East London Series: The Royal Observatory: Greenwich

One lovely sunny weekend, Jeff and I decided to venture to the east side of London. It’s so funny to think that going past, say, Tower Hill, is such an undertaking, but when you spend an hour on the underground, it’s no different than a road trip in the car. We were curious to see the newly industrial Canary Wharf and then go to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. We can’t live so close to the Prime Meridian Line and not go stand on it.

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A pirate ship replica docked outside Tobacco Dock.

When we came out of Canary Wharf, it was just like we had predicted: industrial, chrome, and loud with construction. There really is nothing to see and do in the Isle of Dogs except walk around and try to imagine a time where ships were docking in the 1800s and bombs were falling during The Blitz.

Because we got out at Canary Wharf, we were on the north side of the Thames. You can cross over to Greenwich by way of a water taxi, but the cost of it was extreme just for a 10 minute boat ride. We, instead, walked back to the tube and went under the river, like all proper Londoners do.

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Greenwich Park, royal hunting ground in Tudor times.

The area of Greenwich is absolutely lovely and could not be more different than the cold and almost clinical area of Canary Wharf. There are weekend farmer’s markets, suburban neighborhoods, and theatres for the locals.

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A beautiful church in the distance from the Royal Observatory.

The history of the area is quite rich for the English. A palace called Palace of Placentia was built in 1443 and acted as the birth place of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, and also the place King Edward VI died. Sadly, the palace no longer stands but has since been replaced by the Greenwich Hospital. Can you imagine how long it must have taken to travel from Whitehall Palace to Greenwich by way of horse and carriage?

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Statue of King William IV just outside Greenwich Park.

As we walked toward the Royal Observatory, we crossed through the massive Greenwich Park. At 183 acres, this area was originally the hunting ground for the Palace of Placentia, much like Hyde Park and its proximity with Whitehall Palace. It’s a lovely green, perfect for weekend strolls or throwing the ball around for the dog. On the other side, the Royal Observatory sits perched on top of a small hill. The climb up is definitely steep, but by the time you make it to the top, the view of the Thames and the Isle of Dogs is quite beautiful.  

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The view from the top of the Observatory. The O2 dome and the Isle of Dogs before us.

Upon walking toward the Observatory, you can’t help but notice the time. Besides studying the stars, the Observatory is a museum to time and its advancements in England. The very tip of the building has a giant red time ball. At 1pm, every day, the ball drops to signify the hour much like the “ball” at Time Square on New Year’s Eve. It’s a very quick event, evidently, because we loitered in the courtyard and surrounding areas, but somehow missed the drop.

On the ground in the courtyard is the unmistakable Prime Meridian line. We could not help but be tourists and stand on either side of the line. But what was really cool was notated along the divide were the coordinates for cities around the world.

Established in 1851 by Sir George Airy, this line proved paramount with maritime navigation. As we stepped inside the small museum on the grounds, we learned just how important, and how much England advanced technology for navigation.

The museum, while billed as the Observatory, is a branch of the National Maritime Museum, which has a bigger building across the Greenwich Park near the Cutty Sark ship. We walked inside the creaky house and were thrown back in time. The first room that really struck our interest was a large hexagonal room with various Grandfather clocks. Intricate in design and beautiful in structure, these clocks were really stunning.

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Blurred in motion, a clock made for rough seas.

But each room takes you further and further into the house and through the decades of time. We saw all kinds of clocks and time measurements with enough ticks to drive you mad. I can’t understand how anyone could work in such a room after a few minutes. But we did love seeing how certain clocks were invented and build for ships. These machines had to be built in a way that a swaying ship couldn’t alter the precise time. Springs and a balancer were put in place, and ta da! Perfect time keeping for even the roughest seas.

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The Great Equatorial Telescope.

In the final room, you come to a massive and gorgeous telescope. The Great Equatorial Telescope is the 7th largest in the world. Completed in 1893, it was constructed to observe double star systems, and remained a working machine until the 1960s. It does continue to work to observe the skies with some camera and computer advancements, but technology and computers have replaced the manual scope.

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It was fun to see history preserved in this old museum.

The museum was lovely to walk through and learn a bit about the significance of time and how the UK really did a lot of advancement out of technological need, but we were really there for the stars. Just behind the museum, is the massive planetarium.  We were keen to “see the stars” like we were kids on a school trip, so we booked tickets for the Captured Starlight show. It was only about 25 minutes, but it was fun to see the constellations and the different star formations. Technology has come a long way since I was a kid in showing us the night sky.

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The Planetarium showing us the stars in reclining chairs and with a melodious voice.

We did not go to the other branches of the National Maritime Museum like the Cutty Sark ship or full Maritime museum across from the park. Our attention was toward the stars rather than the sea, but we still had a nice time exploring a bit of the unknown.

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A statue of Yuri Gagarin outside the Planetarium.

If you find yourself in London and want to branch outside the city center, Greenwich is a borough to visit. Unique flair, open space, and history abound, this town within a town is idyllic.

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2 thoughts on “East London Series: The Royal Observatory: Greenwich

  1. I get what you mean about going to Greenwich..I live in SW London, and it feels like such a trek to get out there! I’m obsessed with the Brazilian churros in Greenwich Market though, so I do make the effort once in a while! Great post; I definitely would recommend stopping by the actual National Maritime Museum if you haven’t been, and the Queen’s House, which is next door to that, is also pretty good!

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I will definitely have to make it back out there to see the rest of the area. It seemed so peaceful from the chaos of central London.

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