The early importance of the site of The Spread Eagle may seem difficult to comprehend today. It is however situated on what is probably the most ancient road in historic Greenwich on the site of an alehouse dating from the early sixteen hundreds. Its location at a strategic junction with Crooms [Celtic for “crooked”] Hill all but dictates that some kind of lodging, tavern or eating house had been there from earliest times.
Before the third century, the water table in the Thames Valley made it possible to ford the Thames to the west of Greenwich. Thus the original line of the Roman--and most likely before that, the pre-historic road from Dover, Canterbury and the Kent Coast to our present capital--left the heights of Blackheath to approach London by the most direct route and the easiest and nearest crossing of the Thames.
Subsequent massive land falls and flooding wrought dramatic changes in the water levels of the Thames, creating marshy land unsuitable for an approach road and making the river too deep to ford. Thus whilst the later road crosses the Heath to descend Blackheath Hill towards London via the Old Kent Road, the earlier route--now known as the Old Dover Road--diagonally crossed Greenwich Park to take the line of Nevada Street (once Silver Street--a name with Roman associations) and meet and cross the river.
Meanwhile the road from Woolwich--which at one time passed beneath the Queen’s House to emerge into the present Nevada Street and pass the strategic junction with another early road, Crooms (Celtic for “crooked”) Hill which bordered the Royal Park and provided its early houses with some of the most fashionable aspects in the town on its way to meet the river. This juncture was the site of the “stock well” which provided the principal source of fresh water for both animals and household use from the first settlement of Greenwich up to the seventeenth century.
The Eagle Tavern stood for many centuries at this junction. Although the first records of it as an alehouse date from the early sixteen hundreds, it is inconceivable that there had not been some form of lodging, tavern or eating house standing there from earliest times. Many fragments of Roman pottery have been unearthed on and around the present property and the name “eagle” has long been associated with Roman sites.
Owing to its strategic site and its early role as a hostelry for travellers, it was inevitable that the Eagle should become involved from the beginning with the fast-growing coaching trade. To cater for this grander and expanding use towards the end of the eighteenth century, The Eagle was extended round the corner into what is now Nevada Street--from which time it was known as “The Spread Eagle”.
Whilst retaining much of its seventeenth century structure within, the tavern was refaced in 1780 in the then modern style. The adjacent site was totally redeveloped to provide a coffee house, chop house and ticket office for the coaching trade. The upper part of the whole complex became the hotel and one accessed the stabling, coachyard and ostlers’ quarters by the present cobbled route through the handsome central arch of the new building.
Coaches travelled from Greenwich to the Red Lion in the Strand and back every day. More and more roads were becoming turnpiked so there were more regular services into Kent and ultimately, to the Coast. Rochester was soon within a day’s drive and Canterbury, Margate and Dover could all be reached by the end of the following day. There was already a regular boat service to France and therefore many travellers must have left England via Greenwich and The Spread Eagle.
Reproduced with kind permission of Dick Moy from The Spread Eagle at Greenwich. A Short History.
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