with the Royal Navy (long, long ago), he received an invitation to dine in one of the holiest of Naval places, The Painted Hall at Greenwich. For reasons neither of us can remember, he didn’t attend. I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that we had three small children under the age of 7, lived in Portsmouth and I wasn’t invited. Regardless of the reason(s), he didn’t attend and he’s still a little bit sad about it. I couldn’t arrange a naval dining-in at The Painted Hall, but I did arrange a Maritime-themed day out in Greenwich, home of the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory and the Cutty Sark.
The Painted Hall is the breathtaking crown jewel of Greenwich. The Hall, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, was meant to be a dining hall for Naval Veterans living at the Royal Hospital for Seaman. The Hall itself is lovely, but the wall paintings by James Thornhill make it truly spectacular. Mr. Thornhill was commissioned to decorate the walls with scenes depicting the glory and legacy of British maritime power. He was either very confident in his abilities or a poor businessman as he failed to negotiate a fee before starting his commission. It took Thornhill 19 years to complete the project for which he was paid £7000 and given (eventually) a knighthood. Interesting side note: legend suggests that his commission was partially funded by the confiscated loot of the pirate, Captain Kidd.
When The Painted Hall was complete, it was deemed too elaborate for use as a “mess hall” and became a tour-able attraction where Royal Hospital Pensioners would act as guides in exchange for a small fee.
In January of 1806, three months after the Battle of Trafalgar, the body of Horatio Nelson lay in state in The Painted Hall. Over 100,000 people paid their respects before Nelson’s body was placed on the King’s Barge and floated up the Thames for his funeral.
The Painted Hall became the National Gallery of Naval Art and remained as such until 1936 when the collection moved elsewhere. After an extensive restoration, the Hall opened again in 1939 as a dining venue for officers of the Royal Naval College. When the Royal Navy left in 1998, the Greenwich Foundation took over stewardship of the site.
Today, The Painted Hall is open to visitors almost every day of the year, free of charge. You can also book it for a special event or wedding venue (can you imagine?) if you prefer. The west wall paintings are currently undergoing restoration and visitors are allowed to climb the scaffolding and watch the master conservators at work. Rumor has it that once a year, The Painted Hall hosts a Trafalgar Night dinner. I plan on spending the next 263 days hunting down tickets so The Mister can, at last, dine amidst the glory of British Maritime history. Hopefully, I’ll be invited.
Things to know:
The Painted Hall and other venues are occasionally closed for private events. Check here before you go.
The scaffolding/conservation tours are limited. Check for times and availability here Children must be over 12 only to participate in conservation tours.
There is quite a bit to see within the Royal Naval complex. You can plan your day out by checking the main website before you go.
The Thames Clipper boat is a great, scenic way to see London and get to Greenwich. Oyster card holders receive a 1/3 discount! http://tinyurl.com/czcsrh
The Royal Naval College, National Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory and Cutty Sark are all within walking distance. Greenwich is a long day out, but well worth it. Get there early and plan on spending a full day.