The Royal Observatory and the Grand Ascent (the Giant Steps)

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Facies Speculae Septen. The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Museum number: 1865,0610.949

The foundation stone of the Royal Observatory was laid on 10 August 1675 and in July 1676, the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, took up residence. About a year later, or perhaps the year after that, Robert Thacker, an employee of the Board of Ordnance, made a series of drawings of the Observatory and its instruments. Although the drawings are now thought lost, twelve contemporary etchings made from them by Francis Place survive in small numbers. Two show the Giant Steps whilst another is a plan of the Park. It is the earliest known plan.

 

A brief summary of the Steps from the time of their creation to the present day

Greenwich has a long connection with Royalty. Henry VIII was born in the Tudor Palace, as were his two daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Construction of the Queens House, began in 1616 and was completed in 1636 for Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I. Bridging over the London to Dover Road, it provided, for the first time, a direct connection between the Park (which had been created in 1433) and the Tudor Palace. Following the execution of Charles I in January 1649, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector, with the monarchy eventually being restored when Charles II returned from exile in 1660.

The 1660s were a hive of activity in and around the Park. In 1661, Charles II ordered the demolition of the derelict Tudor Palace. John Webb was commissioned to design a new one and repair and enlarge the Queen’s House. Work started on the Queen’s House in August 1661 and on constructing the new Palace (now the Old Royal Naval College) in 1663. In 1661, work also began on re-landscaping the Park under the supervision of William Boreman. The following year, Pepys recorded in his diary entry of 11 April:

‘At Woolwich, up and down to do the same business; and so back to Greenwich by water, and there while something is dressing for our dinner, Sir William [Penn] and I walked into the Park, where the King hath planted trees and made steps in the hill up to the Castle, which is very magnificent.’

Six months later, the Dutchman William Schellinks also noted the steps in his journal, recording in the entry for 25 October 1662:

‘On the hill in the park behind the [Queen’s] house two avenues of trees had been planted from the bottom to near the top of the hill, where it was too steep to climb up, steps had been cut into the ground to walk up in comfort.’

The steps that both Pepys and Schellinks referred to were a series of grass terraces or ‘ascents’ which later became know as the ‘Giant Steps’. Directly in line with the centre of the Queen's House, they formed part of a grand axis about which the park was to be transformed from a place used for hunting to a park and garden in the French style to rival those of France. Although there is no documentary evidence, it is suspected that the two Frenchmen, the brothers André and Gabriel Mollet, who were working for the King at St James' Park and Hampton Court, were involved in the early stages of the design.

In May 1662, the Frenchman André Le Nôtre was asked to contribute to the designs for the Park and it was he who came up with the plan for the Parterre, which occupied the more level ground between the Queen’s House and the bottom of the Giant Steps. In the event, the plan was abandoned before the central part was completed, but not before the earth banks on either side and at the southern end had been constructed and the eastern and western banks planted with avenues of trees. The southern and western banks of the Parterre, the latter with its trees, can be seen (bottom right) in the etching above.

Drake's footnote relating to the laying out of the Park

In 1886, in the first (and only) volume of his updating of Hasted's History of Kent, Henry Drake gives the following commentary about the setting out of the park in a footnote on p.66:

'Boreham's account of expenses for planting Greenwich Park between 1. Sept. 1661 and 10  June 1862, exhibit for fourteen copices, elms, birch, quicksetts, ivyberries, and holyberries, digging, trenching, planting and sowing berries, £128 16s. For seven walks - 600 elms, chestnut trees from Lesnes Abbey, grubbing, digging, making poles, fencing, watering, £92 14s. 0d. Twelve ascents, making them from bottom to top of the hill, filling part of the great pit, cutting and carrying turf, £249 12s. 6d. John Smith overseeing the workmen, 30 weeks at 12s., £18. Total, £543 2s. 6d. ... According to two privy seals, he received £888 9s. 7d. in 1661-2 for planting the park and building a keeper's cottage, ... he brought turf from the heath [Blackheath] to form steps up the hill to the castle ... '

By the start of the twenty-first century, although much eroded, traces of a few Steps were still visible as was the outline of the Parterre, which was still demarked by rows of trees – albeit not those originally planted.

In 1964, a report titled Trees in Greenwich Park from the Advisory Committee on Forestry produced for the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works (which was responsible for the Park until 1970) made a series of recommendations that included the restoration of the Giant Steps. Most of the recommendations were however ignored at that time. On 13 December 2019, a planning application was submitted on behalf of the Royal Parks to improve the Park and restore some of the seventeenth century features, including the Giant Steps and aspects of the Parterre. On 15 January 2020, the Royal Parks issued a press release stating that a grant of £4.5million (£4,517,300) had been secured from the National Lottery Heritage Lottery fund and the National Lottery Community Fund towards the total cost of it 'Greenwich Park Revealed' whose total projected cost was stated as £10,500,000. A later press release issued on 4 August 2022 stated that the Greenwich Park Revealed project was being supported with a £4.8million Parks for People grant from the National Lottery Heritage Lottery fund and the National Lottery Community Fund. It also included an artist's impression of how the restored steps would look, something that was not included with the documentation submitted as part of the planning application. A later announcement of the Park's Facebook page gave the total cost of the project as £12,000,000.

In light of this, it seems timely to examine:

  • The impact on the Steps of the two expansions of the Observatory site in 1791 and 1813
  • When and why the rows of trees at the end of the steps were first planted and when they were subsequently replaced
  • How the Steps changed over time as a result of erosion
  • How the grand axis with its newly created steps compares with what is known about the seventeenth century designs that were originally executed.

