It’s about time……we went to Greenwich!

A change of pace after two days in London

So after chalking up 37+ kms on our first two days in London, we decided that for our next day’s outing (Friday September 12th), we would dial it back a bit.

During the homework phase of our holiday, Mary had mentioned that if we had the time she would like to go and see Greenwich as it was one of the places she’d always wanted to see.  I was a little surprised at that since I didn’t know much about Greenwich –  beyond the fact that we live on the west coast of Canada, and our time is stated as being Pacific Standard Time meaning it is 8 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time.

Sitting on the plane on our short trip from London Heathrow to Glasgow last Saturday, I found out a little more about Greenwich and Greenwich Mean Time.  It seems that back in 1884, a conference was held in Washington D.C. to identify a single world meridian for measuring time, so as to replace the numerous one’s that were already in existence. But I wanted to know WHY GREENWICH?

Apparently, there were two main reasons for the choice. The first was the fact that the USA had already chosen Greenwich as the basis for its own national time zone system. The second was that in the late 19th century, 72% of the world’s commerce depended on sea-charts which used Greenwich as the Prime Meridian. The decision, essentially, was based on the argument that by naming Greenwich as Longitude 0º, it would be advantageous to the largest number of people. Therefore the Prime Meridian at Greenwich became the centre of world time.

There is in fact a spectacular Royal Observatory at Greenwich at the top of the hill in Greenwich Park which affords some wonderful views looking back at the London skyline.

In fact there was a lot of really cool stuff in Greenwich so why don’t I tell you about it?

We started the day at the Limehouse DLR station, but this time we were heading east (our apartment is in East London, so all of our excursions into the city see us heading west).  In fact, two stops along the way we found ourselves in the middle of the new financial and business district of London – Canary Wharf.

It really is like a “second downtown”, and the DLR wound it’s way through massive towers of steel and glass, which included some pretty posh five-star hotels.  I know I’m supposed be telling you about our day in Greenwich but I’m sure you want to know a little bit more about Canary Wharf, don’t you?

Canary Wharf is built on the site of the old West India Docks in East London, on the Isle of Dogs, and from 1802 to 1980, the area was one of the busiest docks in the world.  However, during WWII, the docks area was bombed heavily and nearly all the original warehouses were destroyed or badly damaged. After a brief recovery in the 1950s, the port industry began to decline and the West India Docks lay derelict, and largely unused.

The project to revitalize the 8 square miles of the London docklands began in 1981and was driven by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.  Construction of Canary Wharf began in 1988, with phase one completed in 1991, and when topped out in 1990, One Canada Square became the UK’s tallest building and a symbol of the rebirth of Docklands.

Pretty cool eh? Ok, let me try getting back on track again with the Greenwich story.

So we arrived at Greenwich after a short 15 minute DLR commute and upon exiting the station, we saw an oddly shaped and very old brown building off to our left.  We walked over to it and found that we were looking at one of two entrances to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which actually goes right underneath the Thames.  It runs from Cutty Sark Gardens on the south side (where we were standing) to Island Gardens on on the Isle of Dogs, on the North Side of the river.   Its original purpose was to allow south London residents to work in the docks on the Isle of Dogs.

Mary, Stand right on the white square okay?

Since I’m a media guy and into stats, I made note of the vitals.  The tunnel is 1,217 feet in length (just shy of a 1/4 mile) and approximately 50 feet deep.  It opened on 4 August 1902 at a cost of £127,000 (hey look – I found a £ symbol that I can copy and paste – woohoo).

There are identical circular entrance buildings on both sides of the river and they both contain a lift as well as long spiral flights of stairs.

What do you think Mary and I did?

Of course.  We walked to the other side!  The tunnel was reasonably well lit, and we passed a couple of walkers as well as two cyclists who were walking their bikes through the tunnel (you’re not allowed to pedal your bike through the tunnel), and it took us about 10 minutes to get across.

