01 January 2008

London's maritime heritage

In the spare days between arriving back from France and going back to work on the 2nd I decided to take advantage of my temporary house-sitting location to see some of the local attractions. On Saturday I took the DLR up to West India Quay in the heart of the Docklands to see the Museum in Docklands, which had free entry in the Christmas-New Year period. It focuses on the history of the Thames and its port from Roman Londinium through Saxon Lundenwic, medieval trade and the inhabited London Bridge to the present day. The highlights for me were the ship models, like these two - the first, a medieval river barge known as a 'shout', and the second, a Tudor cargo ship called the Susan Constant, which left Blackwall in 1606 as one of the three ships carrying the colonists who founded the Virginia colony in North America.

There were also a selection of photos from a Docklands shoot with the Beatles in Wapping, July 1968. The pictures were taken the day before they recorded 'Hey Jude'. Nice to see George at the front for once.

Yesterday I took a walk along the Thames in Greenwich to enjoy the architectural spectacle of the Old Royal Naval College and the Queen's House (1635). The twin neo-classical wings of the College are split by a grand promenade to allow the river views from the Queen's House, and they provide a beautiful setting for a stroll:

Inside the College's spectacular Painted Hall diners were surrounded by the most remarkable paintings on both the roof and walls, which took 19 years to complete. In 1806 the body of Horatio, Lord Nelson, lay in state here amidst this artistic splendour before his funeral in St Paul's Cathedral. The paintings are a joyous reminder of Britain's unparalleled maritime heritage.

Across the promenade in the College Chapel a choir trilled prettily. Near the door I noticed this memorial to events in faraway New Zealand, which resonated greatly for the residents of the Naval College - the February 1863 shipwreck of HMS Orpheus on the Manukau Bar in Auckland. The loss of 189 lives had a profound effect on the young colony, and was a big story when news reached London some five weeks later. Many of those who died were buried in the Onehunga Church cemetery that I used to wander through as a child.

Walking past a temporary icerink bedecked with skaters, and crossing Romney Road, I approached the entrance of the Queen's House. Nowadays it displays the art collection of the National Maritime Museum, with many excellent naval works. Here some of the works of Cook's expedition artist William Hodges depict some of the earliest European encounters with New Zealand, including the famous painting of four Maori at Cascade Cove, Dusky Bay, in 1775.


p.s. I should mention that on an expedition to the massive Asda hypermarket at Crossharbour on Christmas Eve the in-store radio station announcer read an hourly news bulletin that included the 'and finally' story about the drunken Santas in Christchurch who disrupted a movie screening. Finally, lasting fame for our national achievements.
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