The forgotten spaces within the dome of the Old Royal Naval College Chapel offer an intriguing cross-section of the site’s history. Explore behind the scenes with Tom Ryley, our communications officer.

The Old Royal Naval College, from across the Thames The view of the Old Royal Naval College from the Isle of Dogs has been painted by the likes of Canaletto

From across the Thames, the buildings of the Old Royal Naval College appear unchanged since their construction by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor three centuries ago. Yet the history within these iconic buildings is one of constant change. Retired sailors, the royal navy, and two universities have inhabited this site, today a major visitor attraction.

If you look closely, this history has rubbed off on the buildings. Though the site’s custodians have taken great care to keep the main vistas pristine, the less-reached spaces have become tapestries of mementos from past.

The Chapel Dome The Chapel Dome rises above Sir Christopher Wren's colonnade

One brilliant example is the Chapel dome. I came up here every day for several months to take a time lapse photo of the site. Every time I went up, I noticed something new. Above the vestibule to the Chapel, three floors give access to the Chapel’s organ, and further up, the clock at the top of the dome. The opposite dome has a sundial, and so doesn’t have these extra floors.

Up the Chapel Dome. Photo by Peter DazelyOld furniture up in the Chapel Dome. Photo by Peter Dazely

The lower levels have long been used as a storage space, and over the years these rooms have become a wooden Aladdin’s cave. Old pews and carved detailing gather dust up here. My favourite find is a collection of old organ pipes from the Chapel’s Samuel Green organ.

A dusty window sheds light on a pile of organ pipesA dusty window sheds light on a pile of organ pipes

Travelling further up, you reach the Chapel’s clock. This wonderful mechanism stretches over two floors. Below, a doorway can be opened to reveal the ticking pendulum, and you can ascend another flight to see the whirring mechanisms of the clock itself.

Old inscriptions on the walls of the Chapel Dome.Old inscriptions on the walls of the Chapel Dome

But perhaps the best thing about this place is the graffiti. Great architecture attracts graffiti like a lightbulb attracts moths, and, away from the eyes of cleaners or conservators, the many inscriptions on the walls here have been left untouched. Snobbish naval officers from the 30s, drinking up in the dome, have signed their names “where the other beers can’t reach”. Wartime inscriptions remember the dome’s days as a watchtower for German bombers. One old inscription dates to 1794, proudly left behind by a glazier.

Beams up at the top of the Chapel domeGraffiti-covered beams up at the top of the Chapel dome

This graffiti goes all the way to the loft space, where you can see the interior workings of the wooden dome.

The Chapel dome isn’t the only place where the history of the Old Royal Naval College can be seen close up. We’re currently running Painted Hall Ceiling Tours, allowing visitors to take a closer look at Sir James Thornhill’s ceiling during conservation.

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