Once on the other side, we looked back across the Thames and were afforded a terrific view of the Queen’s House, the Old Royal Naval College, and the Observatory sitting up on top of Greenwich Park.    Relax, I’ll tell you all about these buildings, because they have some pretty cool history. As you can see by the pictures it was a little overcast and standing right along the Thames it was pretty chilly, so we didn’t dally too long on the Island Gardens side, and we headed back down into the tunnel.

Back on the Greenwich side, we walked toward all the history that awaited us at Greenwich Park.  That short meander took us past where the historic Cutty Sark was – the last surviving tea clipper, having been built in 1869, and now in dry dock at Greenwich.  Sadly, it was damaged by a fire this past May while undergoing restorations, so the area was closed to the public and we couldn’t get a look at the famous ship.

Walking past the the dry dock we entered the grounds that housed the complex of buildings that you can see in the picture from the other side of the river (above)..

While there have been buildings on this site since 1427, and it has been the birthplace of some pretty famous British Monarchs including Henry the VIII and Elizabeth I, the buildings that are here today were built in the early 1600’s by King James I for his consort Anne, the Queen of Denmark.  Here I go off on another history bent again.  This was all taking place during the religious wars of that time, and while James was Protestant, his lady Anne was Catholic and could not live safely in London with him, so he built her this residence outside of the city.

For most of the 17th century, the Queen’s House served as a Royal Palace, but starting in 1690 it was pretty much abandoned by the Royals and served many other purposes from that time forward.

Oh and if that white building in the middle looks familliar, it should!

The White House in Washington D.C. was largely patterned after it (see, stick with me, and I’ll make you invincible at British History the next time you’re playing Trivial Pursuit – that is, if anyone stills play it!)

The National Maritime Museum was a really pleasant surprise.  It contained some interesting artifacts that were well laid out, and there were some pretty significant historic pieces in there too.  Highlights for Mary and I included; the naval uniform worn by Edward VII (you know the one who abdicated his throne in 1936 to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson), a comprehensive collection of artifacts from the Cunard Liners, the Mauritania and the Lusitania, launched in the early 1900’s just ahead of the Titanic, and a room dedicated to the Battle of Trafalgar and Admiral Nelson.  The Nelson room contained some pretty famous paintings relating to his victorious but fatal battle with Napoleon in 1805.  The most important piece in the museum was the actual uniform he had been wearing when he was shot, and you could see the bullet-hole in the shoulder of his jacket, as well the blood stains on both his shirt and pants – all had been preserved and saved from the scene of the battle.

Did I mention I have a big gun?

Upon leaving the museum, we walked toward the two long buildings that framed the Queen’s House, each with a dome on top of them.  As we strolled through the courtyard of the first one, we could hear the sounds of an accomplished pianist drifting out through the open windows.  Shortly after we heard violins from another window, then some horns, and just as were trying to figure out why we could hear all this wonderful music, Mary saw a sign indicating that this building was now being used as the Trinity College of Music.  Very very nice sounds I must tell you.

Reaching the end of the first building, Mary said “I bet this one is the painted hall”.  I had no idea what she was referring to, but it seems that in her reading, she had discovered that the the building we were about to enter had been designed by Christopher Wren (the man who built/designed St. Paul’s Cathedral and 52 other landmark churches and secular buildings in London throughout the 17th century).

The Painted Hall

We entered this building, and it was immediatley apparent why it was named the painted hall.  This magnificent room was actually a dining hall and the painting on the ceilng took 19 years to complete.  All I can say about this building is wow!

After about 30 minutes of studying the paintings on the ceiling and on the walls around the rest of the two rooms, we left the painted hall to visit it’s companion (the chapel) across the way.  As we were leaving the painted hall, I looked high up on the wall and saw the the tower of the chapel framed perfectly in one of the Baroque (now there’s a word I don’t get to type that often) styled windows.  I really like the way the picture turned out.

