Christopher Wren and Greenwich

Weather forecast of rain for most of the morning did not deter 10 of us from getting a ride in. In fact the rain was light, then eased by 11, with lengthy sunny periods for the rest of the ride. Headed from Peckham down the Canal Path to Cycleway 10 which took us to Greenwich. Up the hill to the viewpoint. Bumped into Harry’s Bexley “Lets Go” group at the viewpoint. They were on their Healthy Ride. Had a chance for quick catch up. Work is being done on the paving around the statue and space was rather limited. Fortunately not too many visitors.

We looked at the quirky Observatory designed by Wren, It perches on the edge of the escarpment and is built on the foundations of the old Greenwich Castle. Built in 1675-6 for the Astronomer Royal (Flamsteed). Wren himself had studied maths and astronomy in his 20s and was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Oxford in 1661. By this time he was already developing ideas about architecture and in 1665 designed his first building, a chapel for a Cambridge College. He was a self-taught architect!  With his knowledge of maths and physics he understood the key engineering principles.  He visited Paris and studied the buildings, probably meeting European architects.  Out of this he developed his own distinctive style of English Baroque.  Talking about styles, from the viewpoint the Queens House designed by Inigo Jones is in the foreground. This neoclassical building was built 75 years before Wren’s and makes an interesting contrast.

Looking from the viewpoint one of Wren’s greatest works is visible, the Royal Naval College. We set off down Maze Hill to take a closer look. Sun was out and the buildings looked magnificent. They were designed and used as a Royal Naval Hospital for retired and injured seamen. The army already had the Chelsea Hospital, also Wren project. Now was the turn of the Navy. The construction of the Greenwich Hospital took nearly 20 years and it came into use in 1694. By 1869 naval veterans were being looked after differently and the hospital was no longer needed. The Navy found a new purpose, as a training centre and it was renamed Royal Naval College, In 1997 the navy ended its long association with Greenwich. The site is now run by a Foundation who organise the tourist bits and events. Large sections are leased to The University of Greenwich and the Trinity Laban Conservatoire.

Around 1695, at the age of 63, 3 major commissions were underway, St Pauls, Kensington Palace and Hampton Court, Chelsea hospital was just finished and Greenwich was just starting. How did he keep track of all this? Did he ever sleep! In fact he worked with a network of associates of whom the best known is Nicholas Hawksmoor. Hawksmoor was the architect supervising the building of the Royal College and also helped with St Pauls and with the programme of church rebuilding. In fact Hawksmoor took over full design responsibility for several churches including St Alpheges in the centre of Greenwich, not so far from the Royal College. We headed there next and had a look before departing back to Peckham.

This ride, timed for the 300th year from Wren’s death, turned out to be really interesting. Researching it learned a lot about Wren – what a guy – mathematician, astronomer and architect (and a few other things as well – he even stood for parliament several times and was an MP for a couple of short spells). Maybe his greatest skill was in persuading his sponsors to shell out for all those major buildings. We are still in his debt.  I also relearned much about the history of the period in which he lived – the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth, the Great Plague, the Fire of London, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution and the Union of Scotland and England. Alongside all this, the remarkable advances in science. He was a contemporary of Hooke and Newton and with them set up the Royal Society, Wren was RS President from 1680-82.  Interesting times. 

Ride took 2.5 hours, Route is on Google maps at 

Report on previous Wren300 ride to St Pauls and other sites in the City at


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