As part of this year’s london open house weekend1 I visited the officers mess of what was once the home of the royal artillery, Woolwich’s long standing military inhabitants of nearly three centuries.
Woolwich has a long military history, which stretches back to the tudor period when weapons were stored here for henry the eighth’s hunting expeditions. Until recently, the royal artillery were an important part of this history, however some time around the beginning of the new century, the army was seeking to capitalise on the sub-prime mortgage boom, and planned to sell off its London properties at bumper prices. Moves were afoot to sell both Woolwich and Chelsea barracks to speculators who were going to turn them into, yes, you’ve guessed it, flats… but then the country found itself at war, and it was decided that it might be worth keeping a few soldiers in the capital after all. By that stage the dizzying prospect of the £900 million (record breaking sale) that could be made by selling Chelsea made it clear that Woolwich would be the last home of the armed forces in London. Unfortunately by the time this about face had been performed, the artillery had already started the process of moving out to their training grounds in Wiltshire, and so that was how hundreds of years of traditional life in woolwich came to an end.
Nowadays the garrison plays host to the second battalion of the The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, until they go off on-tour again, at which point another section of the army will move in, and things will probably continue in this way for a while.
Interestingly the current inhabitants have extended the front parade and added a fence, which has had the pleasant side effect of a public footpath being opened alongside which runs parallel with the front of the garrison, making it possible to walk the full length of the allegedly longest georgian façade in europe! If you do venture that way, please remember to stick to the path, or you might find yourself looking down the wrong end of a gun.
The visit itself was by guided tour, and took in the front parade, the silver collection, various meeting rooms and display pieces, including some tigers and tusks, a table on which the peace treaty of Italy in ww2 was signed, and we wound up in the chandelier festooned dining hall, while I was there i saw a small group of soldiers tucking into some cornflakes, but it’s clear that this place was built with royal dinner guests in mind! I would wholeheartedly recommend this tour to anyone that might be interested in going next year.
Grade II* listed (1776-1802), commissioned by the then Board of Ordnance. Front Parade, at 1080ft, is said to be the longest Georgian frontage in Europe. Comprises both the Officers’ and WOs’ and Sgts’ Messes of the Barracks, linked in centre by magnificent South Arch. Officers’ Mess, opened in 1802, was the first communal Mess to be used by the Army.
- It was notable that severndroog castle was missing from this year’s openings, although hopefully before too long it will be open almost every day!