Sunday 5 November 2023

Inside the chapel dome: Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich


Exterior view of ORNC Chapel, a tall neoclassical building topped by a dome.

The elegant buildings of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich are a familiar landmark beside the Thames, and the stunning interiors of the Painted Hall and chapel are a popular tourist desination. However, the dome above the chapel has been firmly closed to visitors ... until now. 

Section of the main spiral staircase (not the narrow one).
 The tour involves climbing 125 steps - some narrow and steep spirals, one even steeper flight of stairs.However, there are plenty of pauses and points of interest along the way. 

A stone column capital seen through a small-paned window.

 After all, the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul has had a fairly eventful history. Originally designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1779. The flames destroyed the upper part of the building, so the dome is part of the eighteenth-century rebuilding by James 'Athenian' Stuart, pioneering neoclassical architect.

View of the matching Painted Hall dome in evening light

The building requires plenty of maintenance, and sometimes more extensive restoration, so these areas have seen plenty of workers over the years. And quite a number of them have left graffiti on its walls and woodwork. Some glaziers have been even more creative, etching their names and dates into windowpanes.

Graffiti on wood saying 'Harvey 1895' and JK Paris, Plumber, 1971

Graffiti on wood including 'HR, JH, Painters 1824' in flowing script.

Graffiti etched on a window pane including names of glaziers and the years 1794, 1860, 1885.

The rooms above the chapel hold many discarded items. One has a row of organ pipes, which have buckled or broken over the years. 

A row of damaged organ pipes on a wooden floor, in front of an arched window with many small panes.

Another holds woodwork including parts of the former pulpit. 

Discarded woodwork including some pulpit steps, in a room lined with tall windows.

In the back of the room, a chair sits with a coat over it, both worn and aged. They are left from when fire watchers sat here during World War II, using its circle of high windows to observe the surrounding area.  

A battered chair, its cane seat unravelling, draped with a worn, pale brown coat.

Up even higher, we enter the 'drum'. The ceiling of this round room is lower, and an inconveniently low, long beam bisects the room. On closer examination, it is not a solid beam but trunking, linking the clockwork to the clock face on this side of the dome. 

A low room with extensive woodwork on the ceiling and a 'beam' running across at shoulder height.

Clockwork including large golden cogs and green metalwork.

A final, steep flight of steps takes us into the dome itself. This is as high as we go - although a pair of ladders lead to a hatch which opens onto the weathervane. 

Section of the dome interior, with much woodword, and circular windows low on the walls.

View looking up to top of dome, including many vertical beams and a ladder.

The views are fantastic - and best of all, we have arrived in time for sunset.

Painted Hall dome outlined against an orange sunset.

View across Old Royal Naval College to the Thames.

View of the Quee's House and Royal Observatory.

After the tour, there is time for a look inside the chapel itself (open to visitors daily). Its original design was relatively plain, but it was rebuilt more decoratively after the 1779 fire. It deserves a visit in its own right - but I'd definitely recommend booking a tour to the secret spaces above it as well. 

Richly decorated chapel interior.