If you’re in Greenwich town centre tonight, keep an eye out for a familiar blond mop, as Mayor Boris rocks up to tonight’s launch of the spanking new Discover Greenwich visitor centre. The £6m centre is Greenwich’s first proper attempt at a place that’ll welcome tourists and attempt to explain just why they’ve the place they’ve found themselves in is known around the world. Previous efforts have just been small tourist information offices – this is the real deal.
The best thing for us locals, though, is that from tomorrow the Greenwich Union’s new sister venue, The Old Brewery, opens alongside Discover Greenwich. More cafe/restaurant than pub, it’s already brewing its own beers alongside Meantime’s other tipples.
That’s where today’s press preview got off to a dramatic start – as a glass food counter on the bar suddenly collapsed and smashed as hungry hacks were swarming around for croissants. Thankfully, nobody was injured, although a few morning pastries did bite the dust. Good to get something like that out of the way before you open the doors to the public!
Discover Greenwich’s aim is admirable – to bring together information on Greenwich’s various sites, although with the emphasis on the royal connections with the Naval College, and the National Maritime Museum. It does a very good job of it – much of Greenwich’s history has only really been available in dusty history tomes, or delivered in slightly embarassing reconstructions for the benefit of Americans.
But here it comes alive – from the reconstruction of a window at the Tudor Greenwich Palace, to the recreation of the accommodation on offer to seamen at the old Greenwich Hospital. Recent excavation on the Naval College site has informed and embellished the collection of items on show, while displays put the old royal town into a modern context. One display explains the architectural influence of Wren and Hawksmoor across London, another compares Greenwich with similar World Heritage Sites across the globe.
More recent developments in Greenwich are marked with displays and videos from 20th century Naval College events and a model of JASON, the reactor which punched a hole in Greenwich Council’s 1980s nuclear-free zone. A display about industrial Greenwich is a little easy to miss – unless I’m mistaken, it doesn’t mention the gas works, which seems a huge omission, but you can use a touch-screen map to track where the bombs fell in Greenwich borough in World War II. Both my current house in Charlton and my old one in Greenwich sustained minor damage, I discovered.
Upstairs might just be Discover Greenwich’s real gem – the Clore Learning Centre, where there’ll be courses held for both adults and children. For local kids, it’ll be a great opportunity to bring them closer to the area’s heritage – my school career contained one solitary early-1980s trip to the National Maritime Museum, which I remember more for my teacher giving us all personalised notebooks he’d made himself than anything we learned that day. (Captain Cook and scurvy. That was it.) Adults can get courses and lectures in local history, archaelogy, photography, and beer tasting. Yes. BEER.
Back to the Old Brewery for an 11am sip of Meantime’s Hospital Porter. It’s smooth, smoky, and incredibly drinkable for an 8% brew. Meantime founder Alistair Hook spoke of his sadness that London’s brewing history – once “the world’s greatest brewing city” – was now being neglected with breweries closing. The Old Brewery corrects some of this – wonderful wall displays tell the history of the capital’s beer, pubs and brewing. A tiny photo on the wall shows what’s now the Greenwich Union and its neighbour, the Tolly (Richard I) – the two bars separated by the Tolly’s then off-licence. It looks like it’s from another era. In fact, it’s from 1972.
The venture also gives Meantime the chance to experiment with old brews – Hospital Porter is a recreation of a style familiar to the old sailors who lived at Greenwich Hospital. Just as enticing is Kellerbier – a lager brewed in the cellar. We’re three weeks or so away from a taste of this – interestingly, it’ll be dispensed without extra gas, which could make it palatable to the strict Campaign for Real Ale types. It’ll be interesting to see what they make of it.
I’ve mentioned before how many locals have an ambivalent relationship with Greenwich as a tourist attraction, but Discover Greenwich goes a long way to bridging that gap. As a primer on just why it became such a favourite of royalty, and how it stayed that way, it’s wonderful. It could do with some more on Greenwich’s other aspects, but perhaps that’s a challenge for others to take up. And I think I’ll be back to the Old Brewery for some Hospital Porter very soon…