An Architectural History of the Royal Hospital for Seamen and the Queen’s House

John Bold, 2000

Do you ever plough along happily, doing whatever you do, and then suddenly get such a jolt that you wonder what the hell you’re doing and why you even bother?

This happens with me most times I pick up an Iain Sinclair book. His icy, passionate prose (yes, the two do go together in this instance) his outrage and anger, his love and humanity just floor me every time. But I tell myself that that’s okay – he writes about north London on the whole, reserving his comments about Greenwich largely to digs at the Millennium Dome.

But now, in a totally different vein, I’ve found another book that staggers me in its detail and depth. It’s not written with Sinclair’s deliberately understated/flamboyant style; indeed it’s far more formal and even ‘official,’ but neither is it a stand-back toe-the-party-line look at Greenwich’s architectural history.

John Bold is cool and methodical, and has clearly had the kind of access to records and photographs that the rest of us can only dream of – but he shares it with us (at an admittedly squeakingly-expensive price) in page after page of readable prose, peppered with little details that, even if Bold doesn’t elaborate on them in these pages, make the reader’s imagination swing off on tangents – by my reckoning a good thing indeed.

He’s best when it comes to original plans and designs – for everything from the grotto originally designed to go at the top of the giant steps (where General Wolfe is now) to stage-by-stage drawings of how the Queen’s House and ORNC were built.

The photographs are incredible – loads of pics I’d never seen before. The one that stands out in my memory as I write this, is of the conduit head in the north east of the park (just above the kiddies’ playground) before it was unimaginatively bricked up. The picture, an antique postcard, shows the end of the tunnel opening out onto a pond in a most romantic fashion. Why they had to brick it up and lose the pond can only be down to Health & Safety nonsense – why they couldn’t have just put an iron grille over the entrance and kept the pond is beyond me.

Much of what I like about Bold’s book is what he doesn’t write – he gives us huge amounts of historical detail and explores ideas behind what has happened to the place over the centuries (his analysis of the 1980s incarnation of the Queen’s House is interesting indeed – something so recent, yet already historic and controversial. Sadly, he refrains from comment on the current incarnation…) but many of the little anecdotes and incidents that make Greenwich so immediate are tantalisingly mentioned, not enlarged upon. I like that. It leaves something to ponder upon at leisure…

If I have any criticism, it’s beyond the perameters of the book. There is virtually nothing about the earlier history of Greenwich – he says that other people have already covered it. I guess he has a point, but I would have valued his methodical approach to Bella Court or Placentia.

All in all, thank you to all of you who told me to forego the curries for a while and invest in this instead. I was getting fat anyway. It’s a pricey, pricey buy but – frankly – if you get this book, it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to read this blog ever again…

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