The following two planning applications lodged with Royal Borough of Greenwich are relevant to the reconstruction of the Giant Steps.


Reference
Detail
  Approved

19/4305/F Various works to Greenwich Park including … landscaping and planting enhancements including the reinstatement of the Grand Ascent or Giant Steps and Parterre Banks ...
  4 Sep 2020

23/2509/SD Submission of details pursuant to the discharge of Conditions 8 (Giant Steps Final Details) and partial discharge of Condition 11 (Landscape Restoration Method Statement) of planning permission 19/4305/F dated 04/09/2020   14 Nov 2023

The above links time out after a while and need to be refreshed from time to time. Links to individual documents in the two planning applications are given in the text below but only seem to work intermittently. If this is the case, it is suggested that they are downloaded instead via the links above which seem more reliable.

 

The intended viewpoint and the cutting of the grass

When the Queen's house was built, it had a loggia on the first floor from which members of the Royal party were able to observe hunting and other activities in the Park. The way that the Park was landscaped in the 1660s put the loggia at the very centre of things and would have provided the perfect spot to view the Parterre with its intended fountains as well as the Giant Steps beyond. The great unknown is how the steps would have originally appeared from this view-point especially as the slope of the hillside is not (and presumably was not) even. It is easy to imagine that they may have been made to have an even appearance when viewed from the loggia.

The other unknown is whether or not in was intended that the grass would be regularly cut in the same way as a modern lawn, or if it would be left uncut or cut just once a year. In the 1660s, before the invention of lawn-mowers, cutting the grass on a regular basis would have been a highly labour-intensive process, but it would have helped make the steps stand out against the hillside. The Francis Place etching above does show a degree of homogeneity across the treads which is not present on the rest of the hillside.

 

Visibility of the steps

As with any normal set of steps, the Giant Steps tend to be more visible when looking up them than looking down them. Over time, their profile changed due to erosion caused by water run-off and footfall. By the twentieth century, this together with the uneven colour and texture of the grass made them difficult to discern except on sunny days when the sun was low in the sky and part of each step was in the shadows. A covering of snow helped as this not only made the colour of the steps more homogeneous, it also created a greater contrast between those areas lit by the sun and those in the shadows.

In this shot, taken from the grounds of the National Maritime Museum on 4 February 2009, five risers and four treads are clearly visible. More snow-scene photos can be seen below

Archaeological features are often revealed in aerial views following a period of dry weather. Google Earth has a time-lapse feature that allows the viewer to see earlier as well as the most recent aerial views. Some of the 'lost' upper steps can arguably made out on Google Earth in the images dated 16 July 2022 and 27 June 2010.

 

From private parkland to public park

A photo of the two sides of an admission ticket / key to Greenwich Park. It is stamped with the serial number 488. The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Museum number: MG.718 (see below)

The Blackheath Gravels. The discarded drinks can (bottom right) gives a sense of scale. This sample was excavated from beneath a house in nearby Dartmouth Row in March 2024

There is a degree of uncertainty as to exactly when the public were given access to the Park and accounts differ. According to John Bold, the pensioners from Greenwich Hospital and their relatives together with a small number of locals were granted access in 1705 with the general public also being admitted during holidays from around the same date. However, while Bold states that the public were not given full access until the 1830s, an information board present in the Park in 2024 gives the date as 1820.

It would appear that individuals were issued with numbered keys. Surviving examples are rare. Of those that do survive, all carry the date of 1733 and a serial number. An example is shown below. The key carrying the serial number 450 fetched £800 when sold at auction in 2014. Since no keys other than those which carry the date 1733 are known, it is possible that earlier and later keys had no markings to associate them with the Park.

The geology of the hill on which the Observatory stands changes from top to bottom. The upper part consists of the Blackheath Beds, which are made up of a highly compacted and fairly homogeneous mix of small rounded pebbles and sand. Heavy footfall on the slopes exposes the beds which then rapidly erode as the sand washes out during heavy rain. The resulting surface can be hazardous to walk on as many an individual found out to their cost during the Greenwich Fairs which took place over several days at Easter.

In 1887, The Norwich Mercury contained, in a supplement, the following reprint of a piece of reporting from April 1730:

'On Tuesday last (31st) in Greenwich-Park great Numbers of People from London and the adjacent Parts, diverted themselves (as is common on public Holydays) with running down the Hill (formerly called the Giant's Steps) that fronts the Palace; but some others more venturous would run down the steeper Part of the said Hill, under the Terrace of the Royal Observatory, one of them, a young Woman, broke her Neck, another ran against one of the Trees with such Violence, that she broke her Jaw-bone, and a third broke her Leg.'

Greenwich Park with the Royal Observatory on Easter Monday. Note the large number of people crowded onto the Grand Ascent. Engraving by J Pass after Edward Pugh: published 20 April 1804 by Richard Phillips

The problem of erosion caused by visitors to the park was recorded by the Astronomer Royal, George Airy, in his 1840 Report to the Board of Visitors, where he wrote:

'Within the last year, the attention of the Civil Architect of the Board of Admiralty has been called to the state of the North Terrace wall. The wall, probably from an injudicious mode of building and from the effects of water and frost, has bulged out considerably; and the foundations, not only of the wall but also of the whole of the northern and western faces of the house and of the court-wall, have been completely exposed. This appears to have arisen from the gradual crumbling down of the steep hill, assisted as it is by the continual treading of the enormous number of persons, who, on every fine day, are walking beneath the terrace wall. The Civil Architect proposes, as I believe, to recommend that the wall be rebuilt, and that a portion of the walk below be completely paved, as the only way of preserving the foundation of this venerable building.'

