Giant Grass Steps Will Return To Greenwich Park

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 17 months ago
Giant Grass Steps Will Return To Greenwich Park
An artist's impression of the giant steps leading up to the observatory hill. Image: Royal Parks

Greenwich Park is going ahead with plans to restore a set of giant grass steps, first installed here during the reign of Charles II.

Back in 1661, Palace of Versailles landscape architect André Le Nôtre was commissioned by the English monarch to redesign the former hunting ground into a grandiloquent baroque design. This included the 'Grand Ascent', a set of giant grass steps cut into the steep bank, leading up to what is now the terrace next to the Royal Observatory.

In this view from the top of Flamsteed House, the Giant Steps (left), lead up to Blackheath Avenue with its recently planted double rows of trees on either side. To the right is the small building located outside the walled enclosure of the Observatory that housed Flamsteed’s Well Telescope.
A 17th century engraving of the steps as they appeared, before the Royal Observatory was built. Image: creative commons

Over the years, the steps eroded — in the 19th century allegedly by "thousands of young bucks tumbling down the hill with young ladies", and these days by some five million annual (and generally less lecherous) visitors. You can still, just about, see their remnants in the grass today.

A grassy hill, with a trace of old terraces
Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

There have been rumbles for yonks about rebuilding these steps, but now Royal Parks has announced that work on Greenwich Park's restyling will commence in winter 2022 — with the giant steps completed by 2025.

It's part of a wider makeover, which will also see the reinstatement of formal parterres, lined with sweeping tree avenues. The current Turkey oak trees will be replaced with lime and hardy elm trees (elms were part of the original Versailles-esque design, but perished with Dutch elm disease).

Royal Parks says its plans will benefit wildlife, support wild grasses and flowers, and boost carbon absorption.  Any trees planted before the 1970s won't be removed.

All very exciting — except not everyone is pro-giant step. Back in 2018, south east London blog 853 declared people should 'say no' to the project, saying that 'freezing' the park in any given era of time would be disingenuous, and that, with the steps in place, visitors lying on the ground at the bottom of the hill wouldn't be able to see the observatory, as they can now.

And anyway, Le Nôtre may never have even visited Greenwich Park before sketching out his plans — talk about phoning it in.

That all may be so, but this time, it seems the steps really are coming back. Fair warning though: if summers don't get any milder, there's a danger they'll end up being nicknamed the 'brown carpeted steps'.

Last Updated 08 November 2022

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