Painted Hall conservation tours


Last week the Londonphile had a superb day out getting up close and personal to the Old Royal Naval College’s Painted Hall. Right now this Baroque gem is getting a bit of a clean-up, with conservators tackling 50-plus years of accumulated grime. They’re working on the west wall first, with a deadline of the end of April. So while normal visitors to the Painted Hall will find that area covered over (with a very realistic-looking copy of the painting), those booked onto the conservation tours the ORNC is currently running can go behind the scenes, meet the conservators and get a truly bird’s eye view of James Thornhill’s masterpiece.


The Painted Hall was designed by Wren and Hawksmoor in 1698 and was originally intended to be a dining room for the naval veterans who lived here at the Royal Hospital for Seamen. Thornhill took a staggering 19 years to complete the elaborate painting of its interior. It was soon decided that the hall was much too grand for its original purpose and it quickly turned into one of London’s first paying tourist attractions. Today you can visit the hall for free – and I personally believe that it is one of London’s most under-appreciated gems.


Stepping behind the cover hiding the west wall on a Meet the Conservators tour, you first encounter the very large – and high – scaffolding which the conservators are using to restore this massive work. Work began on December 3rd – this is actually the tenth restoration of the hall, the first being just five years after it originally opened. The most recent restoration was undertaken in 1957 and saw 15 layers of varnish removed. The work was conducted to such a high quality that the thinly-applied varnish layer from that time will now be retained, while a thorough cleaning is undertaken, primarily using cotton wool swabs and water.


It’s quite a thing to ascend the scaffolding and see the west wall up close. We first climbed six metres to the first visitor viewing platform, where we had a talk from a conservator and watched another at work at close hand. We then moved to the second platform, at ten metres high, which was almost within touching distance of the Painted Hall’s ceiling (see below). These tours provide such a unique opportunity – it’s hard to imagine when visitors will have another chance to see the hall from such a viewpoint. And they’re free!


This is the first phase of the restoration only, with the hall’s main ceiling the next major area in line for a clean-up. So far the process has discovered all manner of dirt attached to the walls, including various pollutants, grease, dust, debris – and even some gravy. Ultimately, a new lighting scheme will also be installed in the hall, enabling a clearer view of Thornhill’s work. In the meantime, the ORNC is offering three types of conservation on selected dates until mid-April – Meet the Conservators (Fridays), Open Scaffolding Sessions (Tuesdays and Thursdays), and Conservation in Action (Saturdays and Sundays). All are free but require pre-booking on 020 8269 4799 or via 


Old Royal Naval College

Painted Hall




St Bride’s Church


St Bride’s Church – arguably best known for its wedding cake spire – is a place brimming with history – and even a rather gruesome surprise or two. There have been eight places of worship (the earliest dating from Roman times) in total on St Bride’s Fleet Street site – a location that has also made it the journalists’ church of choice; today it features an altar to fallen reporters. But 1,000 years of its history was hidden away underground until the Blitz unearthed St Bride’s secrets.


St Bride’s was amongst a number of City churches that were destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren only to be destroyed again during the Second World War. But these bombs did indeed have a silver lining of sorts, as they exposed the crypts that had long lain beneath the church. Sealed up after parliament decreed there were to be no more burials in the City, this underground area was revealed to contain seven crypts, a medieval chapel, two charnel houses, and loads of bodies – many dating from the Great Plague of 1665 and the 1854 cholera epidemic.


You can visit St Bride’s and most of its crypts any day of the week, but to get the full picture of its history – and full access to its underground areas – take one of their regular guided tours. These 1.5 hour tours are the only way to access St Bride’s rather ghoulish – and absolutely fascinating – charnel house and ossuary. A narrow passage past a rather prosaic kitchen and storage area leads you to these unusual last resting places.


The medieval charnel house (pictured above) features literally piles of bones buried on top of one another in an unusual chequerboard pattern – and I’m told it goes much deeper than what is currently visible. The ossuary is decidedly more organised and contains the remains of 227 individuals all neatly packed away in numbered cardboard boxes. The bones were identified by their coffin plates – some of which can also be seen in the ossuary. Names and other data, such as cause of death, have been systematically recorded, along with drawings of each bone.

I managed to catch the last tour for 2012, but they start up again on Tuesday 8th January, and then run each fortnight at 3pm, £6 each. You can book in advance on 020 7427 0133 or or just turn up on the day.


London Coffeehouse Tour

Unreal City Audio’s Coffeehouse Tour covers two of the Londonphile’s favourite things: London and coffee. Historian and tour leader Dr Matthew Green conducts these tours around the old City, explaining how a gritty and bitter Turkish drink transformed the capital. Ably assisted by a small troupe of actors and musicians, he brings the City’s old coffeehouses to life – no mean feat considering that they no longer exist.

Appropriately enough the tour commences outside St Michael’s Cornhill – in 1652 Greek entrepreneur and coffee-lover Pasqua Rosee started the city’s first coffee stall here in the churchyard. People queued up all the way down St Michael’s Alley to get their caffeine fix from dishes of coffee sold from a wooden shack, while the church pews sat empty. Over 600 dishes a day were sold.

The old and the new.

One of the most fascinating – and fundamental – aspects of the original London coffeehouses was that they were not a solitary experience, as is so often the case today. Instead, they were an opportunity for people (read: men) to talk to strangers, strike deals, and generally impart news, information and mis-information. The early coffeehouses were so strong a feature of London life that they survived not only the Great Fire (which destroyed all 82 coffeehouses in the City) but the wrath of King Charles II, who attempted  – and failed – to shut them down with a 1675 proclamation.

The tour takes you to the sites of some of the earliest coffeehouses – most of which came to be associated with a particular business, such as insurance, auctioneering and stockbroking and were essentially to become the birthplaces of these industries. So as Matthew points out, it’s no coincidence that this same area has since housed Lloyd’s of London, The Royal Exchange and the London Stock Exchange. Along the way you also get to explore some of the City’s quaint, hidden back streets and churchyards. And as for whether or not you will need your coffee fix before the tour: you may still want to partake beforehand as although you will get opportunities to taste it, the old style coffee is quite different and won’t be to everyone’s liking – even though it’s served in a diluted form!

Check Unreal City Audio’s website for future dates – and be warned that they often sell out quickly. There is an email list you can join for advance notice of tours. They will also be running a Chocolate and Coffeehouse Tour on Saturday 7th April for Easter.