Last Updated on August 27, 2020 by Fiona Maclean
The Royal Observatory, Prime Meridian and More.
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Like most of my friends, I’m not planning on travelling overseas in the foreseeable future. And, I’ve noticed that London right now lacks that frenetic summer vibe where every place I might like to visit is packed with international travellers. While that’s a challenge for the venues themselves, it’s the perfect opportunity to explore a bit closer to home – visit places that have been on my personal wish list for a while – and revisit old favourites like the Royal Museums Greenwich
As it happens, Greenwich ticks both boxes for me. One of the most important places to visit in London at Greenwich just happens to be one that I haven’t visited before. While another is something of an old favourite. The first, The Royal Observatory, is a 20-minute walk up a hill and there have always been so many other things to do that I simply hadn’t got there. The second, Cutty Sark, is really close to the DLR and to the riverboat pier. I’m always mesmerised by this beautiful tea clipper and I’ve been around the ship itself on a number of occasions.
This time, with booked slots, I had no excuse for skipping The Royal Observatory. I think I must have picked one of the hottest days of the year too and was grateful that my booked time was first thing in the morning. It’s the kind of excursion that lets you step back in time as you make your way across the park and up the hill. Some of the most spectacular views in London, down to the Royal Naval College and the Thames, make it well worth the walk. And, of course, the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill has a special place in London life.
There is an accessible route to the Observatory for those who prefer a gentler stroll. And, there’s also a car park so, if you really don’t want to walk, you don’t have to do so. But, it really is worth the effort. Outside the entrance is the Shepherd Gate clock which was the first to ever show Greenwich Mean Time to the public.
Once at the top, for now, entry is by timed admission and there is a socially distanced queue to start your tour of Flamsteed House. But, with just one person ahead of me, I only waited for a minute or so. Flamsteed House is named after Jon Flamsteed who was the first Astronomer Royal and the first occupant of the observatory, which was commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II.
The creation of the Royal Observatory was very much part of a world obsessed with exploration and navigation. Walking around Flamsteed House some of the exhibits demonstrated more bizarre concepts of the time. I loved the ‘powder of sympathy’ proposal – that each ship would be furnished with a wounded dog. Back on shore, an observer with a standard clock and a bandage from the dog’s wound would immerse the bandage in a solution of the powder of sympathy – and that would make the shipboard dog yelp the hour! I’m not sure anyone ever tried that theory out.
In fact, there were two scientific routes which were avidly pursued, with the idea that establishing a reliable navigation system would fuel success in international trade and commerce – and of course, potentially lead to new territories. Perhaps the more romantic option used the moon and stars to plot where you were. But, that required a telescope that would work on a ship’s deck. And, one that was capable of working whatever cloud cover or time of day.
The second method required a clock. You can work out how far east or west you are of a specific place, by comparing your local time with the time at your chosen ‘zero longitude’ point. But, designing a clock that would function reliably at sea proved challenging and The Board of Longitude set up a £20,000 prize (about £1.4 million in today’s money) for the person who could make that happen. John Harrison, a Yorkshire Carpenter, took on the challenge. It is possible to work out how far east or west you are of a particular location – like Greenwich – by comparing your local time with the time at that point. It was keeping the time at a distant location that proved challenging. Flamsteed House has a room dedicated to the Longitude race, with stunning clocks designed by John Harrison from H1 (his first attempt) to H4, which technically should have one the prize. It actually took Harrison one last attempt, at the age of 78, and a petition to King George III to be awarded the prize.
Flamsteed House is a museum dedicated to the history of Astronomy and Navigation. There is a fantastic collection of telescopes, quadrants and navigational equipment and an insight into the families who lived there.
One of the positives about ‘social distancing’ for me was that I was able to enjoy some of the fabulous rooms completely by myself. The Octagon room was a good example – designed by Christopher Wren, it houses some amazing astronomical instruments and also offers quite superb 360-degree views around London. I could have taken up residence in this stunning space.
And, of course, there’s the Meridian Line. I’ve always wondered quite why we have Greenwich Mean-Time and the Prime Meridian. It is, of course, historic. In the late 19th century, at the time the historic prime Meridian was established, not only had the USA chosen Greenwich as the basis for its own national timezone system, but around 72% of the world’s commerce depended on sea-charts that already used Greenwich as the Prime Meridian. The line which runs through Greenwich is the Prime Meridian of the World – Longitude 0 degrees. It divides east from west, just as the Equator divides the northern and southern hemisphere.
Obviously, you should make sure you wear clean shoes, and if you wear sandals, get your nails done before you visit. And it’s a good idea not to wear a dress that floats into your photo unless you are prepared to tuck it up into your knickers… No one told me! A silver lining for me was that in addition to carefully planned scheduling of visits and a very efficient one-way system, you get to stand on the Meridian line by yourself or with your own party only. So, it’s the perfect opportunity to get that once in a lifetime selfie if you get your outfit right!
Going back to Greenwich is a much easier journey downhill all the way. I suspect it looks a little less parched now than it did when I visited, right at the end of a summer dry spell.
The museums are all gradually opening up but I was curious to check out Cutty Sark, which I’ve visited many times, to get a feel for how things might have been adapted.
For the most part, everything is still as it was. There’s timed entry, sanitiser and plenty of social distancing where necessary. But, you can still learn about the story of what was once the fastest Tea Clipper in the world. And you can stand on deck and look out over The Thames, perhaps like me, imagining yourself going out to sea.
Are you taking advantage of a tranquil post-lockdown London to tick off some of the sights you’ve always meant to see? If not, do think about doing so. Everywhere I’ve visited personally has been carefully planned and set up to make it safe and the social distancing measures mean that you’ll actually get the equivalent of a private viewing!
For more about the Royal Museums at Greenwich, including Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory, check their website. You can book timed tickets online for both venues there. The opening hours are being updated fairly regularly at the moment so please check the site for more information.
Royal Observatory, Blackheath Avenue, Greenwich SE10 8XJ
The Royal Observatory is at the top of the hill in Royal Greenwich Park, there is a wheelchair-accessible route, but please note it is uphill and fairly steep. Once at the top you will be rewarded with stunning views of the city of London skyline and River Thames.
- Greenwich DLR/rail (20 minute walk via King William Walk)
- Cutty Sark DLR (15 minute walk via King William Walk)
- Maze Hill rail station (15 minute walk via Park Vista)
- Blackheath rail station (20 minute walk across the heath)
Greenwich Park has a small car park with accessible parking for visitors with disabilities next to the Royal Observatory. Limited pre-booked spaces are available for disabled visitors in the car park. Please pre-book to ensure a space.
Cutty Sark, King William Walk, Greenwich SE10 9HT
Greenwich and Maze Hill rail stations are around 10-15 minutes walk from Cutty Sark, but each takes you through a different part of Greenwich. Trains leave from Cannon Street and London Bridge
Cutty Sark DLR is less than 5 minutes from Cutty Sark itself
All the stations have step-free access.
Oyster cards and contactless payment cards can be used at all local stations and on buses from Central London to Greenwich.
Perhaps the most relaxing option is to arrive in style on a riverboat. Greenwich Pier is just a minute’s walk from Cutty Sark and you can choose from MBNA Thames Clippers offering a hop-on-hop-off river bus service along The Thames or City Cruises offering a range of sight-seeing cruises along the river.