 

Tracking the steps through time

The changing nature of the steps can be traced though paintings, drawings, prints and photographs. The earliest photographs date from the 1850s and allow the features shown in contemporary paintings, drawings and prints to be verified. From this, it is then possible to work backwards in time to establish the topographical accuracy of earlier works. Selected images from various viewpoints are included in the sections below.

In the past, the bye-laws of the Park required visitors to apply for a permit in order to paint or take photographs. Sometimes people wrote in error to the Astronomer Royal rather than the Park authorities to obtain one. RGO7/58 contains some of these requests. Further research is required in order to understand how and when the permit system operated.

 

Plans that show the steps

Although there are many known plans of the park, apart from the Stanford's plans published in the second half of the nineteenth century, only the earliest show the Giant Steps.

Date
Map
Number of risers
  
Trees at the end of treads?
c.1677 
Although often referred to as the 'Pepys Plan', this plan is believed to be one of the etchings done for Flamsteed by Francis Place
12a No
1693 Housed at the National Archives (MR1/329), this map is titled An actual survey pf the ground wereon their Majesties ancient Palace at Greenwich formerly stood
10 No
?1697-17?? The so called 'Woodlands Plan'
7a Nob
c.1725? An exact Plan of Greenwich Park describing all things thereunto belonging and adjacent; Viz the Queen's House ...  Copy at NMM (Object ID: CMP/30). Said to have been produced by Henry Wise (1653–1738)
6 Yes
1862 Stanford’s Library Map Of London And Its Suburbs 6 Yes
1872 Stanford’s Library Map Of London And Its Suburbs 6 Yes

Footnotes:

a) Extracts from these plans showing the Grand Ascent can be seen in the document titled Written Scheme of Investigation for the Grand Ascent ‐ September 2023, which was deposited as part of planning application 23/2509/SD to the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Low resolution copies of the complete Pepys and Woodlands plans are reproduced in the Greenwich Park conservation plan 2019–2029 (p.39). The same document also has a copy of the 1850 Sayer plan (p.42) which is referred to later.

b) On this plan, trees are marked with tree like symbols. The ends of each tread are marked with triangles as is the south side of the terrace immediately to the east and the west of the bottom step. Their meaning is unknown.

Only two copies of the Pepys Plan are known to survive. One is held by the Pepys Library in Cambridge. The other was discovered by Derek Howse in the collections of the Greenwich Local History Library (which was later merged with the Borough Museum to form the Greenwich Heritage Centre which was later reconstituted as Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust). The plan is remarkable in that it is drawn as a bird's eye view and shows considerable detail.

The Woodlands Plan came to the Borough of Greenwich in the early 1970s from the collection of the Blackheath antiquary Alan Roger Martin. It is the only known copy and is now in the care of Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust. Its earlier provenance is unknown as is the surveyor, purpose date and meaning of some of the symbols used. It was named 'The Woodlands Plan' by Land Use Consultants in their 1999 report on Greenwich Park as a way of identifying a nameless plan and the name has stuck. It takes its name from Woodlands House which is where the Local History Library was located at the time. The presence of the new road at the bottom of the plan suggests a date of 1697 or later.

There are two key differences between the Pepys plan and the later 1693 and Woodlands plans that are relevant here. The first is in the number of steps which are shown. The second relates to the avenues of trees in the southern half of the park.The Pepys plan shows all the avenues completely planted. The two later plans show lots of gaps in the southern avenues, particularly in the Great Cross Avenue which runs across the middle of the Park from east to west. The gaps whilst substantial are not identical on the two maps. The difference between them and the earlier Pepys plan is difficult to explain. A previous theory that the losses were due to storm damage in 1703 is clearly incorrect.

Although it never happened, Flamsteed originally planned to publish all or most of the 12 Francis Place etchings in his Historia in the manner of earlier astronomers. They were designed to show the Observatory in the best possible light. It is legitimate therefore to speculate that all the avenues were shown as complete in both the plan of the Park and the etchings Prospectus Orientalis (below) and Prospectus Australis, even if in practice they were not.

The Wise plan is difficult to interpret. It is missing the new road constructed in 1697–9, but does show the whole of Greenwich Hospital which was not completed until 1751. See notes on the NMM website.

First published in 1862, the Stanford's map was updated and re-issued over the following decades. Stanford's mapping of Greenwich Park is at odds with that of the Sayer's maps of 1840 and 1850 and the Ordnance Survey maps from this period. Apart from being the only mid nineteenth century map to show the steps, the trees on the eastern Parterre Banks are shown on an entirely wrong alignment.

 

Inconsistencies within the Francis Place etchings

Prospectus Orientalis. The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Museum number: 1865,0610.950

Whilst generally considered to be topographically accurate, there are a number of inconsistencies between the two topographical views above and the plan of the Park that was drawn to accompany them. There are also difficulties in reconciling the Francis Place Plan with the 1693 and Woodlands plans.

  • The etching of the steps at the top of the page shows the presence of nine risers, whilst the plan shows twelve
  • The two etchings of the steps both show the presence of a ramp in the centre of each step. These are not shown in any other images
  • In neither etching are the steps properly aligned with the trees in the avenue that they join
  • In the etching above, Snow Hill Walk (now called the Avenue) has been omitted and the avenue that connects between Pauls Walk (Lovers Walk) and Eltham Walk (Blackheath Avenue) joins the latter short of the Great Cross Walk

 

Late 17th & 18th century images showing the steps

In the late seventeenth century, three Dutch artists all painted views looking outwards from Greenwich Park. They were Johannes Vorsterman, Jan Griffier and Hendrik Dankerts. All three are credited as having painted views that include: the Queen's House, the Parterre, the Giant Steps and the Observatory. None are understood to be signed or dated. Both Vorsterman and Dankerts are said to have had paintings commissioned by Charles II.

