Tag Archive | Greenwich

London 2018: Royal Observatory Greenwich

Day 4, Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Our last destination on our fourth day was the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where you can see the Prime Meridian…

Everybody learns about the Prime Meridian in school, but perhaps you are like me and its significance loses its meaning over time.  Short answer: it is critical for the navigation of ships.

For thousands of years, sailing has been a very dangerous business.  If you don’t know where you are, you can easily get lost out there in a gazillion square miles of endless ocean.  Latitude was apparently easy to calculate.  I’m not sure I agree with that statement, but there you go.  All you need to know was the calendar date, and then calculate with your instrument how far the sun rose above the horizon that day.  Then, you just looked up that information in a book that had already been compiled for you and voila, easy peasy, you know where you are…

The longitude was way harder, and meant that for thousands of years, mariners had been using a method called dead reckoning…  Perhaps the emphasis should be on the “dead,” because it was notoriously inaccurate on long voyages where you couldn’t see land.  Remember how Columbus thought he was on mainland North America but he was actually on Caribbean islands?  Yeah, that.  That is actually a fairly successful outcome of dead reckoning.

First and foremost to calculate longitude, you needed to know what time it was.  For longitude calculations, you needed to know the exact time; a set standard time, say Greenwich Mean Time.  And clocks and watches of the day weren’t particularly accurate or reliable.  A few seconds off and you were basically screwed.  And when your clock wound down and stopped, who would you ask for the time?  Yep…  On land, you could ask the neighbor, but out on the open ocean, there was no one around to tell you the time.  See?  Screwed.  Not to mention that all that pitching and rolling on ships made it very difficult for the clocks of the day to work accurately.  Longitude was pretty much a matter of having a very accurate, very reliable clock, that would be accurate and reliable even on a ship that was getting tossed around on the open ocean.

The Prime Meridian Clock

The Longitude Act of 1714 attempted to change that accurate/reliable issue.  Queen Anne was in power when the Act was passed, establishing a Board of Longitude (sounds like a super exciting volunteer opportunity), and a reward for finding a simple, way to determine longitude that would work on ships.

John Harrison felt up to the challenge and started working around 1727 on such a clock.  His work produced four iterations, not always improving, and eventually, in 1761 he tested his fourth clock successfully.  There is a lot more to the story than that, but I’ll spare you, since longitude really isn’t that thrilling, even for me.

However, even though his fourth clock was successfully tested, the Board of Longitude for whatever reason decided he should only get half of the prize money, or 10,000 pounds, awarded in 1765.  That was a lot of money in the day, but Harrison had been working on this for over 35 years, and was, understandably, pissed.  There were also lawsuits because Harrison felt that his methods should be protected, and the Board of Longitude wanted to publish them for mass production.  I guess they weren’t super clear about patents and trade secrets when they drafted the act…  There were other prizes awarded for other advancements as well, but Harrison made the most significant contribution and won the most money.

So long story short, a meridian is just an arbitrary line set to establish a base from which time can be calculated as you move east or west.  It could have been anywhere, and arguments were made for lots of other places, but ultimately Greenwich won out in large part because the Royal Observatory was there, and because of the Longitude Act of 1714 and the fact that prize money was awarded to the winners.

Now, in the days of radar and GPS, the Prime Meridian in Greenwich is more of a tourist opportunity to stand on the line, sit on the line, pose with the line, and say you have been to the place where time begins, arbitrarily…  So we did.  Just so you know, the jumping photo was Taryn’s idea – that might explain my less enthusiastic liftoff…

The museum also explains all the nuance of calculating longitude, the 1714 Act, displays Harrison’s H1, H2, H3 and H4 prototypes, and other navigational instruments and telescopes.  It is pretty interesting!  The Observatory also has a pretty nice view of London across the Thames River, since it is located on a hill.

A navigational aid

The view of London from the Prime Meridian in Greenwich

Costs: Royal Observatory – free with London Pass.

London 2018: National Maritime Museum

Day 4, Wednesday, June 27, 2018

After our visit to Queen’s House, we went next door to check out the National Maritime Museum.  We were really on a roll with museum visits that day…

National Maritime Museum Entrance

The Maritime Museum has several interesting exhibits, including a whole wall of figureheads from ships.  It also displays Prince Frederick’s barge, which was designed and built between 1731 and 1732, and is covered with gilded decorations.  That’s right, the barge is covered in 22 carat gold!  A lot of it!  The barge has a walkway so you can see it up close and personal, and I was surprised that there is no wall keeping visitors from touching it.  There is only a sign asking people not to.  England is so different from the United States.

