The Royal Road To Greenwich

Since we’re about to become a Royal Borough, I thought it might be a good time to chivvy up calls for the old Royal Road to Greenwich to be upgraded. Of course, as far as I know it was only actually ridden along by royalty once, but there’s a good excuse for that – it’s the river Thames.

No one much fancied the trudge on land between Whitehall, the City of London, the Tower and the palace at Greenwich – The Thames was fast, easy and exciting, the road muddy, dangerous and slow. They left that route to the proles with their carts and waggons. In other words, the situation was much the same as it is today.

I’d wager the river’s still faster. It would be an interesting test to see if someone in a car could beat a Thames Clipper to London Bridge (I think the Top Gear team may have done something similar once – probably Clarkson on a state of the art speedboat, May in some vintage motor and Hammond on a unicycle.) I’m guessing that at the moment with all the sodding roadworks, the Clipper would win hands down.

The river is constantly in the history books. When Henry VII commanded his wife Elizabeth to be crowned, she arrived by a royal barge “freshly furnished with banners and streamers of silk.”

Henry VIII kicked up quite a hornets’ nest when he paraded his new wife Anne along the river. Tongues wagged at the inappropriateness of Henry’s insisting she be brought “by all the crafts of London” (I’m not sure whether that means all the seaworthy vessels of London, or the barges owned by the various ‘crafts’ or livery companies.) More was definitely more with Henry and he ordered her to be accompanied by “trumpets, shawms and divers instruments all the way playing and making great melody.” I suspect there was a lot of gold involved. If memory serves she made a slightly less ostentatious trip three years later, ready to have her head cut off.

Henry always had his barge waiting outside his palace – much as we might keep a car outside our houses. The equivalent of taxi drivers frequently crop up in the palace accounts – often for trivial stuff – to collect some books from town or a forgotten hat. But it wasn’t just the toffs that used the royal road – servants, goods and provisions plied their way up the river (it’s no coincidence that all the major palaces are on the river – Greenwich, the Tower of London, Westminster, Hampton Court…)

The greatest non-monarch to be taken along the river was of course, Admiral Nelson, though he was in no fit state to enjoy it himself. His funeral procession from Greenwich to St Paul’s Cathedral was re-enacted on the bicentenary of his death back in 2005.

I was part of the crowd for that one, standing, freezing outside, watching poor, sweating rowers in 19th century costume freeze too, while dignitaries took their time indoors. It was a lovely event, marred by the inconsideration of the bigwigs (a party of schoolchildren in front of me froze too – then missed the main event entirely as their teacher gave up and took them home just half an hour before it all actually happened), but I can’t help feeling that exactly the same thoughtlessness would have happened 200 years ago too, so maybe they were being ‘authentic.’

The river now is quieter than it’s ever been – but that doesn’t mean it’s empty. There’s always something going along there – but given the congestion on the rest of the roads, it could be better used.

Of course the inconvenient bend around the Isle of Dogs slows it down, but it’s still a fast and comfy way into town – you always get a seat, even in rush hour – and a view – unless the river mist/spray is particularly skanky that day.

One of the few things that Greenwich Council have done in the past few years that I have wholeheartedly supported was their Clipper Campaign, which lobbied for more frequent services, a guarantee to continue the boat onto Woolwich and Oyster Cards to be usable on the river buses.

I notice that since Oyster cards HAVE been allowed on the Clippers, and subsidy is in place for Woolwich until the year after the Olympics (curious, that one, eh…) the council is so busy boasting about how successful they’ve been, they’ve quietly forgotten the third part of the campaign, the 10-minute service. Still, I guess two out of three isn’t bad. Maybe we’ll get it for two weeks in 2012.

Oh, I forgot to mention the one time a monarch actually rode up the Thames. In 1536 (the same year that had earlier seen Anne Boleyn hauled up the river to the Tower) the river froze so hard that Hall’s Chronicle tells us “the king’s majesty, with his beautiful spouse, Queen Jane, rode throughout the City of London to Greenwich.”

Puts our recently little cold snaps into some kind of perspective, eh…

9 Comments to “The Royal Road To Greenwich”

  1. Dr Plokta says:

    Saying "More was definitely more with Henry" confused me for a minute, since More was actually very unpopular with Henry, to the extent that he got his head chopped off for refusing to attend Anne Boleyn's coronation.

  2. Robert No 16 says:

    Dear Phantom
    During the 2005 bicentenary of Nelson`s Death.The leading light of all things related to Nelson stayed at Number 16 many times that year.Colin( I forget his surname)Was very interesting to talk to.It was he who staged the re-enactment of Nelson`s funeral.I like you dear Phantom also was there ( did`nt see you there however) I stood right by the gates that lead to the water where the baby size coffin was placed onto the barge.As the coffin came into sight a very old woman in her best saf eastern London accent said loudly " Cor I knew he woz small but not vat bleedin small"I asked Colin "why the small coffin" He said " he had great fights to have the correct size coffin but had lost that battle"There were documents in the tiny coffin.

  3. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    ker-ching! I missed that obvious pun…

  4. Robert No 16 says:

    Dont`t Have Any More Missus Moore.Sung by Lily Morris
    (The late great Music Hall Artist)I think I have film footage of her.Sorry about going off into the lond grass!!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Why do you assume the race would be between a car and the catamaran? To get the boat you have to pass the DLR station and then you have to stand in the open waiting for a boat. Alternatively, a five-minute walk away is Greenwich station which is a 12 minute ride to Cannon Street. The boat is pleasanter but if time is important the train wins every time. BTW does anybody know why those boats speed up and slow down so much. It must add the fuel consumption.

  6. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    You have a point. And there's the DLR too, but it feels very slow. When for some reason the train from Maze Hill suddenly decided it was going to stay right there and we all had to get off, I walked to the DLR. It got me to Bank eventually, but it's a long way round.

    I guess I was thinking road as opposed to river, but yeah – the train's the one I take most.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Robert No 16, you will be recalling the truly wonderful Colin White, who sadly died just over a year ago on 25 December 2008.I knew him when I worked at the National Maritime Museum. The world is a poorer place without him.

  8. Jack says:

    Anonymous said…

    "BTW does anybody know why those boats speed up and slow down so much. It must add the fuel consumption."

    Because there is a no wash zone on the river west of the police pier just to the east of St Katherine's Dock.

  9. Robert No 16 says:

    Dear Anonymous

    Thank you very much for letting me know about Colin White`s death.He was a gentleman with a good naughty sense of humour.
    Heres to Colin.
    He loved Marmite on toast !!