Discovering Greenwich

The Greenwich Foundation has embarked upon a £6m development project to enhance the visitor experience at the Old Royal Naval College. Jonathan Ives spoke to Duncan Wilson about managing the public realm, working with tenants and where one puts a brewery in a world heritage site

The Old Royal Naval College river frontage
The Old Royal Naval College river frontage


The Royal Courts: Wren's elegant solution
The Royal Courts: Wren's elegant solution


Duncan Wilson, chief executive of the Greenwich Foundation
Duncan Wilson, chief executive of
the Greenwich Foundation

At an early stage in the visit to the Old Royal Naval College, The Leisure Review felt compelled to make a confession: we had only found out about the Discover Greenwich project while reading about a new brewery. Duncan Wilson, chief executive of the Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College, laughed and assured us that the installation of a working brewery in one of the world’s most celebrated architectural sites is just one of the many interesting aspects of the scheme.

Discover Greenwich is the title of a £5.8m project to create a new interpretation and education centre at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Situated in the comparatively modern Pepys Building, the new visitor facility will create a permanent exhibition centre that will enable the public to explore the history of the buildings, the landscapes and the people that have combined to create the Maritime Greenwich world heritage site. The existing shop, café and tourist information centre will be redesigned and refurbished, while the dedicated learning suite will be fully equipped to run a wide range of programmes and activities for schools and visitor groups. A mixture of historic artefacts, contemporary and replica artwork, interactive features, film and oral exhibits will tell the story of a site that has had associations with royalty for over five centuries. With a large model of the world heritage site at its centre, Discover Greenwich will have eight themed areas, each exploring a particular aspect of the history of the Old Royal Naval College and of Greenwich.

As Duncan explained, it is a history worthy of exploration. “Discover Greenwich is a concept that emanated from a desire to provide contextual interpretation for our buildings so you were not just looking at them as great pieces of architecture but looking at them in their social and historical context: why are they there, how were they put together, who paid for them. It takes us back to the Tudor palace, which was the origin of the royal site, and then this critical moment of change when the Tudor palace became the Stuart palace. Charles II had started to refurbish it with the King’s House but Queen Mary decided she didn’t want a palace but a hospital for seamen to match the hospital for soldiers in Chelsea. She commissioned Wren to design it but she wanted to keep the Queen’s House as her residence with access to the river. It was a very difficult commission for Wren but he made this fantastic symmetrical sense of it by creating these four Royal Courts around the grand axis from the river through the Queen’s House.”

Work on the buildings that provide Greenwich with such a dramatic river frontage began in 1696 with a master plan laid out by Sir Christopher Wren. Nicholas Hawksmoor, soon to become another of Britain’s most celebrated architects, served as the clerk of works, providing drawings and detailed design under Wren’s direction. Wren met the Queen’s expectations by creating four main blocks around an axis that had the Queen’s House at one end and the riverside at the other. Although there was no centrepiece to the four blocks as might have been expected, the design proved an elegant solution and work proceeded. Fully aware of the uncertainty of funding for major construction projects, Wren took the precaution of preparing the foundations for all four blocks at the outset, trusting that the open scars of groundwork would provide sufficient motivation for the monarch to complete the project. After four rather spasmodic phases of construction, funding was only finally secured in 1735.

The site remained as a hospital for seamen until the 1870s but when the number of residents declined, with most pensioners preferring to live out and beyond the strictures of the naval regulations, it was reopened as the Royal Naval College. In 1983 it became the Joint Services Defence College and in 1998 the Royal Navy finally left Greenwich. On 6 July the defence secretary, George Robertson, handed over a 150-year lease to the Greenwich Foundation on behalf of Greenwich Hospital.

“We have this great architectural landscape – probably the finest group of English Baroque buildings in the country –  and it was felt right that it should be put in the care of a dedicated historic buildings trust which would build up expertise in managing historic buildings,” Duncan said. “The trust was also to be the landlord for the University of Greenwich, who took over about two thirds of the buildings, and the Trinity College of Music, who were the last major tenant to arrive. Having switched our focus from refurbishing the buildings for the arrival of the university and Trinity, we were then able to concentrate on refurbishing the grounds, which we did between 2002 and 2005, taking them back to a Victorian design by Philip Hardwick.”

Hardwick’s had been the first coherent attempt at landscaping the hospital site since Wren, whose focus had always been on the building rather than the surrounding area. Over the centuries various buildings had been erected haphazardly around the site to meet short-term requirements and the grounds were restored to Hardwick’s plan.

“We’re now turning our attention to the interpretation of the site and enhancing our education programme so that people can understand in greater depth what it is that’s here, why it’s important, and to encourage them to come and appreciate the place for what it is. We feel that encouraging that sense of ownership, in the local community but more widely as well, is what will guarantee the future of these buildings almost as much as keeping the roofs watertight, which is a big enough job in itself.”

The brewery is a feature of this plan to encourage ownership and engagement. “Within Discover Greenwich we are developing a microbrewery on the site of the old hospital brewery and there will be a restaurant, café and bar. The original brewery closed in the 1860s so some 140 years later we are able to reopen it. There’s only a little bit of it left but there’s enough room for a microbrewery. Brewing locally is, of course, a sustainable enterprise and we are pretty close to an agreement with a local brewing company called the Greenwich Meantime Brewing Company.”

Sustainability is, of course, one of the watchwords of our age and it is applicable to any undertaking that is encouraging people to travel to a site of historic significance. Large numbers of people and effective preservation make uncomfortable bedfellows but the economic realities of heritage management require that compromises are made.

“I think if sustainable tourism means anything it is about making sure that tourists generate the resources needed to sustain the place they are visiting so that other tourists can come,” Duncan said. “That’s really what we are focusing on and it’s up to us to really sell that concept.

“Visitor numbers are important but not necessarily in quite the way that you might imagine. We don’t charge for admission. We get a government subsidy – not as much as we would like; it’s been frozen at the same level for thirteen successive years now which puts us in frankly a difficult position – and we feel that while we do [receive a subsidy] we can justify opening to the public. More and more visitors is not something we are particularly keen on encouraging unless there is some added value for us and for them. That means selling them things in a shop or a café, or getting them to come to an event for which you charge admission – something which means that they will give something back too.”

The Old Royal Naval College calendar features an increasing number of events that serve both to bring people into Greenwich who might not otherwise have come and to generate some revenue for the Greenwich Trust. Concerts, festivals, ice skating in the winter and the big wheel in the summer are all part of this trend; in a little while the brewery will be added to this list. However, such innovation is not without its headaches.

“For one thing we’ll be opening parts of the estate until 11pm where normally we close,” Duncan said, “but actually we have so many events here now we are moving in that direction anyway. It is part of trying to add value to the whole visitor experience, recognising that we’ve decided to keep entry free but allowing us to develop other things that will generate revenue.”

With fund-raising now almost complete, the tender process will be ongoing over the summer and the schedule envisages opening the new Discover Greenwich facility in early 2010. While some historic venues may be able to lay claim to a state-of-the-art interpretation centre, very few will be able to toast its success with beer brewed on the premises.


For further details of the Discover Greenwich project and the Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College visit

The Leisure Review, August 2008



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“I think if sustainable tourism means anything it is about making sure that tourists generate the resources needed to sustain the place they are visiting so that other tourists can come”

The Painted Hall
The Painted Hall

Cover story: The Leisure Review, August 2008

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