Somerset House was one of the places I went to on my first solo trip to London, nearly 8 years ago, although I can’t remember now whether it was somewhere that I’d planned to go (knowing that it was the base of the old Navy Board), or just an exciting surprise as I wandered along the river. I suspect the latter.
And I was back quite recently, killing time on the day I flew to Gibraltar – having come out of the Trafalgar day service with plenty of time to spare, I decided that I might as well go for a walk along the river.
The original Somerset House was one of the great aristocratic London houses by the river, and later a royal palace, but in 1776 it was rebuilt to provide a suitable home for various government departments which had been scattered over London.
The Navy Board was the administrative side of the navy – responsible for building and supplying ships and for the various dockyards, for pay, and for appointing warrant officers, with the Sick and Hurt board, Transport board and Victualling board under it – and often seems to have been at war itself with the Admiralty at Whitehall.
The Seamen’s Hall is still used as the main entrance from the river side, and when I first visited had portraits of several famous naval figures on its wall – I was sorry on my latest visit to see that they had gone.
Because the building was built for the purpose – or because its so close to the river, or both – there are watery images all over it. There are various river gods, but this one looks like it has to be Neptune himself.
At one end of the main building is the stair known as the Nelson staircase, originally the Navy stair, which leads up to the old Navy Boardroom.
The stair was destroyed in the war and rebuilt, so the lovely railings aren’t original, but they’re very nice just the same.