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The Greenwich Royal Observatory
With all the attractions of London, this little gem of a neighbourhood which contains so much to visit packed in a relatively small area may be overlooked.
Greenwich was made a royal borough by the Queen in 2012 to mark her Diamond Jubilee.
Greenwich is a place where time begins and ends. The number 1 meridian, the world's most famous landmark for measuring the passing of our hours and days, the centre of earth time and space, is named after it, because it was here that the concept of longitude was first used to improve measurement of time at sea and therefore to help navigation.
It is essential for a ship to navigate safely to know exactly where it is at sea. It is relatively easy to know your location in terms of latitude (north-south direction) by measuring the height of the sun, but more difficult to know the longitude of your position (east-west direction).
One way to solve this problem is by studying the stars and make tables that sailors can consult when they are at sea. The Royal Greenwich Observatory was created as an astronomical observatory, founded by King Charles II of England in 1675 to study astronomy, to make accurate measurements of the star positions in the northern hemisphere with telescopes, and to find means of fixing longitude for navigational purposes. It became the acknowledged world authority on the subject.
A second method to solve the longitude problem was by measuring time. If you compare your local time, wherever you are located, with the time at a constant reference point of longitude on the Earth (called the 'Prime Meridian'), you can calculate how many degrees of longitude separate you from the Prime Meridian.
The reference point, zero degrees longitude, was later fixed at the Greenwich Observatory, which became the Prime Meridian.
On a ship, the local time can be determined from the position of the sun, a bright star or the moon, but the reference time at zero degrees longitude also had to be known aboard the ship.
The problem was that clocks until the 18th century were not accurate enough, especially those capable of running on ships. Errors of few minutes could possibly cause disasters, even shipwreck.
In 1764, John Harrison, a British clockmaker, after a lifetime of effort succeeded in building his seagoing chronometer, a timepiece that was highly accurate and durable.
The first models of his clock can be seen in the museum.
The Observatory, part of the National Maritime Museum, is one of the most important features of Maritime Greenwich, which is since 1997 a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Until its closure in 1998, it was the oldest scientific institution in Great Britain.
Its main contributions were in practical astronomy, such as navigation, timekeeping, determination of star positions, and almanac publication.
The Observatory is open to visitors. In its galleries they'll discover the phenomena of time, space and astronomy, in the Planetarium they'll explore the wonders of the heavens and in Flamsteed House, Sir Christopher Wren's original building built as a home for the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, they'll see London's only public camera obscura.
Meridians are the imaginary vertical lines that circle the earth from the North Pole to the South Pole. The meridian passing through Greenwich Observatory, the Prime Meridian, is the one to which all other meridians refer, thus measuring longitude. The line is marked outside the museum. Put one foot on one side of this line and the other foot on the other side, and you'll be in both the eastern and western hemispheres at the same time.
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Greenwich other treasures and history
Greenwich is also a place of majestic buildings and wonderful museums. The town itself is very quaint, still retaining the atmosphere of the village it once was, full of picturesque pubs, restaurants and shops.
Greenwich is on the south bank of the river Thames, 4.5 miles from Tower Bridge. While it's mainly associated with naval history and matters and with tourism now, it was once an important home of royalty. In fact Greenwich, with its peaceful looks, was the birthplace of vicious King Henry VIII and his daughters Queen Mary (somehow unfairly called Bloody Mary, if you consider what the Protestants did do the Catholics) and Queen Elizabeth I (called The Virgin Queen, but what do we know?).
It was also a favourite home of the Tudors and important in their history. Although Greenwich Palace, on the banks of the Thames, had been a royal residence since the 14th century, it was enlarged and remodelled by Edward IV, and further still by Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, and Henry VIII. Henry VI had named the palace, from its agreeable situation, L' Pleazaunce or Placentia.
The Tudor palace of Greenwich was demolished in the 17th century and the Old Royal Navy College now stands on the site.
There are remains of the cellars of the old palace under the Queen Anne Block of the College.
In Greenwich Park there survives the trunk of 'The Queen Elizabeth Oak', the oak tree under which according to tradition Henry VIII has danced with the unlucky Anne Boleyn, one of his six wives whose fate was sealed by execution.
Greenwich was shaped into its present splendour by later kings.
The great ensemble of buildings which lie on the river bank make an unforgettable sight from the Thames. One of the foremost of these is the Queen's House, the 17th century palace designed by Inigo Jones for King James I's consort, Queen Anne of Denmark.
The Queen's House is nowadays part of the National Maritime Museum. It was originally part of the Royal Palace of Placentia (aka Greenwich Palace).
