Quiet Shame

Back in September, during Open House weekend, I went to visit the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich – a curious building with a curious history. But I’m not talking about that today, I’m more concerned with something I learned that morning which has been troubling me ever since.

Our group was shown round the barracks by the man in charge – always good to get the head honcho – and I took the opportunity to ask about the fate of the Rotunda.

For those of you who aren’t aware of this very, very odd building, tucked away behind a screen of trees and a fence of barbed wire (the photos here are the best I could do back in the summer – there’s just no way of really seeing it any more…), it’s a weird tent-like structure, which started out as exactly that – a tent.

John Nash built it in 1814, in the grounds around Carlton House Gardens. It was the centrepiece of six tents created to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon (so what if it was all a bit previous…)

Everyone liked the tent so much that Nash decided that it was too good just to take down again, so he hit upon the idea of surrounding the tent walls with brick, and covering the canvas roof with a rather splendid, sweeping lead version to protect the original. I guess the equivalent would be if someone put a giant metal dome over the top of the O2.

The whole thing was moved to Woolwich in 1820, to become the Museum of Artillery – which it was for about 180 years. It even got a revamp in 1975.

When the Woolwich Arsenal was turned into what it is now, it was decided to create Firepower, and all the stuff was moved from the Rotunda to the new museum. They’re still moving the last cannons, I understand. Here’s one:

What one makes of Firepower is an individual matter. But the question of what happens to the Rotunda next is one that I’d never fully got to the bottom of.

It’s completely closed, with high fences and the aforementioned trees, though it would have once had fantastic views – for miles around. I knew that the place had reverted to the MOD so I took the opportunity of asking our guide what would be happening.

Frankly, after he told me (he was completely, and typically militarily up-front about it) the rest of the weekend was a bit of a downer for me and I’ve been trying to get my head around it ever since.

When the final cannons go (and they may have gone by now, though I doubt it – they’re big buggers) the place will ‘have the lights turned off.’ That, to you and me, means it will just be left, to moulder away. No access, no views, just a quiet rotting into the earth.

It’s economics, of course, that dictate this. The guy told me it takes sixty-odd grand a year just to stop the place collapsing (it faces special architectural problems due to its ‘unusual’ construction) and he has other drains on his finances – not least huge amounts of military memorabilia that finds its way into his hands which he’s supposed to lovingly curate.

I expressed my distress at this news, trying hard to lower my voice from the strangulated squeak it had become. He said that he would be interested in talking to anyone that could make a financial go of leasing it – after all – it’s a liability – sixty grand a year before you do anything to it (and I’m not sure if they’re even going to spend that when they finally go…)

I would SO love to see something happen to this – but what – and with what kind of cash? The place is listed (of course) but there’s no real stick to beat the MOD with if they just let it moulder. It’s out of the way – I can’t even see what it could be used for – but hell – this is a John Nash building that is at the very least ‘exotic.’ Surely there’s something…

2 Comments to “Quiet Shame”

  1. Mike Dearing, Dave Burrluck, Ben Hillyard and Mark Walker says:

    Hi Phantom,

    Mike from the Los Dawsons here…

    the heritage of destruction of grade 2 listed ex miltary buildings in Greenwich is horrific, Im trying to find out about red barracks in Frances street which was left to collapse (the gatehouse is on EH at risk register) and it has been expunged from history – amazing…

  2. DAVID says:

    I visited the Rotunda when it used to be open to the public.
    It was crammed with exhibits from the RA's history as well as many artillery pieces displayed outside.
    However, what remains in my memory was a centre column ("tent pole")wonderfully inscribed with the names of fallen RA personnel.
    I believe that the Military Academy is open to the public on the 18th-19th September 2010, is there any chance of trying to have the Rotunda opened as part of the heritage day?