Vorsterman, produced a number of versions of the same painting which vary slightly in detail. Copies are held by the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) and the National Maritime Museum (NMM). Both have been digitisied. The Spread Eagle Art Collection (now on display at the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich) has a view by Dankerts that is very similar to the Vosterman views (not digitised). All appear to capture the scene as it existed in the 1680s. Each shows the completed King Charles Block of the new palace together with the partially demolished Tiltyard Tower of the old Tudor Palace.

In this view from about 1680, the Observatory can be seen on the top of the hill on the left, whilst the Queen's House with the partially redeveloped Tudor can be seen on the right. Johannes Vorsterman, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1976.7.112. (see below)

Digitally enhanced detail from the Yale Vorsterman showing the Grand Ascent on the left

The same detail from the Vorsterman in the National Maritime Museum's collection


 

Griffier's paintings are slightly later as the Tiltyard Tower is in a greater state of decay. Topographically speaking, his paintings are inferior to those of Vorsterman. Not only are the views strangely distorted, but the east side of the Observatory is incorrectly shown and the towers of the medieval St Alfege, Greenwich, and St Nicholas, Deptford churches (which can be seen in the mid-distance) have been painted somewhat oversize. Despite all this, the Giant Steps are much more clearly defined than in the Vorstermans. The NMM has two copies. A third was sold by Sotherby's (Lot 41, Sotherby's sale, 30 June 2005, when it was said to be by Vorsterman.  All three copies have been digitised.

In addition to the views of Vorsterman, Griffier and Dankerts, there are two eighteenth century drawings that show the steps. The first is by A.J. Sweate is in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and is signed and dated 1746. The second is a drawing by John Charnock in the collections of the NMM.

The table below gives details of the various images together with links to digital images that can be viewed online.

Date     
No. of risers 1
Artist
(Digitised) image
c.1677 9 Thacker/Place Facies Speculae Septen (above)
8+          " Prospectus Orientalis (above)
c.1680s 5+ Vorsterman YCBA (above)
9+          " NMM (Object ID: BHC1808)
12+ Dankerts Spread Eagle Collection 2
c.1690? 6+ Griffier NMM (Object ID: BHC 1833)
9? Griffier NMM (Object ID: BHC 1817)
9? Griffier/Vorsterman Sotherby's sale, 30 June 2005
1739 4 Samuel & Nathaniel Buck YCBA (below)
1746 5 Sweate V&A (Accession No: 7-1891) 2
c.1780? 13 Charnock NMM (PAF 2865)

Footnotes:

1) In the paintings by Vorsterman Griffier and Danckerts, the steps are not always very distinct
2) Image not currently available

Published in 1739, four steps can be seen in this view. Samuel & Nathaniel Buck, Engraving, The North West Prospect of Greenwich in the County of Kent, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.19080. (see below)

Taking the images together with the maps, it would appear that the number of steps decreased from the original 12 recorded in Boreman's accounts to around five or six by the mid eighteenth century. However, no evidence has been found to establish how, why or when this happened. Was it because some steps wore away and others didn't or was it because the steps were reshaped or reconfigured at some point?

The thirteen steps shown in the later Charnock view are problematic and difficult to explain. The NMM owns a second view by Charnock, but from a different angle, as well as several views of the instruments drawn by him. All are considered to be topographically accurate and can be corroborated. By comparison, the drawing showing the steps is rather crude. It appears to have been drawn after the summerhouses were enlarged in 1773 but before the Courtyard was enlarged in 1791. There are three ways of explaining the presence of the thirteen steps. Either  there were more than five steps present when Sweate and the Buck did their drawing, but many of them were indistinct and not included, or the steps were recreated after 1745 but quickly disappeared (they do not appear in any other view), or Charnock sketched what the Observatory might have looked like if the twelve steps in the Francis Place map had still existed. Although the Observatory did not at that time own any of the Francis Place etchings, it is possible that Charnock had seen the set owned by Pepys, as he had volunteered with the Royal Navy and researched historical and contemporary naval affairs. His book An history of marine architecture (which he also illustrated) was published in 1801.

 

The planting of the trees

As noted above, the first plans that shows trees planted on the ends of the treads of the steps date from the early eighteenth century some 40 plus years after the steps were created. Despite this and the evidence of all the seventeenth century images above, Drake has been mistakenly taken to imply that they were planted from the start as seems to have been the assumption of A.D. Webster in his book Greenwich Park: Its history and associations (1902) from which the quote below is taken (and who was Superintendent of Greenwich Park at the time). It also appears to be the prevailing view of the Royal Parks at the present time.

The first trees to have been planted were Scots Pines and the earliest view located to date that shows them is dated 1731 and reproduced below.

Urbis Londiny Fluvy Thamesis, Templi Palaty, Viridary Greenovicensium ab Austro Conspectus engraved by Claude Dubosc after Alexander Gordon and published in 1731. Note the newly planted trees on the edge of the steps whose trunks have been encased to protected them from the deer. Note also the groups of people sitting on the top of some of the steps on the lower part of the slope. The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). Museum Number: 1880,1113.5519 (see below)

As well as not knowing when the trees were planted it is also not known why they were planted or why Scots pines were chosen as they can grow to a height of 35m with a spread of 6–12m. In the early days, the sides of the steps would have become less well defined. Maybe the trees were planted to help prevent erosion at the edges whilst at the same time providing (at least when they were young) a clear visual boundary that reflected the original linearity.