A 22 carat gilded barge from 1732

The museum was pretty interesting overall, but I was a bit disappointed by all of the wasted space in the center of the museum – there was just a big open area with nothing in it.  I suppose they may use that area for events, but it seems a shame that they didn’t fill it with more exhibits.  Perhaps I was just getting a bit tired and museumed out for the day.  I took hardly any photos there, and I’m not sure why, because they did have some interesting exhibits.  I do have the guidebook to look back on though.

After Taryn and I had our fill, we headed outside to sit down under some shade trees for a little while.  Outside, there is a huge replica of Nelson’s HMS Victory in a bottle.  The Victory is the ship that Horatio Nelson died on during the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  If you haven’t heard of Horatio Nelson, he is basically England’s biggest naval hero…

HMS Victory in a giant bottle

It was nice; just sitting down for a while and relaxing.  Sometimes you just need that.  Only for a little while though, because then we were off to see the Prime Meridian!

Me, relaxing


Costs: National Maritime Museum – free, your London Pass will get you a free guidebook.

London 2018: Queen’s House

Day 4, Wednesday, June 27, 2018

After our walk though of the Royal Naval College, we headed over to Queen’s House to check it out.  Queen’s House was designed by the famous architect Inigo Jones in 1616 as an apology from King James I to his wife, Anne of Denmark.  Legend has it that it was a gift from the king, because he swore in front of her after she had accidentally killed one of his favorite dogs during a hunt.  So many questions; I mean how does a woman kill a dog during a hunt, especially since I can’t imagine it was very common for women to be on a hunt in the first place during the period.  What an incredible, “I’m sorry” gift!  All for a few curse words!

Queen’s House Exterior

Unfortunately, Anne died in 1619 before the house was finished and work stopped at that point, until it was eventually given by James’ son Charles I to his wife Henrietta Maria in 1629.  It was finally completed in 1636.  Henrietta didn’t get to use it that long though, because of that pesky English Civil War and the fact that the royal family had to go into exile until 1660.  In 1805 it was gifted to a charity for use as an asylum for the orphans of seamen, and was used for that purpose until 1933.

View of the Naval College from Queen’s House

Since 1934, the building has been owned by the National Maritime Museum as one of the Royal Museums of Greenwich, which uses it to house part of its extensive maritime art collection, as well as many royal portraits.  Sadly the building has been renovated and remodeled over the years and only a few original ceilings and a few wall decorations remain intact.  They did save the Tulip Stairs, the first centrally unsupported stairs in England.  The stone treads lock into one another and the wall.  The tulip banister was probably chosen by Henrietta Maria, and although they look like tulips, experts believe that they are probably lilies, the royal flower.  Even though Queen’s House doesn’t have much of its original architecture, it does have an awesome collection of art!

The Haunted Tulip Stairs

Just so you know, Queen’s House is supposedly haunted…  According to the Queen’s House website, “in 1966 a retired Canadian reverend and his wife visited the Queen’s House. The Rev and Mrs R W Hardy had heard about the famous Tulip staircase and took a photograph. It was not until they developed it once they were back home, that they saw it had also captured the image of a shrouded figure. On closer inspection, the figure appears to be ascending the stairs in pursuit of a second and possibly a third figure.”  I didn’t know this when we visited, but now that I do, I’m sad that we didn’t see the ghost!

It was certainly fun to wander through the galleries, although the layout of the building is quite confusing with the collections of rooms built around a large, open, central space.  I got a little lost in there a few times!  Strangely, every time I got lost I ended up back at the Tulip Stairs… Maybe there is something to that ghost thing…


Costs: Queen’s House – free


London 2018: Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Day 4, Wednesday, June 27, 2018

We continued our tour of Greenwich with a brief walk through of the historic Greenwich Royal Naval College.  The buildings here were built between 1696 and 1712, and were originally the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, or more generally known as Greenwich Hospital.  The hospital was built on the instructions of Mary II, who was troubled by the lack of care for seamen returning from the Battle of La Hogue.  The chapel and the Painted Hall were both built at this time.

One of the buildings at the Naval College

Eventually the hospital was closed and the site was converted to a naval training center; it served this purpose between 1873 and 1998.  It is now managed by the Greenwich Foundation, which opened the site to the public in 2002, and does a variety of events, movie filming, and other activities there.

