Royal Parks plans to reinstate the 17th century Giant Steps leading down from the Royal Observatory as part of a little-reported scheme to revamp Greenwich Park. Investigative journalist and Greenwich resident MEIRION JONES explains more – and tells us why he thinks the scheme could take the park downhill.
Call me a grouch, but when I see Royal Parks saying they’re going to “enhance” Greenwich Park I reach for my scepticism. Who could object to a £4.8 million lottery grant to “uncover the park’s history”?
To me, it sets off the alarms that this might be yet another attempt to rebuild the Giant Steps. They once led down the Observatory hill, from where Wolfe’s statue is, down to the field below.
It has been the dream of many a park-keeper, but would turn the park into a building site for months and require vast quantities of concrete.
The tweet doesn’t mention the Giant Steps and the press release only hints at the idea.
They plan to “revive historical features from Andre Le Notre’s original 17th century baroque design for the park”. Oh yes?
This is Royal Parks code for “we want to go ahead with the deeply unpopular plan to build 12 Giant Steps down the hill from the Royal Observatory down to the field below in front of the Queen’s House but we’re not going to mention it in the press release”.
What were the Giant Steps?
It all goes back to 1660 when King Charles II arrived back from exile and decided that he wanted Greenwich to be England’s Versailles in imitation of the great palace that Louis XIV was building not far from Paris.
Charles wanted to build a multi-storey temple of fun at the top of the hill where the ruins of Duke Humphrey’s tower stood – then known as Greenwich Castle and later rebuilt as the Royal Observatory.
Duke Humphrey was the brother of Henry V, who originally got permission to steal the land for Greenwich Park and enclose it in 1433. Below Charles’s temple, a Niagara Falls-style cascade of water would flow down the hill. This proved too ambitious, so Charles asked Louis’s garden designer Andre Le Notre to produce a design for Greenwich with grand avenues and Giant Steps down the hill.
There is no evidence that Le Notre ever went to Greenwich Park before making a plan which ignored local geography, but Sir William Boreman had the task of adapting it to the facts on the ground.
Samuel Pepys was impressed by the Giant Steps and new trees, which included the saplings that became the old chestnuts which still stand in the park, when he visited on 11 April 1662. “Sir William and I walked into the Park, where the King hath planted trees and made steps in the hill up to the Castle, which is very magnificent.”
Sir William was not Boreman but Sir William Penn, who went on to found Philadelphia and Pennsylvania after Charles II gave him a chunk of North American land to pay off debts. Afterwards, Samuel and Sir William inevitably repaired to a local hostelry which has long since disappeared: “So to dinner at the Globe.”
The Giant Steps soon began to collapse, although you can still see faint traces of them today. Charles’s attention switched to the much more practical exercise of building the Royal Observatory on the hill to help the Royal Navy navigate and become all-powerful. The Steps were further smoothed down as thousands of young bucks used to tumble down the hill with young ladies during the notoriously drunken Greenwich Fairs in the 19th century. The fairs were eventually banned by the Home Secretary in 1857 after 200,000 turned up for one rowdy event.
Lack of public enthusiasm
If you go to the Greenwich Park Revealed site, the plan is indeed unmasked. There is a picture showing that if you were lying on the ground at the bottom of the hill you wouldn’t be able to see the observatory. The plan is to “reclaim the hill” by cutting down loads of trees so you can see the observatory if you are lying on the ground at the foot of the hill. And, of course, to consider rebuilding the Giant Steps.
In the time I’ve lived in Greenwich this plan has come back again and again, despite the lack of public enthusiasm for it – almost as if someone at the Royal Parks wants to be memorialised by a plaque at the top of the Giant Steps saying “rebuilt by Sir Something Suchabody”.
If we must return to some historic version of the park, why not Sir Humphrey’s hunting park, or Charles’s vision of Niagara Falls SE10, or Henry VIII’s jousting pavilions, or the allotments that covered the field at the bottom of the hill during World War II?
Greenwich Park has evolved into what it is today. Let’s not try to freeze it in any particular epoch.
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