Webster says of the trees:

'The terraces were forty yards wide, and planted on either side with a row of Scotch fir trees, which were brought from Scotland by General Monk, in 1664. These trees were planted twenty-four feet apart, and in continuation of the outer lines of those forming the Blackheath Avenue. As late as forty years ago the lines of fir were quite complete, the gravelly soil and airy situation having been conducive to their rapid growth and perfect development, for we find that many of the stems measured four feet in diameter at ground level. With the impurities of the atmosphere, which have become very pronounced during the past half-century, the Scotch pines gradually gave way, and the last were felled about eight years ago [i.e. in 1894].'

Probably taken in about 1890, the decayed state of the Scots pines on the outer edge of the Grand Ascent is clearly visible. On the west side (closest to the Observatory), four recently planted Scots pines can be seen. One recent planting is also visible on the east side. To protect the new trees from the deer (which at that time still roamed the whole of the Park), they were enclosed by metal fencing, each panel of which has five horizontal rungs. The enclosures on the east side consist of four such panels whilst that on the east side is made up of six. The original glass plate from which the image is taken was, and probably still is in the Observatory archives (now at Cambridge). The image as reproduced here has been taken from Hutchinson's Splendour of the Heavens (1923) and was heavily cropped at the bottom, cutting out a large erosion channel with near vertical sides that was as much as a foot or more deep

Apart from being wrong about when the trees were planted, Webster is also wrong about when they began to be felled, which was somewhat earlier than he states as can be seen from the photo in the Royal Collection to which a link is given in a later section. What Webster also failed to say was that some of the felled trees had been replaced by young trees of the same variety (as can also be seen in the images immediately above) and that these too were removed. For several years there were no trees on the slope. The photographic evidence suggests that during their absence the ground was smoothed over, probably by the addition of new soil from elsewhere. Two rows of trees were eventually replanted in the winter of 1903/1904 at around the same time that the northernmost tree on the western side of Blackheath Avenue (outside the Great Equatorial Building) had its height reduced by around 50%. The newly planted trees are all thought to be hawthorns.

Taken between about 1900 and 1903, this shot captures the period after the clearance of the Scots Pines but before the planting of the hawthorns. Detail from a postcard published by H. Howard, Greenwich / Madame Hansford, Greenwich

The newly planted trees surrounded by their protective metal barriers in about 190809. Three risers can be clearly made out in the lower half of the Ascent, with two more just about being visible in the top half. Note too the contouring of the hillside where it falls away to the east of the eastern (left-hand) row of the newly planted trees. Detail from postcard number 3609 by Card House

A second view from a year or two earlier, but this time looking across the Ascent. The scaffolding on the roof of Flamsteed House suggests a date of 1907. Detail from a postcard attributed to C.W. Green, Plumstead

Over the years, the hawthorns disappeared, the last ones being removed at the end of 2023 when work started on recreating the six steps (six risers and five treads) for which planning permission had been given. The plans as originally submitted (view here and here) show the steps the same width as before (but tapering inwards on the western side from the second tread upwards) and a total of eight eight Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) planted on the ends of the five treads in line with the two outer rows of trees in the avenue above – one on each of the treads on the eastern side and one on the lower three treads only on the western side with an additional pair of trees to be planted on the terrace immediately below the bottom riser.

Three years later, when the finalised plans were submitted they had changed in three key respects:

  • Firstly, the contouring of the new steps: although their overall width remained unchanged, only the central part of each tread was now to be both level and have a uniform gradient across its entire depth
  • Secondly, common hawthorns (Crataegus monogyna) were substituted for the pines
  • Thirdly, rather than being planted at the end of the steps the trees were to be planted in line with the inner rows of trees that were being retained in Blackheath Avenue.

By the 5 February 2024, the heavy ground works necessary to create the new steps was nearing completion and several of the new trees planted. However, rather than being planted according to the approved plan, they were planted even closer together in line with the newly planted inner rows of trees in the avenue around the Wolfe Statue, which are offset inwards by around a yard from the alignment of the rest of the trees in the avenue. The end result, is that the actual separation of the lines of trees on the steps is roughly half of what is was in the previous two plantings.

The re-created steps with their eight hawthorns photographed from the entrance doors of the Queen's House on 25 March 2024. The Wolfe statue at the top of the steps closes the view and was erected in 1930 (more on this below). Due to the shallow angle of its slope, the third (middle) tread is almost hidden from view

 

Detail from the plan of the Observatory grounds as they existed in December 1846 showing the eastern extent of the enclosures of 1791 and 1813. Modified from the plan published in the 1845 volume of Greenwich Observations. Reproduced courtesy of Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek under a No Copyright - Non-Commercial Use Only license (see below)

The impact of the Observatory expansion on the upper steps

In the Francis Place etching Prospectus Orientalis (above), the top of the top riser ends just beyond the cupola of Flamsteed's Well Telescope. It is shown in much the same position on the Francis Place map, the 1693 map and the Woodlands map. Although the Well Telescope no longer exists and the well shaft has long since been filled in, its exact position on the ground is known. Over time, there was a tendency for the top of the Grand Ascent to shift northwards towards the river. Initially this was largely due to the enclosure of the Observatory courtyard (F on the adjacent map) by Nevil Maskelyne in 1791 ((Work 16/126) and the enclosure in 1813 of the 'Drying Ground' (everything east of the line joining the site of the Well Telescope and the courtyard gates) at the east end of the Meridian Building (Work 16/126 & RGO6/22/78).

The north-east corner of the courtyard where the tree now stands, consists of made-up ground, 124 loads of gravel having been recorded by Maskelyne in his journal as having been brought in from Blackheath. Since there was roughly level access into and from the courtyard, it seems likely that some amount of infill was also necessary outside the boundary in the Park, something that was confirmed in April 2022 during a ground survey when a localised thickness of at least 1.75 m of made ground was encountered in a borehole near the top of the Ascent on the western side (See Civil engineering stage 4 report p06-part-1).