Visitors get an Acoustiguide that gives a commentary on most of the rooms. The whole house was restored to its original design not long ago, and the decorations of the Royal Apartments are lavish.
Despite its royal connections, Greenwich is best known for its links with the sea. The buildings which comprise the Old Royal Naval College were mostly designed by Sir Christopher Wren, one of the great architects of London history, designer of St Paul's Cathedral and many other buildings, and were originally used as a naval hospital.
In 1806, after his death in the battle of Trafalgar, the body of Nelson lay in state in the Painted Hall, one of the buildings here, where he was visited by thousands until he was taken upriver by funeral barge for burial at St Pauls Cathedral.
Not to be missed here in Greenwich is the National Maritime Museum, considered the largest and finest Maritime Museum in the world, with its impressive collection illustrating Britain's naval history.
Even if you aren't a great enthusiast of naval matters, it's still fascinating. There is so much to see you can spend hours here, so plan your day with this in mind.
The James Cook Gallery has a great collection illustrating Cook's explorations. Another highlight is the Nelson Gallery, full of interesting objects from the life and time of England's hero of the seas. This gallery is a shrine to Nelson's memory: you'll even see the uniform he wore when he met his death at Trafalgar.
Behind this superb group of buildings lies Greenwich Park. Its layout was designed by Le Notre, the famous French landscape gardener who laid out the gardens for Versailles but unfortunately much of his design is now lost.
The Park is full of beautiful wildlife. There is a large grassland enclosure, covering almost 13 acres, which serves as a sanctuary for deer, foxes and birds.
Down by the river lies the Cutty Sark in dry dock. Launched at Dumbarton on the River Clyde, in Scotland, in 1869, it was one of the last sailing clippers, a type of trade ships, to carry tea from China to Britain.
It is the last surviving tea clipper and one of the world's most famous ships, a vessel with many lives, dead and resurrected.
The Cutty Sark was closed to the public in November 2006 while it underwent extensive conservation works. Its reopening was delayed by a fire in 2007 which nearly destroyed it. It was finally officially reopened to visitors in April 2012 by the Queen, who had originally opened it in 1957.
The restoration cost more than £50m. The ship is now raised onto new steel supports, so visitors can see it from underneath as well as climb aboard. Despite the fire, almost 90% of the vessel's fabric and fittings are from the original ship.
Near this 19th-century tea clipper exhibit is the Gypsy Moth IV, the yacht in which Sir Francis Chichester circumnavigated the world.
And a little-known treasure of Greenwich is The Fan Museum, the first and only museum in the world devoted in its entirety to all aspects of the ancient art and craft of the fan.
It has been described as 'an architectural and artistic gem', and as 'an oasis of tranquillity'.
If you ever (is it possible?) get tired of Greenwich, there is an easy escape route in the form of a foot tunnel under the Thames, which opens near the Cutty Sark: you can't miss the entrance, it's a little dome-shaped building.
If you go down into the bowels of the earth by its lift and long stairwell, then walk all the Greenwich Foot Tunnel's length of 1,217 feet, you'll find yourself on the Isle of Dogs: it's like being in a completely different world. Gone are royal residences, monarchy history, scientific institutions, village atmosphere. Only the connection with the sea and the docks remains, but in a modern, business-like setting: the Canary Wharf and other American-style skyscrapers, big City institutions, bank buildings, shopping malls, new apartment blocks, trendy bars and restaurants.
On your way back, before getting into the entrance to the tunnel in the Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs (which sports the same cupola), take a good look at the other side of the river.
You'll see Greenwich in all its beauty and glory, magnificence and grandiosity. It's probably the best view of Greenwich you can ever have.
Greenwich Village is an extremely picturesque town, full of antique and curio shops. It has really retained the feel of an 18th and 19th century village. It also has good street markets, second-hand book and record shops and lots of little eateries.
At weekends Greenwich becomes even more lively, with its covered market in the central square and a vibrant atmosphere on the river with some good pubs.
There's so much to see in Greenwich that you should make a good day of it. If you arrive late you'll be disappointed because you won't see all the things that make Greenwich unique. Don't miss it!
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Greenwich Fact File
Getting to Greenwich from central London. Rail trains leave from Charing Cross Station, Waterloo East, London Bridge: they get to Greenwich in 15-20 minutes.
Boats go from Westminster Pier, Charing Cross Pier, Tower Pier to Greenwich Pier.
The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) also has trains that go to the Cutty Sark (direction: Lewisham).
Museums entry. Some museums and historic sites are free (the Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum, the Queen's House). Others charge an entry fee, but you can get a day pass for the lot, which represents good value as you are entitled to use it for one more day within 12 months of purchase.