A View of Greenwich by Canaletto
This article has been written for Dulwich on View.
I’m walking under the Thames through the tunnel that is less than a quarter of a mile long and lies 53 feet below the high water mark. I have spent a long day guiding in Greenwich so I’m taking it easy and making most of the lifts here rather than walking 100 steps downstairs or 88 steps upstairs.
It has been the third time over the last three days that I’m making this journey in attempt to take a photo of Greenwich from the Isle of Dogs on a bright sunny day. The weather has not been very kind. It is 6pm and the sun is out. Finally, I’d like to take a photo of Old Royal Naval College and think for a while what inspired Italian artist Canaletto back in 1750s to paint Greenwich. Right now it happens to be a sort of tea time for all the gulls, all too eager to be fed by tourists and possibly locals and the scene I see is more like from The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock.
Across the river, Old Royal Naval College buildings and the Queen’s House look beautiful in the late afternoon light and Canaletto would recognise the view easily. The Thames however looks much calmer and to the right one can see the masts of Cutty Sark, the clipper that has been here since 1954. Further to the left the chimneys of the Power Station tower above the 17th century Trinity Hospital. At the far distance on top of the hill there is The Royal Observatory. Would Canaletto notice
the red ball on top of it? The first time ball was installed in 1833 and replaced by the present one in 1919. It used to appear in my nightmares when I was doing the course to become a Greenwich Guide. The red ball is hoisted halfway up the mast at 12 55, all the way up at 12 58 and dropped exactly at 1pm. If you are doing a tour that starts at 12 15, no matter what happens you should make sure all the visitors are at the right place at the right time to admire the spectacle! At the very beginning it may be a bit of a challenge especially if the grand square turns into a filming location as it was the case for quite a few weeks last spring during filming of Les Miserable.
Anyway, when you are on duty as a guide, you may expect the unexpected like a group of Chelsea Pensioners in their lovely scarlet uniforms on a day trip to see Cutty Sark and National Maritime Museum or a local walking two ferrets on the leads just in front of your group which makes everyone reach for their cameras in order to take a photo of such a unique event. You may be asked all sorts of questions like: ‘How much is the Queen worth?’, ‘What’s on tonight?’ or ‘What exactly did we gain by winning the Battle of la Hague’? Your youngest visitor may be just seven months old and doze off while you are telling them what Sir James Thornhill painted in The Painted Hall or start showing their discontent…
All these thoughts crowd in my mind as I admire the view and then it strikes me that the park must look magnificent in this light so I dash back through the tunnel and along the Five-Foot-Walk which is all wet as the tide is so high and walk into the oldest royal park that was enclosed back in 1433, the date I’m unlikely to forget thanks to my Greenwich tutor who never failed to mention it to us again and again.
I’m braving the weather and climbing up not the Royal Observatory hill on this occasion but One Tree Hill, allegedly a favourite place of Queen Elizabeth I and then I walk towards Queen Elizabeth’s Oak. Possibly planted in the 12th century, it ended up hollow and large enough to be a small room where, it is said, offenders against park rules were locked up. It stood
empty for centuries, supported only by the ivy until felled by the hurricane of 1987.
By now the sun is setting and I nervously check the time. Today the gates won’t shut until 8pm. I will never forget how I ended up locked up on a cold December evening when I was still doing my Greenwich guiding course and how embarrassed I felt when Park Police had to let me out.
Soon, a laser beam projected from The Meridian Building of The Royal Observatory will be visible from a far distance but all I’m dreaming of is home. It has been a long day in Greenwich and I still have this post to write.