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A Day In The Life Of A Volunteer Tour Guide


Fri 17 Apr 20


Jim Morrison has been volunteering at the Old Royal Naval College for 10 years, and is in the running for the Tourism Superstar 2020 Award. Cast your vote here!

I’m a Volunteer Tour Guide at the Old Royal Naval College, Sir Christopher Wren’s riverside masterpiece, featuring the magnificent Painted Hall. The college was originally the Royal Hospital for retired and injured sailors, on which building commenced in 1696.

I look forward to my volunteering on Saturday. I live in Canary Wharf, so can just jump on the DLR and a few minutes later I’m at Cutty Sark DLR station in Greenwich ready for my shift.

Our Visitor Centre is often the first place people visit. It’s an exhibition space, telling the story of our site,a shop (where people can buy Painted Hall tickets and mementos), and a cafe/bar, where visitors can relax and unwind. The building also houses a Tourist Information Centre, so it’s a great place for anyone to start their visit to Greenwich.

At 1:45 I announce my first tour, to gather interested visitors to buy tickets before the tour begins at 2:00.

The site tour is a guided walk through over 500 years of history on our site. From the Plantagenets to the Tudors, to the Stuarts and on to the Hanoverians. A tale of kings and queens, naval heroes, Arctic explorers and ordinary sailors. War, romance, political intrigue and even sport, will be covered in the 45 minutes duration of the walk, which moves through our extensive grounds and our magnificent Baroque buildings.

I start with an overview of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage site, then move on to one of the highlights of the early part of the tour, the model of Greenwich Palace, the birthplace of Henry VIII.

Then it’s outside, to talk about the Pepys Building (which houses the Visitor Centre), Nelson and Drake, whose faces adorn that building, and Raleigh, whose statue is next to the building. We then walk past the monument to Arctic explorer Joseph-René Bellot, followed by the Water Gate for tales about the Queen’s House, the Royal Observatory and Greenwich Park.

This is the moment for photos, the iconic shot of Sir Christopher Wren’s breathtaking twin domes.

Another highlight of the tour is the Chapel, with its scagliola columns and Coade stone. We take a moment here to look up and around, before moving on to the Skittle Alley – where visitors can have a go at knocking down the skittles, just like the sailors did 150 years ago.

The tour ends underneath the Painted Hall, next to the recently revealed remains of Greenwich Palace. At that point I explain to visitors that they can enjoy the Painted Hall on their own, with our multimedia guide (available in 7 languages) or join us on a tour.

After a restorative and larynx-soothing cup of coffee, I return to the Painted Hall for my second tour of the day – the Painted Hall itself.

My tour begins with an explanation of why the hall and hospital were built, who built it, and how it was funded. Then an explanation of the main ceiling – “The Triumph Of Peace And Liberty Over Tyranny”, depicting a whole host of characters, including King William and Queen Mary, Apollo, and Hercules and Pallas Athena. Then on to the Upper Hall to explain the wonderful wall and ceiling paintings there, especially “a new generation from heaven” which illustrates the ascension of the Georgians.

I am always happy to answer any questions. There are always a few – and some I can’t answer! But there’s usually a member of staff around, who can help with those. One of my favourite questions I’ve had on a tour is “why is there a TV aerial in a 18th century painting?”. The answer, of course, is that there isn’t – TV is a 20th century invention! But the question was very understandable, as there is a cross-staff (a navigational instrument) in the painting which looks just like… a TV aerial!

I often reflect on why I became a volunteer at the Old Royal Naval College in the first place. It all happened by accident. I was out cycling one day and saw the wonderful ‘white’ buildings on the other side of the Thames. I thought “they’re magnificent – what are they?” and crossed the river to find out. I walked into the Painted Hall and was awestruck by its beauty. Here was something I could relate to and enjoy, again and again. I made enquiries about volunteering and, ten years later, I’m still here. And still enjoying it. Especially the joy I see on visitors faces, when I’ve shared with them some of the amazing stories the site has to tell.

Don’t forget to vote for Jim as a Tourism Superstar!