Whilst the creation of the Courtyard brought the eastern boundary of the Observatory closer to the Grand Ascent, the enclosure of the Drying Ground brought it right up against the top of the steps. Both alterations, and particularly the second, must have had an impact on the topography outside, not least because following the second extension, anyone entering the courtyard from the south would have had to cross the corner of the Grand Ascent to reach it. In the adjacent plan, the positions of the trees on the west side of the Ascent (single row) and Blackheath Avenue (double row) have been marked as grey circles of varying sizes. As can be seen, four? of the pines originally planted at the top of the Ascent are missing, presumably having been removed to allow better access to the Courtyard.

The Great Equatorial Building was built on part of the land enclosed in 1813. Its position is marked on both of the maps below. Note how the Observatory boundary hugs the outer edge of the avenue. Also note the four replacement trees towards the centre of the photo and the pile of horse droppings (bottom right). From an albumen print made in about 1903/4

Map showing the top of the Ascent as it existed in 1867. Although the east side of the top of the Ascent is still in its original location, the top of the west side has had a large chunk cut out of it. Detail from the 1:2500 Ordnance Survey map: London - Middlesex & Kent XII.22 (surveyed: 1867, published: 1871). Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a (CC-BY) license

By the time the survey for this map took place, the Wolfe Statue had been erected and the Avenue extended northwards onto ground formally occupied by the steps. Detail from the 1:1250 Ordnance Survey map TQ3877SE A (surveyed: 1950, published: 1951). Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a (CC-BY) license

This 1947 aerial view used by the Ordnance Survey to assist in the production of the map above. Detail from Ordnance Survey Air Photo Mosaic Sheet (1:1,250 scale): 51/3877 S.E. / TQ 3877 S.E. Prepared from Air Photos taken: May, 1947. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under a (CC-BY) license

Looking down the Ascent towards the Queen's House in the late 1940s. During the war and for a while afterwards, a large part of the Parterre was used as allotments. They were still there when this picture was taken. From a postcard published by F. Frith & Co., Ltd

At some point between 1975 and 1983, the area around the Wolfe Statue was re-landscaped to the form shown here . Exactly when this work was carried out has not yet been possible to establish. The important thing to note, is that the hard-landscaping did not extend as far northwards as before, its northern edge having been moved back towards the Statue. It consisted of a low stone wall in front of which there was a row of Berberis (which developed into a hedge) in front of which was a low fence. Detail from a postcard showing the 28p stamp issued by the Post Office on 26 June 1984 to celebrate the centenary of the International Meridian Conference that lead to the adoption of the Greenwich Meridian as the Prime Meridian of the world. Post Office

The same hard-landscaping as in the image above on 23 February 2021. In the 1980s, neither the black railings (left) nor the stainless steel railings (inserted in the stone-work) were present. The date when the Berberis and low fence in front of the wall were removed has yet to be established but is thought to have be when the stainless steel railings were installed and to have been around the time of the millennium. The black fence (left) was erected in 2008 (see below). The whole of the hard- landscaping around the Wolfe Statue was removed at the end of 2023 and reconfigured as part of Greenwich Park Revealed. This involved pushing the boundary forward again to the position shown on the 1950/1951 map i.e. to roughly the edge of the grassless area is on the right

See also the following Historic England aerial views from the Aerofilms archive:

1924, view from the north (Photo - EPW010756)

1946, view from the south-east (Photo - EAW002293)

1948, view from the west (Photo - EAW016232)

1948, view from the north-west (Photo - EAW016233)

1948, view from the north (Photo - EAW016224)

And:

A complete list of all the Observatory enclosures from Greenwich Park

 

Erosion, picnics and the ever-shifting paths

The Francis Place etching Facies Speculae Septen at the top of the page shows three routes up the hill. A gently climbing path on a similar alignment to the present path, an angled path that hits the Grand Ascent about half way up before continuing steeply upwards along its western edge and a little used path up the centre of the Ascent itself.

The Griiffier paintings show a well worn path rising steeply up the hill on the western side of the Ascent. None of the early plans of the Park show the location of any paths. The first plan so far identified that shows them is the Sayer Plan of 1840, which was republished at a reduced scale in 1850 (RGO6/610). At that time, the path running immediately below bottom step did not exist. What did exist however were two paths crossing the Parterre which crossed over each other just below the site of the bottom step. The first came from the vicinity of St Mary's Gate and crossed the banks of the Parterre twice, the second crossing being on the south bank (the section crossing the Parterre was removed in 2024). The second came directly from the Park Row gate and crossed the Parterre banks in no less than four place before rising up the centre of the Grand Ascent. The same path is also shown on the following Ordnance Survey map, but here it rises up the hill on the eastern side of the steps.

Ordnance Survey: London and its environs (reduced from the Skeleton Plans) Sheet XII.NW, Surveyed: 1848-50, Published: c. 1851

but not on this later one:

Ordnance Survey: London - Middlesex & Kent XII.22, Surveyed: 1867, Published: 1871

By 1840 there were already gaps in the Scots pines. The path leading from Park Row to the bottom of the Ascent is visible behind the trees on the right. Greenwich Hospital from the Observatory. Watercolour by William Collingwood signed and date 1840. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Accession Number P.9-1928)

As the trees on the edges of the Giant Steps matured, they began to obstruct the view of London from the top of the Ascent. It was possibly for this reason that the trees where the large gap can be seen towards the middle of the western row were felled.

