Saturday, 2 November 2013

A Wren and the Royal Naval College, Greenwich

A familiar view (author's photo)

The following piece was written by Second Officer Nancy Spain WRNS in 1945 about her experiences in joining the WRNS during the winter of 1940/41. As it largely deals with a building and a part of London that is close to my heart, I make no apologies for repeating it verbatim below, with acknowledgements, of course.

The lorry stopped inside a courtyard, I think, where dusk was already falling and I saw nothing but a dark hall and cold grey stones and a strip of carpet and the superintendent of the OTC reading out names from a list held in the left hand.

This moment was not altogether a shock to me. The superintendent had once taught me history at school when I was eleven years old and I was prepared for her to be there, as she was for me.

She nodded at me as she called my name and I knew that the years had not impaired her perception, nor the war her kindliness, nor circumstances her friendly interest in human nature. Just the same, I felt she knew there was a hole in my stocking. But the moments that followed. They were like a blow between my eyes.

Like many people in England, many Wrens indeed, I was still unaware of much of the inheritance that Nelson, Drake, Frobisher, Raleigh and the rest, fought for and held for us serenely and splendidly over five centuries.

Second Officer Nancy Spain WRNS

Until the moment that I walked out into the January dusk and saw the white Palladian colonnades and domes of which Samuel Pepys wrote "The King (Charles II) is mightily pleased with his new building", I was almost unaware of Greenwich.

But that evening, rising from the snow, like a conception of God rather than of man, all English history spread itself before my eyes.

The history of England, of which Nelson is a part and which I, and so many others like me, had taken for granted. And I knew that I too, should in future feel a sense of responsibility.

So, with Pepys, to dinner.

A joy, the selection of a table napkin from the pigeon-holed erection under the blind, marble stare of Nelson and St Vincent....and then....the Painted Hall, for which no contemporary eulogy, nor nineteenth century engraving, had wholly prepared me.

How could I know what I ate, under the lovely, silly paintings of Sir James Thornhill, from the perfect copies of Queen Anne tables, carved from the timbers of ships that had fought at Trafalgar, that had sailed against the enemies of England. The lights blazing from a thousand points in silver candlesticks, again 'after' Queen Anne, seemed limelight as much as illumination. The echoing floor, the lofty grandeur of the high tables under rarer, sillier paintings recalled the cold to me.

It certainly was cold.

And what was that?

We had to sleep in the air raid shelter?

Well....well.

Churchill inspects bomb damage at the Naval College (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

And sure enough, through the Painted Hall there echoed the sound of the guns from Woolwich. England's enemies, at it again.

The Blitz punctuated the whole of that fortnight. it held up our trains, it disturbed our sleep, it smashed the buildings around us, it sent us to bed at 2200 hours like a lot of gloomy, eiderdown-trailing sheep, but it did one good thing, for me at any rate. It made me appreciate still more the beauty and power of those buildings which mere Luftwaffes could not damage.


Printed Sources:

Thank You, Nelson - Nancy Spain, Hutchinson 1945

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