The Queen's House is a stunning 400-year-old classical building in Greenwich, designed by Inigo Jones. Originally intended for Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, construction took so long that she died and Charles I's queen held court here instead. The Old Royal Naval College has a gap of identical width to the House, to preserve views of the river. As for the extended colonnades which stretch like a barrier across Greenwich Park, these were added in the early 19th century.
Now part of the National Maritime Museum, the Queen's House has been closed for the last 14 months for renovation. It reopened this week in sparkling fresh form, essentially as an art gallery, but where the building's worth just as much of a look as the paintings. Entrance is via a narrow passage at ground level along the building's line of symmetry. Entrance is free, but a £4 donation is passively requested, and staff are only too keen to talk about Gift Aid should you appear keen to contribute. They don't have a floor plan yet, nor indeed a map of any kind, so you'll need to explore the rooms and passageways carefully to make sure you don't miss anything.
There are lifts to all floors, should you require these, but otherwise you take the stairs. These don't look much to start with, more a winding dark ascent, but when they open out at the next floor they're amazing. These are the Tulip Stairs, the first self-supported spiral staircase in England, with an ornate wrought-iron balustrade rising elegantly to an upper lantern. Their gorgeousness has not gone unnoticed, so expect to find at least one photographer at the bottom pointing upwards and cursing quietly at any intrusive hand upon the rail. Feel free to ascend and ruin their frame, or join the scrum and await your turn for Instagram gold.
At the centre of the building is The Great Hall, designed by Jones as a perfect cube, hence loftier than you'd expect. Its floor is also somewhat geometrical, the black and white design laid in marble in 1635, and still to striking effect. A wooden balcony runs all the way around at top floor level, from which courtiers could have looked down over a regal dance, or whatever was taking place below. The ceiling's not original, indeed the gold leaf artwork speckled across it has been added during the recent closure by Turner-winning artist Richard Wright, but the overall effect is sympathetic and equally photogenic.
To each side of the hall, on two levels, are the palace rooms now used as galleries. Downstairs the emphasis is on the 19th and 20th centuries, and very much on maritime tradition, including a Lowry no less, his somewhat unexpected View of Deptford Power Station from Greenwich. Upstairs the emphasis is more Tudor, Stuart and Georgian, and there are far more rooms up here so expect more of the older stuff. One painted ceiling dazzles, and below it is the famous Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, the NMM's most recent arty acquisition.
Expect a lot of admirals posing sternly, and also the odd scale model ship (including the oldest known, dating from 1669). But mixed within are several more varied objects, including Delftware and astrolabes, with each small room carefully themed and labelled. Indeed the gallery upgrade seems faultless, presenting a broad range of material that's not just a load of canvases hung on the wall. Having said that, my favourite exhibit is a painting, namely Greenwich and London from One Tree Hill by the Dutch landscape artist Johannes Vorsterman. It shows the view from the top of the park in 1680, from the small town of Greenwich to the spires of a rebuilt London, but my eye is always drawn to the tall ships on the river running between undeveloped grassy banks round the Isle of Dogs meander.
Allow up to an hour to stroll around the revamped Queen's House, and expect it to be busy at the weekend, especially as the place reopens. If you're not local then remember Greenwich has tons of other stuff to offer, for free, including the National Maritime Museum upstairs, the Painted Chapel by the river and the Astronomy Centre behind the Observatory on the hill. But before you leave the Queen's House, make sure to walk round the side and discover the arched passageway buried through the centre. This was once the main road between Deptford and Woolwich, with the queen's residence built across the top to ensure continued access. This former thoroughfare explains why her first floor is so much larger than her ground floor, and is one further insight into this unique royal treasure.