The trees also blocked the view looking up to the Observatory from the north-east. Images looking across the Ascent towards the Observatory are thin on the ground from around 1750 until 1850. So too are images of Flamsteed House from the north that include the Grand Ascent. Things changed with the advent of photography and in particular stereo-photography. For a stereo-view to produce a good 3-D image, it needs objects in the foreground, objects in the in the distance and ideally objects in between. The two rows of trees with the Observatory behind were ideal – even if a large part of the Observatory was obscured!

The Royal Collection has a copy of the earliest known photograph showing the Grand Ascent.

Royal Collection Trust: 1893 photograph copy after an 1853 original (RCIN 2906076)

A large gap in the western treeline can be seen as well as a large amount of erosion on the slope. Of particular interest is the series of what look like railway sleepers on the eastern side (left). Nine can be made out and there were no-doubt others further up the slope. Their purpose is unclear, but could have been to prevent further erosion of this part of the slope by stopping people from walking here. To the right of the bottom tree on the left, two paths are visible crossing the northern bank of the Parterre. The one heading off on a slight diagonal towards the bottom right hand is the path that was removed in 2024. The other, leading towards the photographer, is the path that ran directly towards this point from the Park Row gate (as shown on the Sayer plans). Also visible bottom right are some of the Scots Pines that were planted on either side of the terrace located between the bottom of the Ascent and the south end of the Parterre.

Carrying the date of 18 September and the initisals HWG on the front, two of the 'sleepers' can be seen in this stereoview. It is not known if HWG was the photographer, the owner or both. Nor is it known if the card was published commercially. Flamsteed House is visible behind the trees (centre-right)

A later view from 1869. Note the couple with their picnic table (bottom right as well as the couple who appear to be sitting on one of the steps. London from Greenwich Hill by Henry Dawson. Oil on canvas, 1869. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, Accession number: B1981.25.216. Public Domain

Although the 1867/1871 OS map shows the path leading from the Park Row gate to the bottom of the Giant Steps as having been extinguished, early postcards show that the section crossing the Parterre banks was still in existence in the 1890s before finally being extinguished around the turn of the century.

In this photo from the 1890s, the path coming from Park Row can be clearly seen. However, rather than ascend the hill, it appears to terminate near the tree in the centre of the picture. its onward path being blocked by a short section of fence. Note too the presence of a new path running along the bottom of the ascent (not shown on the 1:1056 Ordnance Survey map which was revised in 1893 and published in 1895 (link below). Detail from a postcard by Perkins, Son and Venimore

Ordnance Survey: London - London XII.22. Revised: 1893,  Published: 1895

The date a fence was first erected at the top of the Ascent has yet to be established, but was possibly in the mid 1850s. This view, which dates from around 1890, shows the second one to be erected here. It remained in place until just before the erection of the Wolfe Statue in 1930. Whilst this fence has vertical railings, the earlier one had horizontal ones. From a multi-view postcard published by the Chaucer Postcard Publishing Company

In this view from about 1904, the short section of fence at the bottom of the Ascent has been removed and the path from Park Row finally extinguished (though its ghost-like former presence can still be seen). The pines have also been felled and the new trees planted. Note the group of deer (bottom left). From a postcard published anonymously

A second view of the fence at the top of the Ascent, this time from around 191115. From a postcard by S. Phillips, Catford

Thought to have been taken in the 1920s, the hillside shows no signs of erosion in this shot. Detail from a postcard published by C. Degen, London

By the time this photo was taken in 192527, part of the railings had been removed and a new path down the Ascent was beginning to form. From a postcard attributed to C.W. Green, Plumstead

By the mid 1920s, a bare patch had started to open up towards the bottom of the slope. The photo is thought to have been taken between 1925 and 1928. Detail from a postcard by Card House

To make room for the Wolfe Statue the area in front of the Observatory gates was enlarged by moving the fence at the top of the Ascent northwards. Rather than re-erect the old fence, which would have partially obscured the statue's plinth from the bottom of the hill, a new much lower fence, (similar to those that existed on the edges of the paths crossing the Parterre in the image above), was erected instead. It is thought to have remained in place until at least the 1970s. This image is thought to date from 192930 and comes from a postcard attributed to C.W. Green, Plumstead

Probably taken in 1950, this photo was entered by Valentine in their card register on 13 February 1951. The allotments have gone and there is no obvious signs of erosion on the slope. Detail from a postcard by by Valentine & Sons Ltd.

A few years later, a new well worn path has become established. The image is thought to date from about 1955. Detail from a postcard published by Wilson College

By around 1958 when this shot is believed to have been taken, a deep rut had opened up in the middle of the path. Although remedial work was later undertaken, some sort of path continued to exist on the slope until at least the start of the 1970s. Detail from a postcard published by Gordon Fraser. Photo by by H. Luckyn-Williams

The Ascent on 21 July 1975. At this point there was no fence at the bottom of the Ascent and only the very low fence at the top. Photo by Peter Shimmon

By the time David Dixon took this photograph on 28 October 1981, a fence had been erected across the bottom of the Ascent. The grass where the earlier path had been looks greener than that on either side

In this shot taken by Gordon Beach in May 1994, the fence at the top of the Ascent can be seen as well as the fence at the bottom. Immediately in front of the top fence there is a hedge of Berberis. Although determined people were still able to find a way onto the grass, there is little sign of erosion

In this later view by Nick Macneill, which was taken on 18 October 1998, the grass shows bare patches, but the Ascent is still free of a path to the top

The unofficial path that existed on the hillside just to the east of the Grand Ascent. It started where the fence at the bottom of the ascent came to an end. In order to try and stop people from using it, in 2008 a new and extended fence was erected at the bottom and the fence at the top extended. Unlike the old fence, the new one was rather easier to climb over. Photo: 22 May 2007

