The Secret Bell

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I walk through the Old Royal Naval College, there’s always something I haven’t noticed before. Take this bell.

It’s in a rather odd place – perched on the side of King William Block, to the side of the Painted Hall, just in front of the Nelson Pediment, and although it’s almost invisible to start with, once you notice it, it looms large every time you walk past. But I can find out nothing about it. And I’ve certainly never heard it ring.

There’s something peculiar about it though. The design seems in keeping with the building with its little tower and golden orb at the top; it’s just the positioning that I find strange. It looks like an afterthought, plonked onto the side, above the entrance to the quadrangle, which makes me idly wonder whether it has something to do with Nelson’s lying-in of State in 1805/6. I can’t find any original plans for ORNC (I suspect they may be included in John Bold’s book but I don’t have it) so I don’t know whether they were in Wren’s design or not. Any ideas?

Whatever it is, it reminds me that up on those roofs of the ORNC, there’s an entire warren of little pathways with little doors that open out onto them, ladders that lead to even higher bits and passages tucked behind those balustrades. Obviously, they’re just for maintenance, but I remember sitting at the top of the wheel in the summer, and thinking what fun it must be to be able to poke about up there.

Hampton Court Palace has occasional guided roof walks, among those giant twisty chimneys. I’d certainly sign up for one at the ORNC. Hell – I’d even pay for it…


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