Greenwich: Old Royal Naval College, Observatory


With just four days in London, I didn’t have much time to wander away from the city.  But I did manage to get away to a couple of destinations that were far enough from Big Ben to make me feel like I had actually gone somewhere.  One such place, Greenwich, also allowed me to visit a different hemisphere.

You’ve probably heard of Greenwich Mean Time (that 24-hour time that’s always so confusing).  Well,this is where it gets its name.  The Prime Meridian — the Zero Degree line of longitude — runs directly through Greenwich, slicing through the Royal Observatory (more on it in a moment).  London lies at the very edge of the Western Hemisphere — cross over the line at Greenwich, and you’re in the Eastern Hemisphere.

I must admit, hemisphere-hopping was my primary reason for wanting to visit Greenwich, but once there, I discovered that there is a lot more to see.  Let’s start with the town’s most distinctive buildings.

The Old Royal Naval College is located on the southern bank of the River Thames.  The building on the left is Queen Mary Court, which houses the chapel.  On the right, is King William Court, which houses the beautifully decorated Painted Hall. There are two other buildings in the complex (to the left and right of where I was standing, when I took this picture): Queen Anne Court and King Charles Court.  The buildings were constructed in the 1700’s, and served as a hospital, college, and art museum.  Nowadays, the University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music lease some of the space in the buildings.

On the flight home from London, I glanced over at the video screen on the seat next to me, and to my amazement, I saw these unmistakable buildings!  The courtyard between the buildings was used for a dramatic scene in the 2010 Jack Black remake of Gulliver’s Travels.  While the movie itself looked awful, it was nice to see a familiar landmark in it.

You will probably spot some students enjoying the grassy courtyard in between the buildings.  The River Thames is just beyond them, and the skyline in the distance is part of Canary Wharf and the Docklands — a booming section of London.  An even better view of the city awaits, near the Royal Observatory.

The Painted Hall and Chapel are open to the public, free of charge, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  The grounds of the Old Royal Naval College are open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.  Check out the latest information on opening times here.

If you take the DLR light rail train from London to Greenwich, you’ll get a good look at the skyscrapers in the Canary Wharf area.  Check out the Drivelapse video at the bottom of the page — in this case, it’s a “Trainlapse” of the ride from Greenwich into London, looking out the back window of the DLR.

Queen’s House

Just behind the Old Royal Naval College, you’ll see the Queen’s House.  The building was completed in 1635, and now houses the fine art collection of the National Maritime Museum.

The National Maritime Museum includes the Queen’s House and the Royal Observatory.  Admission to some attractions, including the Queen’s House, is free — however you will need to pay £7 to stand on the Meridian Line at the Observatory (more on that in a moment).  The Museum’s website explains what is free, and what isn’t.

In the photo above, look at the Queen’s House, then notice the building slightly above it, and to the right.  That’s where we’re headed next:

Royal Observatory

The Royal Observatory Greenwich sits upon a hill, overlooking the Old Royal Naval College, Queen’s House, Thames, Docklands, and London.  Once you’ve huffed and puffed to the top of the hill (who knew I’d be hiking in London?!)…

… you will arrive at the Observatory.  Of course, my late-evening visit was too late to go inside, so I decided to be content with the attractions that surround the observatory…

… like this old 24-hour clock.  The Shepherd Gate Clock was installed in 1852, and is one of the world’s first electrically-driven public clocks.  Midnight is at the top of the dial, noon at the bottom.  The time shown is just after 6 o’clock p.m., however, since I was visiting during British Summer Time (the English version of Daylight Saving Time), the actual time was about 7:03 p.m.

Below the clock, the British Imperial Standards of length are on display.  They have been posted here for at least 200 years, and they established the standard measurement for, among other things, one foot…

… and two feet.

If you’ve read much of my website, you know I love to get my feet in the picture whenever possible.  When traveling alone, it’s often the only kind of self-portrait I can manage.  So naturally, I wanted to get the ultimate shot of my feet, straddling two hemispheres.

Wait a minute, why did I change shoes?

Okay, those are not my feet.  Which is good, because those shoes are pretty ugly.  This is a picture of a picture on a sign, outside the observatory, promising what you’ll see if you pay the admission fee and go inside the gates.  Now, I’m no expert on the Prime Meridian, but I’m pretty sure it’s many thousands of miles long — but unfortunately, in Greenwich, the only place you can actually see it is behind those observatory gates, which closed a couple of hours before my arrival.

It’s too bad there aren’t any other markers around town, showing where the line falls. (If there are any, I couldn’t find them).

The hillside in front of the Observatory provides a great place to relax and watch the sun set, while admiring the skyline of Canary Wharf.

You can also see London’s distant skyline to the left, and to the right…

…you can see the O2 Arena.  Located in North Greenwich, the O2 played a major role in the 2012 Olympic Games.  Construction was completed on the arena in 2007, though the dome was originally constructed to provide exhibition space, during the 2000 millennium year — thus the original name, the Millennium Dome.

Behind the Observatory, Blackheath Avenue slices through the middle of Greenwich Park.  That pointy object on the horizon…

… is All Saints Church of Blackheath, consecrated in 1858.

After looking at the church, I turned around, hiked back through Greenwich Park and down the hill, into downtown Greenwich…

… where St. Alfege Church looms over the narrow streets.  A church has stood in this spot since 1012, while the current building dates back to 1718.

The Docklands Light Rail station is also located in the middle of town, not far from the waterfront.  The DLR ties in with the rest of the London Underground, and provides an easy way to get out to Greenwich and beyond.  If you have a Travelcard, the ride is free, just like a tube or bus ride.

You can also take a ferry from the City of London or Westminster to Greenwich.  Check out the ferry information on the Visit London website.

From downtown, keep walking towards the water, and it won’t take long before you reach the Cutty Sark — an old clipper ship, built in 1869, that’s undergoing a major overhaul (a project that was made much more extensive due to a fire onboard the ship in 2007).  The restored ship should be welcoming visitors again in 2012.  Next to the Cutty Sark, you’ll find one more attraction worth experiencing:

Greenwich Foot Tunnel

It doesn’t look like much from the surface, but the Greenwich Foot Tunnel is very impressive.  The pedestrian path takes you down a spiral staircase, then through a sloping tunnel which passes beneath the River Thames.  Both ends of the tunnel are capped with a glass dome…

… which you can sort-of see here.  During my visit in 2011, the foot tunnel was in the middle of a major overhaul, receiving new elevators (as an alternative to the winding staircase), and some other refurbishments that aimed to make the tunnel less leaky.

Once you reach the bottom of the spiral staircase, the tunnel slopes down, then up.

On the north end, damage done to the tunnel during World War II has been repaired, with an extra layer of steel lining.

Once you emerge from underground, remember to look back across the River Thames, at the Old Royal Naval College.

And if you don’t want to walk back through the creepy tunnel, good news!  There’s another DLR station on this end, as well.  Hop on the train here, and ride back into London.

Drivelapse Video

As I rode back into the city, I set up my Drivelapse camera in the rear window of the train, for a backwards-facing recording of the trip through the Docklands and Canary Wharf.

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