If you're an horologist, or just into naval gazing, Greenwich, just southeast of London, is a must-see attraction. And if you're neither, Greenwich is still a fine day out. The home of the Prime Meridian and lots of maritime memorabilia, the green hills of Greenwich are heaped with history—Greenwich was the birthplace of Henry VIII as well as both his daughters, and was a royal hangout long before Hampton Court.
Getting there is half the fun, so choose your ride carefully. Many people take a boat to Greenwich pier, leaving from various locations in London. But on the first crisp day of autumn, we chose to take the Docklands Light Rail from Bank tube station. (Tip: Sit in the front carriage, and don't take photos.) It's a good thing we did, because the boats were all booked for Lord Nelson's funeral flotilla. He died 200 years ago, and they've just got round to re-enacting the event. (I told you it was a timely visit.)
The crowds were intense, and so was the sound of the cannon, so we climbed up the Greenwich Park hill to the Tea House for sustenance. But the dreary post-modern decor and equally dreary food didn't meet our expectations. The view from the top of the hill, however, did.
The Royal Observatory was established in 1675 by Charles II. Its mission: finding a way for sailors at sea to determine longitude. It was no easy task. (The book Longitude by Dava Sobel describes the search.) Inside the Observatory are objects relating to time, seafaring, navigation and astronomy, and, perhaps most famous, the source of the six pips heard on BBC radio. A virtual tour is available on their website.
Outside is the red Prime Meridian, the zero line of longitude that marks Greenwich Mean Time. You'd think if you brought a GPS it would measure exactly zero at that point, wouldn't you? However, according to my Rough Guide, GPS satellites measure longitude from the center of the earth, rather than the surface; thus the actual zero longitude line is 336 feet to the east of the line. Since I didn't see a GPS device at the museum I couldn't confirm this. Nevertheless, the line is still used to divide the two hemispheres, which makes it a perfect photo op.
The National Maritime Museum is nearby, where, in addition to the history of the Royal Navy, the sometimes-sordid history of the British Empire is documented. Not even pre-papal Rome managed to dominate so much of the world, and it was primarily British shipping and an unmatched navy that allowed such expansion to take place. (Where were the United Nations when we needed them?)
Highlights of the museum include a collection of disturbing relics from the Titanic; an art exhibit with an intricate terracotta bust of Sir Walter Raleigh (who, it turns out, was a real hottie); Miss Britain, the first record-breaking speedboat; and the much unloved Prince Frederick's gilt barge. Little ones can learn the art of seafaring at the All Hands exhibit on the third floor, where the special exhibit "Nelson and Napoleon" is open until November 13.
Entrance to the museum and the observatory is free, as is entrance to the Queen's House, begun for James I's queen, Anne of Denmark, by Inigo Jones, and completed for Charles I's sweet-looking queen, Henrietta Maria. No photos are allowed here either, and my hand itched to take a photo of the fabulous Tulip Staircase, Britain's first cantilevered spiral staircase. (Watch out for the ghost.)
Then we headed toward the town of Greenwich, where we wandered around until we found the Fan Museum, a small private museum that fills a vital niche among accessory museums. Hundreds of fans are displayed, including a timely exhibit of Nelson's fans. (Marketing geniuses, those fan museum people.) Admission is £3.50 for adults, collected by a nice young man who is no doubt transformed into a chick magnet when he utters the phrase "I work at the fan museum."
We were too late to go aboard the Cutty Sark, the record-setting tea clipper (last entry is at 4:30) but its naked rigging was an awesome sight. Nor did we tour the Wren-designed Old Royal Naval College buildings, described as "one of the most sublime sights English architecture affords," which were hosting a private function that day. (Call ahead.)
A comprehensive Greenwich website allows tourist commando units to reconnoiter before assaulting the city, whether by sea, rail, or tunnel. (See how quickly you pick up that naval lingo?) Bring a jacket—the wind is strong off the Thames, and wear good shoes—you'll be walking a lot, including up a steep hill. If you arrive by DLR, get off at the Cutty Sark station. Head first to the tourist information center and pick up a free map. If you bring your own snacks, you can actually see almost all of the attractions here for nothing more than the cost of transport. The boat trip from Westminster Pier will take one hour, so consider buying a single ticket and returning via rail.
And be careful where you point your camera.