The fountain at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich

The Painted Hall is an artistic masterpiece; the work of Sir James Thornhill, between 1707 and 1726.  During this period, the United Kingdom was created, and the murals on the walls and ceilings depict the political change occurring at the time.  Other themes include cultural and scientific achievements, naval accomplishments and commercial enterprises.  The murals and ceilings are currently being restored.

Our visit was a little confusing; the guidebook and the Painted Hall’s website indicated that the site is free to visit. However, when we went in, there was obviously an admission charge of 11 pounds.  We decided not to pay, as we had a lot of other tourist activities we were doing, so we checked out the entryway artwork and exited.  I think that the site is technically closed because of the restoration, but you can choose to have a guided tour of the ceiling, and that is what the admission was for. It would have been nice if the Greenwich Foundation made this more clear.  If you can shed some light on this, please let me know.

One day I would love to see the Painted Hall, in all its restored glory; the art in the entryway was pretty amazing…  In the meantime, you can see photos at the Painted Hall website.

The entry of the Painted Hall

We did walk across the way to the original chapel, which is also an architectural and artistic masterpiece and dates from the time of the hospital.  I love seeing old churches, and this one certainly didn’t disappoint. Both the art and the woodwork here are beautiful.


Costs: Old Royal Naval College – Painted Hall – 11 pounds? (not included with London pass), Chapel – free

London 2018: Cutty Sark

Day 4, Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Our original plan was to go back to the City Cruises river cruise and take one more trip over to Greenwich on the River Thames.  We got there at 9:20, but the boat didn’t depart until 10 am and we decided that we didn’t want to wait that long, so we took the Tube and the train to Greenwich instead.

Artsy escalator shot

Once we got to Greenwich, we went to the Cutty Sark Museum.  The Cutty Sark is a sailing ship that was built in 1869 for the tea trade; it was once the fastest sailing ship in the world.  Her maximum logged speed was 17.5 knots, or 20.1 miles per hour.  That was fast back in the day!  However, she was built right as technology was converting over to steam ships, which could travel a lot faster than sailing ships.  There was fierce competition in the tea trade, and the Cutty Sark could not compete with steam ships, so she began carrying wool from Australia back to the UK, as well as other products.

The Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sark got her name from the clothing worn by the witch Nannie Dee in Tam o’ Shanter, a 1791 poem by Robert Burns.  A cutty sark is a Scottish term for a short nightgown.  The Cutty Sark’s figurehead is a carving of Nannie Dee holding onto a grey horse’s tail.  In the poem, the witches are chasing Tam, who is fleeing on his horse Maggie.  The common wisdom of the time said that witches couldn’t cross running water, so he fled over the river, but not before Nannie managed to grab Maggie’s tail, which came away in her hand.

You can see a whole collection of contemporary carved figureheads there; they really are beautiful pieces of art!  The figurehead in the photo below is the original from the ship, but her head and arm were lost in a storm in the late 19th century – she was repaired in 1970.  The figurehead that is currently on the bow of the Cutty Sark is a replica.

Figureheads – the Cutty Sark’s is in the top center

The Cutty Sark plied the waters as a merchant ship until 1922, when she was sold and then used for several years as a training ship.  In 1954 she went on public display.  She is one of only three composite construction clipper ships left in the world – meaning she was built with a wooden hull on an iron frame.  One of the other three is in Chile, and is only a beached skeleton now though.  The Cutty Sark is a pretty special ship.  And yes, in case you were wondering, Cutty Sark Whisky is named after this beautiful ship.

The mast of the Cutty Sark


Taryn and Me with the bow

Sadly, some of her original timbers have been destroyed in two fires; one in 2007 while she was being restored and another smaller fire in 2014.  About 50% of her planking had been removed for conservation when the 2007 fire broke out, or it would have been worse, but the fire still did significant damage to the center section of the ship.  The 2007 fire wasn’t thought to be arson, but it is an interesting story of several unfortunate circumstances and various people dropping the ball, as is often the case.

It was a self guided tour, so we wandered around and checked things out – there were guides at various places to answer questions.  It was fun to check out such a beautiful old ship!

Tube Stations: Earl’s Court (hotel) – Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich (Greenwich)
Costs: Cutty Sark – 13.50 pounds (free with London pass)