A new look at London’s past – the opening of Discover Greenwich

by Simon Coppock

I see a lot of openings in the course of my day job, but Discover Greenwich, the new attraction among the grand colonnades of Wren’s Old Royal Naval College, is one that really impressed me.

For one thing, it’s done a great job of tying the Greenwich World Heritage Site together – besides the Royal College, headline attractions here include the National Maritime Museum and Queen’s House, the Royal Observatory, Planetarium and Greenwich Meridian, and the Cutty Sark (currently closed for repairs).

For another, it’s fun.

At the slightly formal opening, the kids were soon getting stuck into exhibits, checking the weight of a lance and trying on the knight’s helmet, dressing up like a Greenwich Pensioner or building their own Royal Hospital. They can even lean through a window high up in a wall of pictures and pretend to be one of the historic portraits there.

Even better, the fun stuff is neatly married with proper, informative, grown-up exhibits.

The pretty Tudor corner is just one example. I loved the tiny model of Henry VIII’s Chapel Royal; it's hidden behind a little door, with the atmosphere of the time conjured by the smell of incense and the sound of 16th-century choral music, sung by students from the attached Trinity College of Music. But just behind you is a brilliant bit of yuck factor: a clay ‘witch bottle’, filled with iron nails, bronze pins, urine and nail clippings… if you’re so minded, you can make out the bottle’s contents in the X-ray photo alongside it.

Elsewhere, you can peek into a Greenwich Pensioner’s cabin, barely bigger than its short single bed, see Wren’s architectural models and find out about those of his plans that were rejected. Do you know what scagliola is? I hadn’t even heard of it, but I now know it’s a kind of fake marble – and how it was made and why it was used. Still probably couldn’t distinguish it from real marble, mind you.

Next door, there’s the superb Old Brewery (www.oldbrewerygreenwich.com), a café, restaurant and, yes, micro-brewery. Local brewer Meantime (www.meantimebrewing.com) is reviving old ale recipes that the Pensioners themselves might have drunk. Enjoy them under the shiny copper vats in the café area or, since London's got a bit of fine weather at last, head into the walled garden where those Pensioners used to smoke their long-stem clay pipes.

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