The fence nearing completion at the bottom of the Ascent. Photo: 21 May 2008

Extending the fence at the top of the Ascent. Photo: 21 May 2008

By the time this photo was taken on 16 June 2010 by Robert Lamb, a new path down the centre of the Ascent had become established and the new fence damaged by people climbing over it. The central section was later removed for safety reasons. Following this, a new fence was eventually erected with vertical rather than horizontal rails

30 June 2015. The new path is now well established, despite the presence of the new fence at the bottom

 

 

Closing the view

Flaxman's visualisation of his statue of Britannia at the top of the Grand Ascent which was included in his letter. Digitsed by Google from the copy in the British Library

A letter to the committee for raising the naval pillar, or monument, under the patronage of His Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence. John Flaxman (1799)

Click here for a more detailed view of the proposed statue

Proposed pillar to commemorate the naval heroes and victories of the French Wars from 1793 onwards (1804)

The Wolfe statue has stood guard outside the Observatory since 1930. The gift of the Canadian people to the people of Britain, it was sculpted by Robert Tait McKenzie and unveiled on Thursday 5 June by the Marquis de Montcalm a descendant of Louis-Joseph de Montcalm whom Wolfe had fought at the Battle of Quebec. Wolfe, whose parents lived in Macartney House on the western edge of Greenwich Park, died in the battle as did Montcalm. After the battle, Wolfe’s body was repatriated and is buried nearby in St Alfege Church. The north side of the plinth on which it stands suffered shrapnel damage during the Second Word War, which remains visible today.

The Observatory and Wolfe statue in 1933. From a postcard published by Valentine's (No.220060)

 

Views looking down the Ascent towards the Queens House

British Museum Collections

Welcome Collections

 

 

Greenwich Park Revealed Planning documents

Planning applications lodged with Royal Borough of Greenwich

Reference
Detail
  Approved
19/4305/F Various works to Greenwich Park including … landscaping and planting enhancements including the reinstatement of the Grand Ascent or Giant Steps and Parterre Banks ...
  4 Sep 2020
23/2509/SD Submission of details pursuant to the discharge of Conditions 8 (Giant Steps Final Details) and partial discharge of Condition 11 (Landscape Restoration Method Statement) of planning permission 19/4305/F dated 04/09/2020.   14 Nov 2023

Key differences between the two sets of plans for the Grand Ascent.

The Illustrative coloured Master Plan submitted as part of  19/4305/F shows 6 risers and five treads, the treads being level across their width, each with a tree planted on the eastern side in line with the outer row of trees in Blackheath Avenue and a tree planted on the western side of the lower treads only, also in line with the outer row of trees in Blackheath Avenue. In addition, the plan also shows an additional pair of trees on the same alignment on the terrace immediately below the bottom riser. A second copy of the plan can be found in the Heritage Statement. This is broadly consistent with what is stated in the Design and Access Statement:

'The western edge of the escarpment has been re-engineered to support the Observatory Hill footpath and this encroaches on the alignment of the proposed Giant Steps above step three. No evidence remains of steps four to six as a consequence of the re-engineering of the top of the escarpment when the current edge of the Wolfe Statue dais was created in the 1920’s. The three top steps will thus be created on the Woodland Plan layout through a ‘fill-only’ engineering operation. Steps one to three at the foot of the slope will be re-engineered through a combination of ‘cut and fill’ operations to reinstate their visual impact. The visual impact of the steps will be reinforced by the planting of a single line of Scots Pine on each step on both the east and west sides of the steps, aligning with the outer line of tree planting along Blackheath Avenue, to reflect the historical record.'

 

Further reading

Garden Works in Greenwich Park, 1662–1728, David Jacques (2014)

Greenwich Park conservation plan 2019–2029, Royal Parks

The Royal Parks Management Plans

Major changes to Greenwich Park could be approved soon, Murky Depthswebsite, 21 Aug 2020

Carl Lubin's visualisation of how Greenwich Hospital, the Paterre and the Grand Ascent might have looked if some of the proposed schemes had been adopted

 

Acknowledgements and Image licensing

The images from the British Museum are reproduced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license, courtesy of the The Trustees of the British Museum. All have been further compressed for this website. MG.718 has also been reduced in size. Museum Number: 1880,1113.5519 consists of two plates that have been digitally joined and cropped. Musuem number:

Museum number: 1865,0610.949
Museum number: 1865,0610.950
Museum number: 1880,1113.5519
Musuem number: MG.718

The following Vorsterman paintings are reproduced courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art under a Creative Commons No Copyright License.

Paul Mellon Collection:

Vosterman. Accession Number: B1976.7.112

Dawson. Accession number: B1981.25.216

The Nathaniel Buck engravingis reproduced courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art under a Creative Commons No Copyright License. Paul Mellon Collection, Accession Number B1977.14.19080

The plan of the Observatory grounds as they existed in December 1846 is reproduced courtesy of Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek under a No Copyright - Non-Commercial Use Only licence. It is taken from the 1845 volume of Greenwich Observations published in 1847.

The two Ordnance Survey maps and air photo mozaic are reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) licence.

Ordnance Survey map, 1:2500. London - Middlesex & Kent XII.22. Surveyed: 1867, Published: 1871

Ordnance Survey map, 1:1250. TQ3877SE – A. Surveyed: 1950, Published: 1951

Ordnance Survey Air Photo Mosaic Sheet (1:1,250 scale): 51/3877 S.E. / TQ 3877 S.E. Prepared from Air Photos taken: May, 1947

 

Author's notes

 

Note 1