Alternative Domes (2)

The Reservoir, Greenwich Park

I keep forgetting that I acquired a whole bunch of aerial photos taken last year on the Zepplin rides. There are some amazing shots, I must use more of them…

I wasn’t really sure whether to make this an Underground Greenwich entry – or an Alternative Dome, but looking at it from above, it just has to be the latter, even though it’s as hidden and inpenetrable as any of Greenwich’s other underground stuff. But serene, secret and secluded as it may be now, building this almost-unknown dome brought on one of Greenwich Park’s first-ever environmental protests…

Greenwich Hospital had spent a lot of time and cash enlarging and improving the maze of underground conduits that weave their way through the Park, but they had their eye on making it even bigger – not least because as well as supplying Deptford Dockyard and the hospital itself, the surplus water could be flogged off to local residents.

That the spot they chose for an open reservoir in 1844 was home to a small colony of Anglo Saxon tumuli didn’t bother the admirals in charge one jot, and they had already turfed-up several ancient burial mounds before a newly-politicised public got wind of it.

The very early Victorian age was beginning to realise the importance of conservation – almost contemporary to the destruction of this most ancient part of the park was raging another dispute, over the arrival of the railways. The fury over the Anglo-Saxon graves was both organised and angry. Greenwich’s 19th-Century Swampy, one ‘Simon Sensitive,’ was appalled and made the campaign public, writing to the Pictorial Times.

The protesters got themselves a stay of execution – and they saved the burial mounds (albeit in a very damaged form.) But Simon Sensitive and his friends may have won the battle to save the burial mounds but they’d lost the war not to have a waterworks built in a Royal Park. It was constructed a year later, a few yards from the original site

According to the very-wonderful John Bold, it cost £3,069, and was designed by Sir William Thomas Denison, Superintendent at Portsmouth Dockyard, under the watchful eye of the Admiralty Works Department. And I guess it looked a lot worse then than it does now – probably a complete eyesore. The armed services are not known for aesthetics in design. The new tank held 1, 125,000 gallons of water, was partially dug-out, partially built-up and measured 160 feet across its base. “The crowning outrage is now being effected,” Simon Sensitive wrote. “I am ashamed, I am grieved, I am indescribably distressed…”

The frustrating thing is, that after all that fuss it only lasted 26 years. The hospital closed in 1871. Kent Waterworks covered the reservoir with a turf roof, and screened it with bushes. I don’t know whether it was drained at the same time or later, but it’s empty now.

I like to think that Simon Sensitive would be calmed by what the reservoir looks like now – almost impossible to see except from the air. But I do find myself thinking about that space from time to time. I can’t decide whether it needs to remain as it is, or whether this giant, low-ceilinged, brick-pillared empty space could be used imaginatively.

Probably a bit low for a performance space (the pillars are 8ft high) unless it was re-opened as an open-air theatre, but perhaps an art gallery? Aquarium? Museum? Funky restaurant? Or perhaps re-opened as a nature reserve?

What do you think? Has enough damage been done, and should we let sleeping dogs lie – or could this be a really interesting, useful space, out of sight of most park users these days and full of possiblities?


One Comment to “Alternative Domes (2)”

  1. [...] shelter (I’ve seen a photo that proves that unequivocally).” I think Dominic means the big round reservoir, which, thinking about its underground nature probably would have been ideal. Apparently the [...]