Sometimes it’s easy to forget all about Britain’s naval past and visiting Greenwich brings it all to the forefront of our minds. We had been told that the Old Royal Naval College Painted Hall had been recently restored and on a day in early autumn, with blustering wind and torrential rain, we went along to explore it.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site with a long and celebrated 500-year history. The architecture of the Old Royal Naval College is simply stunning. Thames facing and designed by England’s greatest architects (including Sir Christopher Wren) the site used to previously house Greenwich Palace, the favoured Royal residence of Henry VIII.
But first we enter into the Visitor Centre to collect our tickets.The toddler is distracted by the soft foam building blocks and spends some time designing his own version of a Royal Palace (which he then knocks down). We learn about different ranks in the Navy and find out that the Old Royal Naval College used to be a Royal Hospital for retired seamen – similar to the Royal Hospital in Chelsea.
We try on a knight’s helmet (which is a bit wiffy and very heavy) but overall a pretty good look. We consider what it may have been like to have a go at jousting and we are surprised by how many Hollywood films have been filmed at the site. Turns out we’re not only walking where Kings have walked before us, but also Pirates (of the Caribbean variety; hello Johnny Depp!)
We are ready to move on to the Painted Hall. And this name is an understatement if ever I’ve seen one. My hall is a painted hall. This is a masterpiece and has been dubbed the Sistine Chapel of Britain. We are all left speechless, including the toddlers who are pointing at the ceiling and are in complete awe of the view above them. The Painted Hall was designed as a sailor’s dining hall and I am sure food would have tasted better in such majestic Baroque surroundings (but this we won’t ever get to test out as in present day food and drink are not permitted in the building!
The recent restoration at the Old Royal Naval College has made the place very family friendly. There are two treasure chests with 13 objects from the paintings for visitors to explore and interact with. My favourite was the gold zodiac piece and my toddler’s was the mask that he could hold up to his face and admire his changing reflection in the hand mirror. There is also a replica of Athena’s shield and King Louis XIV’s broken sword. Older kids could enjoy searching the items in the paintings whilst the parents take some time to use the audio-visual guide which gives you the history behind each part of the painted ceiling but the toddler only lasted about 5 minutes with this activity and we didn’t manage to locate any of the items.
But there is also an interactive rucksack filled with items that little people can explore; this kept him occupied for a long while. The items are all maritime themed and this curious young Londoner loved the telescope (in a gorgeous mahogany box), an hourglass and a wooden anchor the most. He listened to the sound of the sea in a shell and a staff member kindly showed him some of the other items too (a soft stress ball of the world and a sound making drum which replicates the sound of waves!) This meant the adults in the group could take some more time and listen to the guide to find out more about the Painted Hall.
When the toddlers got busy with climbing up and down the stairs and running down the Painted Hall we thought it was time to take them downstairs to the Victorian Skittle Alley that was used by the Greenwich Pensioners living at the Royal Hospital for Seamen. The most mind-blowing thing is that you can use the cannonballs to knock the skittles down and we spent ages playing in this manner. Kind staff members helped us and suggested we move a little closer as the toddlers were not quite understanding they weren’t allowed to kick the balls when they slowed down.
After some more running around the corridors we came to the end of our visit and enjoyed a coffee and a flapjack in the cafe with two very excited toddlers. The Old Royal Naval College was a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. They also have family friendly events like interactive storytelling, games and crafts throughout the school holidays.
We are looking forward to returning for another visit. Tickets are £12 for an adult and can be turned into an annual pass. Children under 16 are free. More info and booking here.