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Taking a tour of Royal Victoria Chapel

PUBLISHED: 12:29 24 September 2018

An old photograph of Royal Victoria Hospital (aka Netley Hospital) showing its immense scale

An old photograph of Royal Victoria Hospital (aka Netley Hospital) showing its immense scale

Hampshire County Council

With the centenary of the end of World War One commemorated this year, the reopening of the iconic Royal Victoria Chapel, part of our military heritage, is timely

The Chapel (which reopened on 1 August 2018) is all that remains of the Royal Victoria Hospital (aka Netley Hospital), a unique and ambitious project when it was built in 1856 as the British Army’s first purpose-built hospital. It served the military for over a century before being demolished in 1966, with millions of its bricks used as rubble in the foundations of the M27.

Those of us who love Royal Victoria Country Park, and regularly visit, have been watching work progress on the Chapel and waited patiently for this day. Personally, I am more excited about going up the Chapel’s tower than Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower, even if the Chapel’s views are more modest. They are still far-reaching, to the South Downs in one direction and the Isle of Wight in another.

So, I was delighted to be given a sneak peek of the Chapel prior to its opening, guided by Lauren Rhodes, self-confessed history nerd and Heritage, Venue & Events Manager for Royal Victoria Country Park, architect Bethan Knights who only works on heritage projects and specialises in conservation, and Seán Woodward, Hampshire County Council’s Executive Member for Recreation and Heritage.

Lauren, who has been in her role for a year, is delighted to have swapped an office in a prison cell with barred window (a year ago she was General Manager of Oxford Castle & Prison) for one in a tower with full-height windows looking out across parkland to busy Southampton Water, thronging with ships, ferries and yachts and sparkling in the sunshine.

Now we can all enjoy this mesmerising view. Accessibility within the Chapel has been significantly improved, including the installation of a lift to the first and second floors. This is just part of a £3.8M restoration project, supported by Hampshire County Council and Heritage Lottery Funding, that also encompasses conservation work to the Chapel’s original façade, the removal of an ugly 1980s’ extension, a new contemporary pavilion with refreshment area, and information points around the Park explaining the size and significance of the Hospital.

When I visited in June landscaping was underway. Hedging was being planted to mark out the original hospital entrance in front of the Chapel, while pergolas had been positioned at either end of what would have once been the central corridor.

The Chapel undergoing renovtion behind the hoardingsThe Chapel undergoing renovtion behind the hoardings

Bethan explains, “Interpreting what was here before with landscaping helps visitors to imagine the past and visualise the corridor’s length – ¼ mile from end to end.”

Imagination is not required for the Chapel itself. It is glorious. No wonder Lauren speaks of the team’s delight with what has been achieved and Seán describes the Chapel as a jewel in Hampshire’s crown.

Externally, all the brickwork has been repaired and repointed. Internally, redecoration has returned the Chapel to its former splendour. Painted a dingy, dreary brown in the 1970s, paintwork has been stripped back and replaced by a scheme of blue-grey, gold and white that is representative of the Victorian period.

Bethan has been involved from the beginning, starting on this project four and a half years ago. She explains that the first job undertaken was a thorough structural survey of the fabric of the building - which revealed considerable damage caused by leaking gutters. New timbers and panelling were required, but these repairs have been done so well it is difficult to distinguish new from old.

Similarly, some of the ornately patterned window panes are modern reproductions. The only give-away is the size: the half-panels are modern as we’ve lost the Victorians’ skills to create full-length panels. The stained-glass windows are originals, however, surviving intact thanks to protection from Perspex panels on the exterior. The approach was to keep and repair what they could, while what had to be replaced has been done sympathetically. Original light fittings were overhauled and fitted with LED elements. Chandeliers were taken down and safely stored before being rehung.

A particular challenge was the installation of new heating, more lighting and health and safety requirements without ruining the appearance and the ambience of this Grade II* listed structure. This has been achieved by hiding services where possible. For example, emergency lighting and air sampling systems are disguised within decorative ceiling bosses. Meanwhile underfloor heating has left the Chapel’s walls clear, allowing the new permanent exhibition, telling the Hospital’s fascinating life story, from construction to demolition, to sit below the windows. This has created a much lighter space and allows displays to be folded back; the intention being for the Chapel to host cultural and private events, such as shows and weddings. Concerts have already been arranged for later in the year and two or three weddings have been booked, too. (What a spectacular venue.)

The balcony in the Chapel is another area which is now open to the publicThe balcony in the Chapel is another area which is now open to the public

Adjacent to the Chapel, a new functional pavilion, clad in sweet chestnut and housing facilities such as office, store, toilets and a small café, works because it is not trying to be old.

Bethan smiles: “I get to work in the best settings and I love working on old buildings - although designing a new building in the context of an old one has been very exciting. This was my first box.”

Lauren and Bethan agree: “The best bit has been seeing it all come together, finally, and seeing people appreciate it.”

The local community is certainly very engaged and there are numerous volunteers. Some have already been working on the new exhibition: archiving, undertaking research and talking to people about their memories of the Hospital for an oral history project. The exhibition encompasses the unsung stories of those who worked here as well as Queen Victoria’s and Prince Albert’s involvement. Prince Albert regularly came to inspect the building work and when he died, during the hospital’s construction, the pointing was done in black mortar out of respect. The Hospital was also Queen Victoria’s first public outing after his death.

A window into the past can be viewed from the tower chamber, some 150ft up, below the domed cupola, and reached by 100 spiralling steps from the second floor. Here there are views out across the park and back into the past, with interpretations of the landscape in Victorian times, World War One and World War Two provided by digital reconstructions. This is where past and present meet.

The Chapel has gone from previously being open just one day a week to now being open six days a week, Tuesday to Sunday, year-round. Before there was no disabled access to the upper floors, now everyone can reach the first and second floors (and there are opportunities for community groups to use these spaces). The Chapel gallery, which was out of bounds, can now be used by the public. And more people can access the tower. So, too, can children, as there were previously height and age restrictions.

A hundred steps spiral up into the Chapel's towerA hundred steps spiral up into the Chapel's tower

Seán adds: “A brilliant team have put it altogether with an amazing amount of work; this is heritage brought to life with access for all.”

Entry to the Chapel and exhibition is free, although there is a modest entry fee to go up the Tower.

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