To help preserve the painted walls and ceiling, the old entrance has been permanently closed, and visitors now enter through the undercroft, which was previously a private dining hall for the Royal Navy, but now has a large cafe on one side and shop on the other, with admission desk at the end. At the far end is a small gallery detailing some of the history and relics of the hall.
In this gallery, intriguingly, is an oval-shaped hole. Peering down through this space, you can see parts of the old Greenwich Palace that were discovered during the restoration work. Some tiles from the palace’s hall floor, and alcoves, thought to be for the storage of honey, can be glimpsed.
There is also a dead-end passage ahead which looks rather intriguing – this is the “Ripley Tunnel” which runs underneath the outside path that forms the main “axis” of Maritime Greenwich. The tunnel runs between the Painted Hall and the Chapel.
Visitors then proceed upstairs to the first “wow” moment which is the vestible. Look up, as you are directly underneath one of the two cupolas which define the buildings of Maritime Greenwich (the right-hand one, in that famous view from Island Gardens).
Up more stairs and you are in the Painted Gallery itself, with its breathtaking ceiling – the “Sistine Chapel” of the UK. Red cushioned seating, in the middle of the hall and at the sides, allow visitors to lie down and look straight up. The windows have net screen in front of them, to further preserve the paintings, but these also dim the whole hall, giving it a slightly spooky feel. Discrete lighting ensure that the ceiling and other ornamental parts of the hall are lit. At the far end, the Upper Hall contains a plaque on the floor commemorating Lord Nelson (who lay in state at that spot) and his deputy, and another large mural on the wall.
It’s undoubtably an impressive site. The hall is a big, mainly empty space – all the more to appreciate the walls and ceilings, and presumably also very useful as a flexible space for evening events.
The trust have introduced an admission fee – £12 to get in for adults, which is somewhat controversial, as it was free before. However, the first Wednesday of the month is pay-as-you-like (presumably including £0?), and definitely free on this day with a lottery ticket (the Heritage Lottery fund having funded around 40% of the work). The entrance fee includes an audio guide or group guided tour, which undoubtably is useful for interpreting what you see in the hall – as otherwise you do end up just vaguely gazing at the ceiling and its epic battle scene, and thinking it is impressive, without gaining a deeper understanding of what is being depicted and how it was created…
There’s a few other nice bits and pieces to spot – including a modern obelix at the entrance to the cafe, created by students at a college in Stratford. Beside this, there is also an attractive, back-lit drawing of the Maritime Greenwich site. In the main hall, there are also a number of cabinets containing recreations of period objects, such as an ornate crown, to try on. Or just lie down on the red cushions…
So, if in Greenwich, this is certainly worth visiting, along with its nearby attractions of the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory Greenwich, both of which are a few minutes walk away – particularly on the first Wednesday of the month when you can get in for nothing.