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Greenwich: History, architecture and some very old beer…

Published 21 April 2010

An international tourist destination and world-heritage site, Greenwich is rich with history yet overlooked by many Londoners. Whether because of its awkward location outside zones 1 & 2 or simply a lack of awareness, for most people any ideas of Greenwich wrongly stop at the Cutty Sark, Greenwich Mean Time or perhaps even The O2. A new campaign encourages us to Discover Greenwich…

Having been recently awarded Royal Borough status and with the 2012 Olympics literally just around the corner, it’s an exciting time for Greenwich and now Discover Greenwich has opened a £6 million “portal” encouraging people to do just that. The permanent exhibition and information centre looks back into the area’s rich history as well as forward to new opportunities. Greenwich Council are expecting over a million visitors a year to the “portal”, so surely resident Londoners should be amongst them…

The so-called “portal” sits in the stunning surroundings of the Old Royal Naval College – its modern, technology-driven exhibitions a stark contrast to the building itself. With 27,000 naval officers having trained in the building since its opening in 1869, The Royal Naval College was running up until 1998, when the Navy moved to Wiltshire to join up with the Army and the RAF. Its 1869 opening is but a  recent point in history, though. The building dates back to 1969 when construction of The Royal Hospital for Seamen started at the behest of Queen Mary II. The now-famous architect chosen for the job was Sir Christopher Wren, best known for building St. Paul’s Cathedral some way down the river. Still further back, the land was the site of Greenwich Palace built by Henry VII in the 1400s and transformed into an elaborate royal residence by Henry VIII between 1509 and 1530.

Mary, Christopher and the two Henrys are at least partially brought back to life in this new Discover Greenwich “portal”, with stunning re-enactments, light shows, models and artefacts telling the area’s history. If, quite like the two Henrys named above, you like a drink or two, then the portal is also the place to be. In the days of the Royal Hospital, an internal brewhouse provided “restorative drinks” for patients and the Naval pensioners who resided there, with each man having a ration of three pints a day. Though I’m not convinced the health properties of said pints can be so easily justified in these times of alcohol awareness and safe drinking water, it can instead be put down to historical research. Local brewers Meantime (the biggest brewer to still be located in London bar Fullers) have taken on the brewhouse and created a combined beer-focused bar, restaurant, experimental micro-brewery and museum. Alastair Hook, Master Brewer for Meantime, says of the venture:

“London has a rich but largely forgotten history as the home of modern brewing, it was the centre of the brewing world, the city that created India Pale Ale, Porter and Stout. The Old Brewery brings this history back to life. Here visitors will be able to enjoy not only an astonishing range of innovative new beers and historic long-gone brews but will witness the brewing process first-hand.”

The first beer to be brewed onsite this beer-house is an apt homage to the building. Hospital Porter is a dark, smoky beer made from a blend of young beer and matured beer which has been aged in wooden oak tuns for twelve months, as per a 1750s recipe. At 8%abv, it’s powerful stuff, and strong flavours of malt, liquorice and bitter chocolate predominate. Drinking it is enough to evoke ideas of the history behind it, whetting the appetite for the rest of the exhibition.

In keeping with the new meets old theme of the area, there’s some very moderns beers brewing, too. Each month will see a seasonal special, with a most intriguing “Mojito Ale” in the running for summer. With stunning buildings, a riverside location, and an outside seating area to enjoy some food with your beer, Greenwich is looking like being this summer’s hottest destination. With free entry and a travel cost of approximately £2.30 on the tube and DLR, it’s handy in a credit crunch, too. Lets hope the weather holds out…

Address: The Pepys Building, The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, SE10 9LW
Getting there: The Old Royal Naval College is just a short 5min walk from Cutty Sark DLR station or Greenwich rail station with services from London Bridge or Charring Cross. Greenwich Pier is only 2 mins away. See www.tfl.gov.uk for full transport details. Greenwich is in zones 2 & 3.

Editor’s tip: While Meantime’s The Old Brewery specialises in home-brewed beer, they also do some interesting food dishes like beer cured salmon and oysters marinated in their signature Hospital Porter. In addition, Brewery and beer sampling tours are available.

All photos in this article are copyrighted by Discover Greenwich, 2010.

Article written by Ben Norum.