Rudyard Kipling once wrote, ‘…east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet’…unless you are at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich – home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and the Prime Meridian (0 degrees longitude).
Greenwich may just have become one of our favourite areas of London. Other than being the home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Greenwich Prime Meridian Line, it has beautiful history wrapped in calm surroundings. It is part of London city, yet has its own identity. The Royal Borough of Greenwich is a fascinating place to spend the day. Where else can you simultaneously straddle the two hemispheres!
Greenwich was once a world away from London. It is home to many grand buildings overlooking the Thames – primarily the work of celebrated architects Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren. Today, Greenwich is a leisurely and scenic trip down the Thames, with sweeping views across the river and back towards London.
Greenwich has been a significant site in British history since the 15th century. The town was once the location of the Royal residence. The Palace of Placentia that stood there was the birthplace of Tudor King Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Over the centuries, this was developed by a succession of royal patrons into today’s impressive World Heritage site. These buildings are now home to some pretty spectacular museums and the University of Greenwich. All are set in lush green parkland with spectacular river vistas and city views.
Like many historic British towns, Greenwich has classic Georgian and Victorian architecture. It also has some appealing streets and a market that has operated, in some form or other, for more than 700 years. But today, it is a bit more modern. It is a great place for vintage shopping, unique souvenirs and a bite to eat, with ‘food trucks’ and stalls representing many cuisines from across the globe within the market.
Being mid-week, our visit to Greenwich was rather quiet. We were told by our guide the weekend transforms the town into an international tourist spot with crowds arriving to see the historical attractions and escape the ‘concrete jungles’ of London and enjoy acres of green space.
Let’s kick of Greenwich’s attractions with the view from Greenwich Park to marvel at London’s eclectic skyline. From this vantage point, you’ll be able to look down at the historic architecture of the National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s House. Seeing such a beautiful sight surprisingly trumps the fact that the world-famous Prime Meridian and home of Greenwich Mean Time is just steps away. This is where the old and new are juxtaposed, with the historic buildings of Greenwich against the towering glass skyscrapers of Canary Wharf across the Thames. Your gaze is drawn to the beautiful buildings by the river including the stunning symmetry of the Old Royal Naval College and across the river. A wonderful view of London…and it’s so flat!
The first part of the Observatory to be built was the Flamsteed House, with the intention to serve as a home for the Royal Astronomer. This House, the home to many astronomers and their families, is one of Greenwich’s most famous spots in the observatory.
The first public time signal in England was broadcast from the roof of Flamsteed House by dropping a ball at an estimated time. Ever since then, at exactly 1300, the time ball drops after being hoisted up the pole prior to the drop.
The Prime Meridian Courtyard is the Instagram photo opportunity associated with any visit to the Royal Observatory. The bronze line embedded into the pavement represents the division of the eastern and western hemispheres. This has been the historical origin of the world’s Prime Meridian since the late 19th century following international consensus. From this point, everywhere on the planet is measured according to its distance east or west of this point.
An unmissable sight in Greenwich is the restored tea-clipper, the Cutty Sark. This 19th-century ship towers above the concourse next to the Thames and is adjacent to the village housing. This is a wonderful museum dedicated to the clipper’s history. The Cutty Sark was one of the last clippers built before steam-powered ships became the norm. During her sailing history, the Cutty Sark was used to transport tea from China and wool from Australia.
The clipper was built in 1869 for a successful tea merchant. Her maiden voyage, bound for Shanghai, had a cargo of wine, spirits and beer. She came back carrying 593,000 kg of tea, docking into London eight months later. As a clipper, she was capable of moving swiftly, and such ships became merchant vessels favoured for their speed, travelling great distances in less time and being more profitable.
The Brits love tea. So, during the Victorian era tea became very popular and reigned supreme. This led to the birth of a thing beyond a mere habit or addiction. It became a culture. Tea rooms were the equivalent to today’s coffee shop and teas in hotels were in demand. So it is no wonder that the Victorians needed the Cutty Sark to satisfy their addiction to tea. The Cutty Sark made eight tea treks from London to China and back, carrying almost 4.5 million kilograms of tea between 1870 and 1877.
It is actually really interesting to go inside the clipper and learn about where she had been. Here, you can enlighten yourself about conditions on board and enjoy the views from the deck. We loved the collection of figureheads underneath the ship’s hull, including a likeness of Florence Nightingale and the Cutty Sark’s original masthead.
Old Naval Academy and Royal Naval College
After seeing the Cutty Sark, passing through the gates of the Old Royal Naval Academy, you come to Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, a fallen tree with a rich Tudor history. It’s said that Anne Boleyn came here with King Henry VIII before her untimely death.
The grounds of the Old Royal Naval College are breathtaking for their massive scale. This is a UNESCO world heritage site and had served as the Royal Naval College until 1998. Starting in 1873, the College trained naval officers. The architecture of buildings is impressive.
The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul is a masterpiece and was the last major part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen to be constructed. It is a beautiful place to visit and is still an active place of worship with and a place for University students to take choral recitals. Sitting in the Chapel we were enthralled by the amazing voices of the singers rehearsing from the Trinity College of Music, it was like a free concert in the chapel. And for all our rushing around, we were able to sit down and relax for a few minutes and enjoy the surroundings
With several galleries of exhibits at the Maritime Museum, it is a wonderful place to learn about the British battle for naval dominance. A particular poignant and popular part of the permanent collection includes the Horatio Nelson Exhibition. Here you will see the coat Admiral Nelson was wearing, complete with bloodstains and shrapnel damage, when he was fatally wounded on board the HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar.
One of the highlights of Greenwich is the Queen’s House. This former royal palace is small and a stunning building to explore. Designed by architect Inigo Jones, it is said to have been built for Anne of Denmark. Although she never lived to see the completion of the palace, it was the first Classical style building in the United Kingdom and is famous for its impressive tulip staircase. The beautiful staircase is a self-supporting spiral staircase.
Greenwich, where East meets West, breathtaking views, royal heritage, some pretty awesome attractions and an abundance of Georgian and Victorian architecture. All this and a beautiful riverside setting. Well worth spending the day ambling through this historic and informative area of London. Actually, why not make a night of it and stay in Greenwich.