Greenwich Park’s Lost Steps (1) Giant

Recently, when I read about the departure of Derek Spurr from Royal Parks, to pursue a career with the Olympics (ahem) I saw that one of his ‘regrets’ was that he had never been able to what I took as ‘reinstate’ the Giant Steps up Observatory Hill.

The steps were one of the only bits that actually got built when Charles II started his grand reinterpretation of Greenwich Park into something he fancied as an English Versailles.

He was serious about it, too. For about as long as Charles II was serious about any building project. He got Versaille’s garden designer, Andre le Notre in to do the drawings (though most people think the Frenchman never made it across the channel since his designs don’t make any sense for a park with the amount of hills that Greenwich has…) and the middle, flat bit in front of the Queen’s House was earmarked for a grand parterre, complete with arcades, fountains and gazebos.

In reality, the most garden-action that bit’s seen since a bit of initial layout faffery at the beginning of Charles’s project were the allotments that sprang up (and which, of course, smothered any useable remains of what parterre there might have been) during WWII.

Likewise, a rather fabulous Classical temple-like grotto-affair by John Webb, a “Grott and Ascent,” which I guess would have stood roughly where General Woolfe does now, never saw the light of day, though John Bold has a good pic in his book of how it would have looked.

But the bit in between, the Giant Steps, most certainly did get built – and very odd they were too. What Charles had really wanted was a massive cascade of water down the hill, but as usual his fantasies were rather larger than his budget. So he compromised by having enormous steps carved into the hill, with a slope up the middle for walking. John Bold reckons that the ground was so uneven that even to get it horizontal enough to build steps would have been quite a task.

The steps would have originally been lined with elms. And while they were there, they were mighty popular. “Sir William and I walked into the Park, where the King hath planted trees and made steps in the hill up the castle, which is very magnificent, “ wrote Pepys.

The whole project was abandoned by the butterfly-minded king in 1669 – not even a decade of Versailles-a-like for poor old Greenwich. The steps weren’t filled in – they just naturally collapsed, though they’re still easy enough to spot if you look, especially when the sun is low in the sky or there’s snow on the ground. I took this picture early one frosty morning and you can just about see them.

There are several drawings around that show the steps, but since I don’t own copyright for any of them, I’ve decided to give you my own ‘artists impression,’ by expertly drawing them in over the picture above. Aw, gimme a break – it was my first time playing with a graphics pad…

So – the big question. Could the reinstatement of the Giant Steps be a viable ‘legacy’ from the Olympics? Would you like to see it? Should a feature that was only around for a few years, but which has made its mark on the park ever since be recreated?

Generally, I like the idea myself; my worry would be that it could never be exactly as it would have been – with a turf path, because of safety/access issues – and if the project were to be an approximation, it could be worse than leaving it as it is.

On the other hand, it could be a really fun thing to do with the park – historic and something of added interest for us now.

I think we should have a poll… Click here to vote as to whether or not you think we should demand our Giant Steps back…

One Comment to “Greenwich Park’s Lost Steps (1) Giant”

  1. [...] and there were hints of a new grotto in the air, to be constructed at the top of the Giant Steps, the king ran out of cash while the splendid, multi-storey, temple-esque folly was still a twinkle [...]