Giant steps to come to Greenwich Park as council backs £10m revamp

Observatory hill
Six grass steps will be created on the hill – with the path at the bottom removed

Major changes to Greenwich Park – including creating a series of grass steps on the hill leading up to the Royal Observatory – were approved by Greenwich councillors tonight.

The project will see the recreation of six 17th-century “giant steps” on the hill – a plan which has been mooted for decades. A favourite for sunbathers in summer and sledgers in winter, public access to the hill will be restricted after the changes are made, although park bosses have promised to open it for sledging in winter.

Royal Parks says this is necessary because the hill is dangerously eroded. A diagonal path leading across the foot of the hill – the Parterre Banks – will also be removed.

Observatory Hill
Erosion of the hill was cited as a reason for recreating the steps: the Wolfe viewing area will be extended out to this point

The area at the top of the hill – around the General Wolfe statue – will also be changed, with the viewing area extended north and the base of the statue extended east and west to provide more space for visitors and photography. But there was criticism from councillors that there was no illustration of what the revamped area would look like – just planners’ drawings and maps.

Alterations to the flower garden will open up views of the deer enclosure, with a new learning centre planned for the nursery area in the south-eastern corner of the park. Vanburgh Lodge, a house in the nursery area, will become a cafe.

And while 225 trees will be removed – due to disease and squirrel damage, park manager Graham Dear told the meeting – 400 new trees will be planted.

Other plans include the construction of a new storage area for the Pavilion Cafe, and a new refreshment kiosk near the Wolfe statue.

The £10m Greenwich Park Revealed project was unanimously approved by Greenwich Council’s planning board at its first meeting after the summer break. The project was also supported by the Friends of Greenwich Park, the Greenwich Society and the Westcombe Society, although concerns were raised about the felling of so many trees. Lesley Hodsdon of the Greenwich Society said the scheme was “in many ways, long overdue”.

Nursery area
The learning centre will be in the nursery compound in the south-east of the park. Vanburgh Lodge – hidden behind trees to the right – will become a cafe

Dear said the main area where trees would be felled was at the bottom of the hill. “It’s a 17th-century landscape and the reason why Greenwich Park is part of the world heritage site. It’s a formal avenue which is of fundamental importance to the world heritage site.” He said that disease had killed off the trees on the eastern side and attempts to replant them in the 1970s had failed, while the trees on the western side had been damaged by squirrels. Disease-resistant elms and lime trees would be planted on both sides to give the area a consistent appearance, he said, adding that replacement of the trees on the west side would take four years.

Royal Parks’ head of landscape, Jane Pelly, said the World War II shrapnel damage on the Wolfe statue would stay, while the extension to the viewing area would restore it to how it was in the 1920s.

Wolfe statue
Wartime damage to the Wolfe statue will remain but the plinth will be extended

Asked by Charlton ward councillor Linda Perks about sledging down the hill, Pelly said access would be allowed on snowy days. “The giant steps are a series of sloping platforms, there will be sloping edges to those steps. There will be open access to through gates which we will open up on play days and holidays and snowy days.” Fencing at the bottom would be removed, she added, joking that it would offer “an enhanced sledging experience”.

Conservative councillor Nigel Fletcher said that while the learning centre was “technically inappropriate in planning terms” – because it was being built on metropolitan open land – “it is quite clear that it is an improvement”.

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