Historic Regeneration Schemes

With all this talk about various regeneration schemes I’ve been wondering what had gone on before in Greenwich – it’s clearly not the result of gentle and gradual change.

It seems to me that poor old Greenwich been petted and poked since the beginning. Anywhere that is in between two shipbuilding towns (Deptford and Woolwich) and has housed sundry Royal and noble palaces is going to be variously ‘improved’ – with nearly always the same classic intention – to kick out the hoi-poloy and gentrify the area. The same bit of land seems to have been reused again and again. The Old Royal Naval College stands on the ruins of at least two royal palaces; the Royal Observatory on the site of Duke Humphrey’s Tower.

But the biggest regeneration scheme that happened before the 1990s was the grand “Improvement Scheme” of the early 19th Century. This was the point when the population was suddenly taking a big hike from sleepy village whose only real industry apart from fishing seems to have been servicing the hospital to acquiring a few pretensions. One or two ‘nice’ developments had already sprung up – Gloucester Circus for example – and the gentry living in the ‘nice’ houses wanted a town centre to match their aspirations.

This was the point when The Royal Naval College started to buy up all the little medieval streets around the centre of Greenwich – yes, the same trust who own it today and are behind the new proposals. What they really wanted was a Bath of South East London – to try to emulate the amazing Regency squares and circuses of spa towns – and London’s West End. John Nash was the big hero, but he was pricey and then, as now, the Hospital was keen to save cash. But hey! Suddenly it dawned on them. They already had an architect – their surveyor Joseph Kay. He was bound to be able to come up with something.

This must have been Kay’s big chance. He was being given permission to raze the existing structures and redesign from scratch – a bit like the site of the Old Greenwich District Hospitaltoday. His employers had a wish-list, of course. They wanted the traffic system improved, they wanted a nice new market place, and they wanted it to look cool (any of this sound familiar?)

And I’ve got to say – he did rise to the occasion. He didn’t do it all at once, so Greenwich was a bit of a building site for years (ahem – do I hear the cogs of history turning full-circle here…?)His big idea was to send the traffic around a new marketplace (it had originally been over nearer Greenwich Pier, I believe.) The first phase of building was between 1829 and 31 when he built Nelson Road and College Approach – two smart roads, one leading to the entrance to the naval Hospital, the other taking the main road out to Woolwich. These two are easily the prettiest of the four around the market place; one or two of the shops in Nelson Road still have little wrought-iron numbers above them which are very cute indeed.

Kay sandwiched the market between these two roads, with the classical entrance in College Approach. I’m always fascinated by Turnpin Lane, by the way, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is one of the old original medieval passages, which just never got regenerated, one of the reasons it’s so dark and narrow. All Kay did was give it a funky entrance to keep the outside line consistent.

He added the section on Greenwich Church Street, presumably so that Nicholas Hawksmoor’s splendid new version of St Alfeges (long campaigned-for) could be shown off in style.

The second stage, in 1843, seems to have been a bit of a filling-in job – King William Walk and odds and sods of extras in Greenwich Church Street – just to join up the dots. Most of the style is very classical – Doric columns and stuccoed facades, but there are some nice touches – I particularly like the rounded corner at the Spanish Galleon pub. There was even a Music Hall – possibly the oldest purpose-built of its kind in the country- ie. from the first phase, in 1832. The space still exists – over the market entrance arch, but it is the extremely dull INC bar these days and there’s nothing left of the original as far as I know.

Over the next few years, the rest of the little lanes were flattened and gardens created. Kay himself filled the years between the first and second phases of the grand Improvement Scheme with designing and building The Trafalgar Tavern in 1837.

And lets face it, there’s been dickering ever since. There was an enforced spurt of (very ugly) building after WWII, but I’d wager there’s been more ‘improvements,’ albeit on a piecemeal basis, in the past 30 years than in the whole time between 1843 and the 1970s, 90% of it awful.

We have a chance now. We have an opportunity to create something wonderful on a large scale not really seen since the days of Joseph Kay. We need to make the most of it – and force the people with the cash to see it through.

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