As we got to the chapel, a fire alarm went off that soon had everyone standing outside the respective buildings.  We chatted up one of the guards who told us that it was just the latest in a string of false alarms and it was nothing to worry about.  While we were chatting with him, he told us how pleased he was that things were returning to normal on the grounds.  It seems that they had just recently finished shooting the  Keira Knightly period flick – The Duchess (which is getting really bad reviews over here), and not long ago (last year I guess), the buildings and grounds were the setting for the Golden Compass with Nicole Kidman.  I can’t wait to watch both these movies now to look for familliar buildings and landmarks.

Anyway, it was only a matter of a few minutes, and the alarms were turned off, allowing us to go inside the chapel.  A lovely building in it’s own right, but a bit of a letdown after the painted hall.

From there, we made our way towards the Queen’s House for a tour before heading up toward the Observatory.  The interior was completely restored in the 1980s and this historic House was reopened for public visits in 1990 after a six-year closure.  It has been fitted out in the style of the 1660s as much as possible, and contains a mixture of original and replica furnishings. There are many carvings, paintings, sculptures, and other works of art on display – most of them relating to the royals who had made the Queen’s House their home.  Mary and I just love this stuff, but I won’t bore you with all the details of the tour.  I should however mention that they shot Sense and Sensibility in the Queen’s House as well as 101 Dalmations, so there’s two more movies for us to watch when we get home.

On now, and up the hill toward the Observatory and what we had really come to see, and that was of course the Prime Meridian.  The walk through Greenwich Park was very nice and since the sun had come out, it had really turned out to be a beautiful day.

Then the walk turned into a climb, and I’ve got to tell you, it was a pretty darn steep one.  Here we were thinking that we were in for an easier day on our legs after walking the London Marathon, and now we were doing the “Greenwich Grind”.

But we survived, and upon making it to the top of the hill, you see people milling about and queuing up to have their pictures taken – on the Prime Meridian line itself.  We soon joined the line, and as we inched our way up to “our turn”, we watched those in front of us to see how they were posing.  I have to say that there wasn’t a lot of originality there, and we didn’t contribute anything different either – adopting the standard pose of straddling the line so that we had one foot in the east, and one foot in the west.

It was pretty neat to be there though, as it is one of those places/things you hear about your entire life, but perhaps don’t expect to ever see.

It turns out that the historic buildings on top of the hill, including the Observatory had contributed a lot more than either one of us realized, with perhaps the most significant being the introduction of clocks and navigational gear that had allowed Maritimers to tell time and chart tides while at sea.  In fact, one of the earliest explorers to test the Maritime clocks (clocks that continued to tell “true” time while not being affected by the ship’s movements), was Captain Cook – he of Pacific Northwest exploration fame.

And there was another Canadian connection to Greenwich. On top of the same hill as the Old Greenwich Royal Observatory is a statue of General James Wolfe.  You may recall from grade 6 social studies, that General Wolfe commanded the British forces at Quebec against the French and “won a great victory, at the cost of his life”.  He was a resident of Greenwich and is actually buried in the parish church St. Alfrege’s, which we walked by later in the day.

Montcalm will never think to look for me here!

Before leaving the top of the hill, I turned around and took some pictures looking back down at the historic buildings we had visited throughout the day.  As you look at the picture below, perhaps you’ll be struck by the same thing I was – the juxtaposition of old versus new (Canary Wharf).

We really enjoyed our day in Greenwich, and we finished it off with a stroll through the market in the centre of town – a real mixed bag of fashion, antiques, trinkets and trash, and clearly a gathering place for a lot of the locals to meet over a cup of tea.

Speaking of tea, Mary is just pouring me a cup of Twinings “Fresh and Fruity” with blueberry and apple flavouring.  Time for a break from the computer!

So remember, whether you’re flying an aircraft, sailing a ship, or meeting a friend somewhere and relying on your GPS to get you there, it’s all measured from Greenwich.

TTFN from Limehouse.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s