The announcement of the Greenwich Park Revealed project's successful funding bid underlines the value now being placed on green infrastructure, to support the fight against climate change and loss of biodiversity, and to improve accessibility and opportunities so that we can all make the most of one of London's greatest green spaces.
15 December 2019 turned out to be an important day in the 585-year history of London's most historic royal park, Greenwich Park - the date when the Heritage Fund rang to say that the four years we had spent preparing the Greenwich Park Revealed project had borne fruit and we had been awarded £4.5 million. We were therefore well on our way to raising the £10.5m required for the project, which would not only be the largest capital project ever undertaken by The Royal Parks but would also represent the greatest investment in the park since the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II in 1660.
The Heritage Fund is responsible for distributing funds raised by the National Lottery for good causes. They take their role very seriously, and to be awarded funding an applicant must go through a rigorous process to demonstrate what their project would do for heritage, people and communities, and to explain why funds are needed now. The process is a good discipline, since it makes you carefully examine your proposals.
As a starting point, we had to describe our site; Greenwich Park is a Grade 1 listed park and part of the Greenwich Maritime World Heritage Site. It is home to the Royal Observatory, the Greenwich Mean Time meridian line, the finest city views in London and quite simply one of the world's great city parks.
Its history starts with the Romans who built a temple on the high ground overlooking the Thames, close to the Roman Road from Rochester to London - Watling Street - where it crosses Blackheath. When the Romans left in the fifth century, the Anglo-Saxons arrived. They established the settlement of Greenwich, whose manor belonged to Alfred the Great, and on the high ground, close to the old Roman Temple, they buried their dead. The resulting Anglo-Saxon barrow cemetery is extremely rare, one of only three in the country to survive.
In the 15th century, the manor came into the ownership of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, brother of Henry V. Humphrey became Regent to his nephew, Henry VI, whom he petitioned in 1433 to enclose 200 acres of Blackheath Common as a deer park for his manor house by the river. This created Greenwich Park, on the boundaries which still survive today. On the hill above he built a defendable tower, Greenwich Castle. The manor was enlarged and became a favourite residence for Tudor Kings: Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I were all born here and enjoyed recreation in the park.
James I, the first Stuart king, replaced the park pale with a 12ft-high brick wall; most of the existing walls today date from the 18th and 19th century, but some of the 17th century walls still exist along Crooms Hill, beside the Ranger's House. James also agreed to build his Queen, Anne of Denmark, a new house, apparently as an apology for swearing at her when she accidentally shot one of his hunting dogs: Inigo Jones built her the first fully classical building in England since the Romans left. The Queen's House has been described as the most important house in England, and is pivotal in the development of the formal landscape of Greenwich Park.
It was Charles II, following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, who created the park landscape which we know today. Charles lived in exile in France with Louis XIV at Versailles, so it is not surprising that he commissioned French designers when he set about renovating his palaces and parks. André Mollet was working on St James's Park, and it is possible he had a hand in the formal layout of the avenues which Sir William Boreman started planting in 1660. In 1662 Charles commissioned the celebrated André Le Nôtre, designer of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte, to work on Greenwich Park. There remains one drawing by Le Nôtre, showing his design for a parterre, which was designed to be viewed from the Queen's House. Plans for fountains and flowerbeds were never realised in full, although the framing banks and a grand ascent of giant turf steps were built before Charles abandoned the restoration. Nevertheless, Greenwich Park remains the finest example of a baroque landscape in the French style in the English landscape.
The commission of Sir Christopher Wren to design the Royal Observatory, built on the foundations of Duke Humphrey's Castle, completed the baroque ensemble of Greenwich Park.
Today some five million visitors come to Greenwich Park each year. Whilst many are international visitors, some 80% are Londoners. The population of the park's surrounding boroughs is set to grow by 25% over the next 20 years, and this is one of the main reasons why the Royal Parks and the Heritage Fund are investing in the Greenwich Park Revealed project (GPR): huge numbers of visitors are eroding the historic landscape, visitor facilities are struggling to cope, and new tree pests and diseases are threatening the historic avenues of trees. Greenwich Park Revealed aims to address these issues in the following ways.
The famous avenues of trees originally comprised Sweet Chestnut, Elm and Scots Pine. A dozen veteran Sweet Chestnut survive from 1660, but we are losing them to ink spot disease and in the last three years they have become infested with oriental gall wasp. In the 1970s the Elm all succumbed to Dutch Elm disease, and while re-plantings of Lime have done well, on the parterre banks Beech and Turkey Oak have performed very badly. On the eastern bank hardly any remain, and the western bank is severely damaged by squirrels. 230 Horse Chestnut dating from 1950 are severely infected with bleeding canker and are unlikely to survive another 15-20 years intact as a feature.
The GPR project has a comprehensive restoration strategy for the park's trees, based partly on a diversification of the avenues' species composition going forward.
Landscape design proposals across the park aim to restore historic features such as the parterre banks and the Grand Ascent. The General Wolfe statue viewing area, which receives in excess of 1.5 million visitors to marvel at the magnificent cityscape, will be landscaped to a design and quality that befits a World Heritage Site. The viewing space in front of Wolfe's statue is very congested, whilst the space behind the statue is unused; straining to get a view, visitors spill onto the turf where they are causing serious erosion. Our design solution is to create more space in front of the statue, control access to the turf slope and populate an enlarged space behind the statue with outdoor piazza-style café seating. Other design proposals will improve the setting of the Pavilion Café, restore the Edwardian splendour of the Flower Garden and improve the water quality of the lake.
A major element of the project is the building of a new sustainable learning centre, which will provide education, volunteering opportunities and community facilities. This will be built in an underused contractors' yard, creating at the same time a new public courtyard. The conversion of a residential lodge into a café and new toilet facilities will create a new visitor hub for residents, and is a cornerstone of the project. Pedestrian access to the park will be improved at the Blackheath Gate entrance and a new volunteer-run scheme will help visitors with mobility issues to enjoy the park.
The project is committed to enhancing the park's biodiversity. Like many urban parks, Greenwich has suffered over the years from overmanagement and 'improvement' of its lawns. GPR will bring 30% of the grasslands back into a meadow cut and allow areas of scrub to develop, for the benefit of grassland butterflies and warblers such as Whitethroat and Chiffchaff.
Parks are of course all about the people that use them. GPR has looked carefully at its assets and explored how these can be used to give more back to visitors; a new team of volunteer rangers will provide visitor services to park users, and training opportunities are being provided for young people in horticulture, event management and tourism in association with Bankside Open Spaces Trust, the University of Greenwich, and Southwark and Lewisham College. We will run a programme of activities, guided walks and health walks.
The project will also employ a community archaeologist, who will run archaeological digs and work with our local history volunteers. A comprehensive interpretation plan will tell the park's story.
The GPR project would not have reached this point without the support of many at the Royal Parks, Historic England and the Heritage Fund, as well as our volunteers and our key consultants to date: John Sheaff Associates, Architype, David Morely Associates and QS Huntley Cartwright.
The last four years at Greenwich Park have been very rewarding and the next four look to be pivotal in the history of this great park.
For further information, please see https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/greenwich-park-revealed
All photos © The Royal Parks