The National Maritime Museum and Greenwich

By Txllxt TxllxT Wikimedia Commons

Working on a book based around a navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars, a visit to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich seemed like an ideal way to start this visit to London.  I can remember going to all the Greenwich museums growing up, but it has been a very long time.

The National Maritime Museum is the leading museum of its kind in the UK and probably one of the best in the world.  It is part of a complex known as the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site and includes the Royal Observatory and 17th-century Queen’s House In 2012 the complex was given the overall name of Royal Museums Greenwich along with the famous Cutty Sark which stands nearby.

Greenwich has always had associations with the sea and the navy has roots on the waterfront while Charles II founded the Royal Observatory in 1675 for “finding the longitude of places”. The home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian since 1884, Greenwich has long been a centre for astronomical study, while navigators across the world have set their clocks according to its time of day.  Something about this knowledge has always given me a slight sense of awe when visiting this part of Greenwich.

The National Maritime Museum has a huge collection on Britain’s seafaring history including art, maps and charts, manuscripts, models and plans, navigational instruments and personal items belonging to important historical figures such as Nelson and Captain James Cook.

Flamsteed House, the original part of the Royal Observatory, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and was the first purpose-built scientific institution in Britain.  In 1953, the Old Royal Observatory became part of the Museum.

The 17th-century Queen’s House, an early classical building designed by Inigo Jones, is the keystone of the historic “park and palace” landscape of maritime Greenwich.  The Queen’s House was refurbished in 2001 to become the heart of displays of art from the Museum’s collection.

In May 2007 a major capital project, “Time and Space”, opened up the entire Royal Observatory site for the benefit of visitors. The £16 million transformation features three new modern astronomy galleries, four new time galleries, facilities for collections conservation and research, a learning centre and the 120-seat Peter Harrison Planetarium designed to introduce the world beyond the night sky.

The National Maritime Museum has galleries exploring various aspects of Britain’s maritime history.  A gallery dedicated to Nelson and the Navy tells the story of Admiral Nelson, his battles, his life and his death at Trafalgar, and sets the battle in the context of the wars against the French in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  It describes the ships, the sailors and how they lived and the way the navy was perceived at home.

Figureheads, National Maritime MuseumThe gallery concerned with traders explores the relationship between Britain and the wider world, particularly the powerful East India Company which spread its influence until it controlled huge areas of territory in India.  I found this fascinating, partly because I studied this at University and partly because I spent time researching the Company in India when I was writing about Assaye in An Unconventional Officer.

Another gallery covered the difficult subject of the transatlantic slave trade, both up to abolition and beyond.  I thought this topic was well-handled, looking at both slavers and abolitionists as well as the slaves who fought back against their masters in places like Haiti.

Naval Heroes, National Maritime MuseumOther galleries explored the maritime history of London, the first world war and in Voyagers, the personal significance of Britain’s maritime story.  I particularly liked the exploration of Turner’s famous painting of Trafalgar which analysed the painting and it’s meaning in the context of national pride and naval power following the battle.

The museum is huge and there is so much to see and do that it is easy to miss things.  Work is in progress on a new gallery and there are various temporary exhibitions, a children’s play area and the fabulous Great Map.

If the museum has a fault, it is that the various galleries are sometimes hard to follow in the correct order.  Especially as it is sometimes possible to enter a gallery from either end it is easy to find yourself going around in the wrong order and there is no numbering of exhibits to help with this.  With a fairly good background in history it didn’t really bother me that much, but I can imagine it would irritate some people.

I loved the museum along with the Royal Observatory, which completed the story of some of the scientific aspects of navigation and the Cutty Sark, standing 400m outside.  I didn’t manage the Queen’s House this time around, although I’d like to go back to it.

The Cutty Sark is one of my clearest childhood memories.  It was a Sunday afternoon treat, even just going to see it.  Going aboard was even better.  The ship was one of the fastest tea clippers in the world and there was something romantic for me as a small girl, standing on the deck gazing up at the tall masts and trying to imagine billowing sails and a fresh breeze at sea.  I was devastated in 2007 when the ship was badly damaged by fire and have followed the progress of the restoration.

