Destinations Magazine

London: Day Trip to Greenwich

By Carolinearnoldtravel @CarolineSArnold
Boat Trip on the Thames
(Excerpt from my diary of our three month stay in London in the fall of 1998.)

London:  Day Trip to Greenwich

Tower Bridge, London

Our excursion on Saturday was a trip to Greenwich to see the Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory.  The most scenic way to get there is by boat, which is what we did, leaving from the Charing Cross pier, and traveling past the Tower of London, London Bridge, the new Globe theater, and the Docklands development to Greenwich. 
The Prime Meridian, Where Time Begins and East Meets West

London:  Day Trip to Greenwich

Caroline Straddling the Prime Meridian

   Our interest in going to Greenwich was to see for ourselves the Prime Meridian, the exact division between the eastern and western hemispheres, and to take a photo of ourselves astride the line.  (This is be a companion piece to our photo of us on the Equator that we took in Africa in 1971!)  The location of the line is at the Royal Observatory, on top of a hill overlooking the river.  The Observatory is no longer used to look at the stars because the sky in London is too smoggy, so it has been turned into a museum detailing its history as an observatory and its involvement in the search for longitude. 
Finding Longitude

London:  Day Trip to Greenwich

The Royal Observatory, Now a Museum

The problem of longitude became acute in the age of sea exploration.  Although ships at sea could fairly easily calculate their latitude, by measuring the angle to the north star or southern cross, they had no way of measuring how far they were to the east or west.  As a result, countless ships were wrecked because they weren’t where they thought they were.  The solution to the problem involved both accurate measurements of the stars and the development of a clock that would keep accurate time even on a boat rolling and pitching in heavy seas.  If you knew the time and your position under the stars, you could figure your distance east or west from a predetermined line.  And where should that line be?  Of course, in England!  For over a hundred years the rest of the world has used this as the standard as well. 
The Millennium Dome
   Greenwich is advertising itself as the place where the Millennium begins and is building a giant dome, called the Millennium Dome, that will be a sort of world’s fair celebrating the year 2000.  It’s true that the world’s time zones are all based on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which is calculated from the Prime Meridian, and to that extent the Millennium starts here, but it seems to me that when the year 2000 arrives, it’s actually going to be at the international date line.  This doesn’t seem to bother the people building the dome though.
Atlas of the Stars

London:  Day Trip to Greenwich

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

   Among the more interesting historical tidbits at the museum was the account of the first Royal Astronomer, Sir John Flamsteed, who worked for years to compile an atlas of the stars.  It was a tedious job and people got tired of waiting for him to finish.  So, Sir Isaac Newton, without getting Flamsteed’s permission, published his incomplete results.  Flamsteed was so infuriated that when the book was published he bought 300 of the 400 copies and burned them!  I wonder how many other authors have wished they could do that when they weren’t happy with the way their book was published?
Ruler of the Seas

London:  Day Trip to Greenwich

The Cutty Sark, Docked in Greenwich. The world's last tea clipper ship.  Currently closed for conservation, it will reopen to the public in the Spring of 2012

   The town of Greenwich is devoted to boats and maritime themes and has shops displaying ships in bottles and tea towels printed with the explanation of why ships are called “she.”  And if you didn’t think the Lord Nelson was an important figure in British history, then a trip to the Maritime Museum will convince you otherwise.  A whole floor is devoted to Nelson and features a giant painting of the battle of Trafalgar by William Turner.   Nelson’s death is treated with religious reverence.
Sun and Rain

London:  Day Trip to Greenwich

Geese in Regent's Park, London

 The day of our trip to Greenwich was sunny and nice and we picnicked on sausage rolls and ginger beer in the park, but when we woke up back in London on Sunday morning, our nice weather had disappeared.  It has been rainy and cool the last two days.  It stopped for a while yesterday morning, so we walked through Regents Park (not far from our flat in St. John's Wood) and fed the ducks and geese.  Thousands of waterbirds live in the park, both wild birds and some exotic species that are bred there, and they are all well trained to beg for food.  It’s a good demonstration of the pecking order in nature. There is also a nest of blue herons in the park, and even they will come quite close.
 Recommended Reading:  After I returned from Greenwich, I read Dava Sobel's book, Longitude:  The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, a fascinating account of John Harrison, a clockmaker, who solved the problem of finding longitude but reaped only part of the reward for his work.

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