Over the years Greenwich has seen all kinds of nonsense flim-flammery – ornate bits and bobs, banqueting houses, mock-battlements, real battlements, curlicues and carvery, statues and monuments – even, at one point, an aviary, hidden round a corner from The Queen’s House so that birdsong would twinkle through the palace to the delight of all.
Of course it’s pretty much all of it lost now. There are the odd reminders here and there – even if sometimes we have to go elsewhere to find them (see ‘Beer and Gin’ in Weird Greenwich) but most of it’s just disappeared with time.
I suspect that Sir George Villiers, a favourite of James I, may have had something to do with the early removal of a particularly fab-sounding fountain somewhere around 1616.
Villiers may have been well-in with James, but his sixteen year-old son, the future Charles I (and a typical sulky teenager,) hated his guts.
Novelty fountains were all the rage in the early 17th Century. They worked like this. An innocent-looking statue (or sometimes a pretty ‘tree’) would have a secret button that would suddenly turn it into a fountain, so that the visitor who had been brought to admire the lovely figure or smell the beautiful blossom would get a soaking from the concealed water jets.
Giochi d’acqua were a craze in Italy (sometimes they’d have hidden triggers so that the guests themselves would set off the water) – and at the time anything Italian was chic (hell – has there ever been a time when anything Italian wasn’t chic?) There was one at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli that had a bunch of ‘birdies’ sitting in a ‘tree,’ that was sweeter – they ‘sang’ when the guests walked by – but most of them were just very wet indeed.
Trouble was, the climate of England wasn’t really suited to such frivolity and although everyone would laugh heartily at the time, there were several sour faces afterwards.
The hilarious fountain at Greenwich was, according to Clive Aslet, in the shape of the god Bacchus (back to drinking themes again, I see…) though he is silent as to which orifice erupted when the knob was twiddled (so to speak…)
Poor old George Villiers just happened to be standing in the wrong place and young Charles, who had clearly been waiting for such an opportunity, turned the secret handle.
“The water spouted in Sir George Villiers his face,” wrote one gleeful courtier to another. “Whereat he was very much offended.”
The king was equally unamused. He told the young prince in no uncertain terms that he had “a malicious and dogged disposicion” and went on to give His Highness “2 boxes in the eare.”
I can’t find out when the naughty fountain was disposed of or what happened to it (maybe it was sold and lurks in some stately home’s garden now – the photo above is the Duke of Devonshire’s version at Chatsworth – or perhaps it lies buried somewhere in Greenwich Park for the horses’ hooves to churn up in 2012 – who knows) but I rather think it could be time to reinstate our own modern version.
My suggestion would be to site it outside the Wetherspoons pub in Creek Road; a charming contemporary Bacchus depicted as a leering lout with a can of Fosters. The secret buttons would be placed a short distance away in each direction, so that anyone who wishes to pass by, but is scared of fists or bottles that might be flying around late on a Saturday night, can press said button, soak the designer knock-off t-shirts sending them inside to dry off, thus rendering the walkway not only clear of any would-be assailants, but also handily washing the pavement clean of slops, blood, fag ends etc.