Greenwich Foot TunnelWe used to take the bus to the Isle of Dogs back in the sixties and seventies and then walk through the foot tunnel to Greenwich.  The foot tunnel is a piece of history in itself, a masterpiece of late Victorian engineering which opened in 1902 and was built to replace an expensive and unreliable ferry service which took workers living south of the river to work in the docks and shipyards.  The entrances at each end are beneath glazed domes and I can remember the joy of running through the tunnel calling out and hearing my voice echo, bouncing off the walls eerily.  We used to count the steps at each end.  There were lifts but for some reason we seldom used them.

The Cutty SarkA visit to Greenwich is both a research aide for the new book and a trip down memory lane.  The strong sense of standing with both feet in maritime history is just what I need as I embark on the second half of my book which places me aboard a Royal navy ship bound for Copenhagen in 1807 under Admiral Gambier.  But there is also a sense of standing with at least one foot in my own past, a child growing up in the East End with parents who took us to some historic site almost every weekend.  There is a strong link between that excited little girl standing on the deck of an old ship and trying to imagine how it felt to sail in her and the woman writing a novel of those who did.  I owe that as a debt to the parents who gave me that sense of history and why it matters to all of us.

The new book, An Unwilling Alliance, is due for publication in April 2018.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner - Tower Bridge, London
Tower Bridge, London

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner was played at my mother’s funeral a few years back.  It was very appropriate for her, because although for the last few years of her life she moved to the Isle of Man to be near us, she saw herself as very much a Londoner.  She was fiercely proud of it, would defend London as the best city in the world – in fact the best place in the world – against anybody.

A cat called Monty
Monty the Cat

I was in London myself recently for a few days, cat sitting for a friend of my sisters and getting some quiet time after the complete madness of the past few months.  It was as hot as Hades and I spent a few days with my sister catching up, being a tourist and getting sore feet after which she went home and I was alone and peaceful with Monty the cat.  My intention wasto catch up on a lot of admin jobs that I’ve left for too long and then to get a really good way into my new Regency novel.  It was a lovely flat with a balcony and the temptation to doze in the sun with Monty was huge, although I did try to resist.

It’s always odd being back in London.  I’m not so familiar with this part, but we took a bus out through the East End where I grew up, to Stratford and then went on to Canary Wharf and had lunch by the river.  In my childhood, Stratford was our local shopping centre and Canary Wharf was a place we simply didn’t go – it consisted of rotting and boarded up warehouses with a few dingy businesses still struggling on.  I’ve watched the evolution of docklands through my life and it’s been a fascinating process.

Despite being born and raised in the East End, I’m not really a city person.  I don’t mind small towns; Douglas is about right for me.  But I love the countryside and the coast, the feeling of fewer people and wider spaces and not feeling trapped.  I don’t think I’d ever choose to live full time in a city again, especially a city as overcrowded as London now is.

Nevertheless – and maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner – I actually do still love London.  It’s the place of my birth and my childhood.  I love the history and the parks and the odd little corners that many people never visit.  I was so lucky as a child to have parents who adored both history and walking.  Every Sunday, unless the rain was torrential, we were dragged out to the number 8 bus stop at the end of the road, to “go for a walk”.  This did not mean a twenty minute stroll through a park.  It meant a four or five hour marathon through parts of London I would never have known existed.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner: Wellington Statue
Wellington statue in London

We walked through the City and listened to my mother’s stories of the blitz and of her first jobs in old fashioned offices, learning the switchboard and typing on an old fashioned typewriter.  We wandered through the Inns of Court and the world of legal London, with my Dad stopping to read every plaque on every wall.  We discovered hidden gems like the Museum of the Order of St John and Postman’s Park.  On wet days we did every museum in London including ones I’ve forgotten even existed.  We went into obscure but beautiful churches which were always open to visitors back then, and if it was late enough in the day we would stay for evensong before getting the bus home.  When people ask me why I write historical novels rather than any other kind, I find it hard to answer apart from to say I always loved history.  But I know that this is why.  At times, wandering through the ancient streets, I would whinge about the fact that my friends from school were all off ice skating or swimming or just hanging out in the street.  But Mum was adamant that unless there was a genuine reason not to (like a broken leg – arms didn’t count, I once saw her scale the cliffs at Hastings with her arm in a sling) we would all go out together on Sundays.  Church, Sunday lunch, walk or other outing and then home for tea and whichever series was on TV on Sundays.  Saturdays were ours; on Sundays we belonged to her.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner: Tower of London
Tower of London

