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Restoration of the Giant Steps

I was wandering across Greenwich Park last week , as I do from time to time to enjoy the heritage scenery, and wondering if I might chance by Samuel Pepys in the company of King Charles II and his brother James who was, at the time, Lord High Admiral. I was informed by Mike Fitt - who knows everybody - that the trio went down to Greenwich [1667] as “the Listeners” - listening for the sound of cannon as the Dutch attacked the British fleet down river and along the Medway. Well, I thought I could name-drop “Mike Fitt” by way of introduction…. but sadly no show! Maybe next year?

Actually, the real reason for my Greenwich visit was to meet up with Royal Park’s Community Archaeologist Andrew Mayfield who has been leading several archaeological investigations as part of Royal Park’s “Greenwich Park Revealed” project, and in which he is assisted by community volunteers. The current activities [Sept/Oct 2023] are focussed on what we previously called “The Giant Steps” although perhaps more properly named “The Ascents”. These are the man-made and grassy landforms which form the steep slope on the central axis from the Queen’s House up to the statue of General Wolfe, standing close by Flamsteed House and The Royal Observatory. They were built into the scarp slope in 1661 as part of the new landscape works proposed by Charles II as part of a great formal setting - and possibly with the intention of providing a spectacular cascade in the outlook from the refurbished Queen’s House.

I have for many years been very interested in the possibility of Royal Parks repairing or - in part at least - restoring the Ascents. There have been various proposals put forward for restoration over the past 50 or so years … but nothing materialised. Now, through Greenwich Park Revealed, there is an opportunity to address this sleeping giant of landform and to reinforce the visual presence in the Greenwich landscape. It is still not certain how many steps there were originally - 6, 10, 12 have all been put forward; but such they would have been much damaged and knocked about by public access - often in excess - at times of the Greenwich fairs and other celebrations and high-days. So the possibility remains that they may well have been partly remade in later eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Perhaps an original 12 steps were remade into the partly surviving 6 which can be detected on the ground in the present day?

Andrew’s team has had the opportunity to undertake a series of shallow trenches down the eastern side of the Ascents, also cutting several “sondages” to about one meter depth within these trenches. The investigations and interpretation are ongoing at time of writing so we still await interpretation [hopefully forthcoming on the web site or in a future bulletin.] But its appears that indeed there is a generous 19th century fill layer which has been spread over the earlier formation and construction layers. There are particular concerns [from English Heritage , and echoed by Royal Parks] that any reconstruction should be within or above this [less interesting] fill layer, thereby protecting the lower layers of archaeology for future generations who may yet have even better techniques and resources to interpret.

Meanwhile it looks as though, with the green light on the “safe” fill layer revealed by Andrew and the team, the contract works on the Ascents can proceed shortly and should progress through the winter months - so looking forward to green Ascents next spring... and perhaps return of “the Listeners.”

With a view to looking at the vista, I took the opportunity to re-visit The Queen’s House - which is still a free visit ! It is a masterpiece in its own right and always interesting to see the wonderful display of [mainly] naval and marine paintings. Currently there is an excellent exhibition of the Van den Veldes [elder and younger - father and son] “Greenwich, Art and the Sea” until 14 Jan 2024. They were retained by Charles II , and also in succession by James II, to paint battles and navy-related celebrations. They were even allowed to set up studio in one corner of The Queen’s House. As a 10 year old on a visit from the far North with my grandparents, I was hugely impressed by seeing some of the Van der Veldes work on display at National Maritime Museum, so it was a real treat to discover this exhibition …. and round out another splendid day at Greenwich.

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