As I grew older the rule relaxed, but by then she didn’t have to nag me, I was hooked.  At secondary school by then, I visited exhibitions relevant to whatever I was studying, sometimes with the school but sometimes on my own.  I would think nothing – and still don’t – about taking myself off to the British Museum on a free day.  A boat trip down to Hampton Court or Greenwich was a joy.  I loved the Cutty Sark and the Tower of London – just wandering around outside them was enough.  And I adored – and will always adore – the River Thames, where my parents did a lot of their courting.

All of this came from a family with very little.  We lived, for the first thirteen years of my life, in an old rented house with no bathroom or indoor toilet.  We washed in the kitchen sink and bathed in an old fashioned tin bath by the oil stove in the kitchen because there was no central heating.  We ate healthily but with few luxuries on a daily basis although it made a meal out for a birthday or the extra treats at Christmas incredibly special.

When we moved to a council maisonette when I was thirteen, it was luxury.  I can remember squabbling over who would be the first to use the new bath until we realised my mother was already in it.  Curiously, we missed our old fashioned house; the new place had no garden.  My parents were good managers and saved for their old age but we didn’t have that much stuff.

What we did have was experiences.  We had one week’s holiday every year, always in the UK but always somewhere special.  When we were small we went to holiday camps a lot as they were cheap and there was entertainment but as we got older we rented cottages and we explored Devon and Cornwall, the Lakes and Yorkshire, the Isle of Wight and parts of Scotland.  We did it all by coach and bus and train; they had no car.

We went to the cinema to see every good new film going.  We went to the London Palladium to see the Pantomime every Christmas.  If there was a school trip to anywhere, they would find the money for us to go.  My love of music came from endless school trips to concerts, the opera, and to hear Gilbert and Sullivan.  My love of good plays and literature came from school trips to the Young Vic and Stratford upon Avon.  They had never been abroad, but I went to Russia at sixteen with the school because my Dad did overtime to pay for it.

George and Iris Bryant
My parents, George and Iris Bryant

I’m aware as an adult of everything they did for us and everything they sacrificed so that we could absorb as many different experiences as they could afford to give us.  It’s not that surprising that we both did so well.  But I don’t think they thought it was that much of a sacrifice, I think they loved doing all these things with us, enjoyed introducing us to the city they both loved.

They were poor when we were young, got more comfortable as we grew up and travelled a bit more, spent more on themselves although they still never had a car or bought a house.  They ate out a lot, discovered different cuisines and enjoyed it.  They both still walked until arthritis and old age prevented them.  But they never resented poverty or saw themselves as victims.  They were never angry.  They simply worked out what was important to them and what they could easily do without and if they needed more they worked a bit harder to get it.

They weren’t political although they never failed to vote, but they both voted on issues rather than blind loyalty to a party so at different times they voted for all three main parties.  My mother voted for Margaret Thatcher simply on the grounds that it was time there was a woman in charge.  She was a feminist without ever knowing what the word meant, or caring.  My father voted Labour that year.  Neither of them cared what anybody else voted.  Their friends and family could be Labour or Tory or Liberal or nothing at all.  It was considered rude to get personal about such matters as religion or politics.  They were old enough to appreciate the welfare state, the NHS and any help they were given.  They were gracious about it, didn’t see it as a right, said thank you when help was given.  During the IRA bombings they continued to take us to all the same places, do all the same things.  We missed the Ideal Home Exhibition bomb by a few minutes only, but there was no sense of anxiety.  We were in London and that city belonged to us, not the bombers.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner.  But when I’m back here, no matter how much it has changed, no matter how much I know that I’d never come back to live here now, I still feel a very primitive sense of belonging.  This is my city, my home, my childhood.  I feel an enormous sense of familiarity and of love and gratitude both to the people who raised me and the city that shaped all of us.  I’ve lived in many places now and loved a fair few of them.  But when I come back to London, I know I’ve come home.