Saturday, April 09, 2005

Having a Mean Time in Greenwich

On Thursday I decided to head into London once more. London Walks offers a tour that begins at Tower Hill. (Since I realize that all of you sit at home with a London map while you’re reading this, you’ll notice that Tower Hill isn’t exactly near Greenwich. Which is why….) Our trip began with a boat trip down the Thames. Along the way, we were treated to on-and-off rain showers, a recorded narration about the sights along the way, and the screams and shouts of a group of French school kids. (Anyone who tells you that Americans are loud needs to be in an enclosed space, trying to listen to the audio tour while being able only to hear the screams and shouts of French kids playing cards while their teachers sit by...clueless. And just in case you think I’m being overly harsh, our tour guide was also a teacher (for thirty years) and she sees groups like this all the time…she said that the French groups are the worst.)

Anyway, after our docking in Greenwich, the group assembled in the shadow of the world’s last surviving tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, built in 1869. It also happened to be the world’s fastest tea clipper, making the trip from Australia to England in only 72 days. Our tour continued through the town. We heard about Greenwich’s role in English history, including the fact that it was here that King Henry VIII finally decided he was through with Ann Bolyn.

Since the day’s weather alternated between dark-and-rainy and warm-and-sunny, our guide Hilary did a great job of getting us inside before it rained and back out again when the sun came out. We made a brief visit to the Queen’s House and then stopped in two rooms of the Old Royal Naval College – the Chapel which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and the Painted Room where the body of Nelson lay following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar. (Well, not directly after his death…first he had to travel back to England…preserved in a barrel of whiskey…really…actually, two different barrels of whiskey…the sailors kept sneaking drinks from the first barrel…really. Ok, I think one was a barrel of port…or maybe gin, but I’m not positive.) As a side note, prior to being the Old Royal Naval College, the buildings were actually, until the 1990s, the Royal Naval College where Britain trained it’s Naval officers. Before that, from its construction in 1696 until 1873, the buildings were used as the Royal Naval Hospital.

We also watched the ball drop at 1:00. (No…really…it was interesting…honest.) The Royal Observatory at Greenwich is located at the top of a hill, overlooking the Thames. Each day, since 1833, the ball atop the roof of the Observatory has been dropped to allow sailors to set their chronometers. So, from the bottom of the hill, our group stood and watched the ball be hoisted up and then dropped. It was just like at New Year’s…only during the day…without screaming and cheering...but still….

After our guided tour, it was nearly lunchtime. Actually, it was way past lunchtime. The walk began at Tower Hill at 10:45. By the time the walk was over, it was nearly 2:00. I’m not sure why, but Greenwich is home to a number of Mexican restaurants. (Yes, this is a big deal…these are the first Mexican restaurants I’ve been since I left Roanoke before Christmas.) I ate lunch at one that offered a lunch special. The food was good, I was the only customer there, blah, blah, blah…but the seats! This place had the most interesting seating of anyplace I’ve ever seen. The booths were along the walls and then in between each booth was a narrow ladder leading to another set of booths set atop the first set. Okay, it’s tough to explain. But it was neat. Trust me…I’m an engineer.

Following my lunch, I set about visiting the places I couldn’t visit during the walking tour. So, of course, I headed straight to the market. Each market day is themed…Thursday’s theme was bric-a-brac. And, true to its word, the place was filled with both bric and brac. I settled for only buying a small bric…or maybe it was a brac…actually, I’m not sure.

I also visited the Cutty Sark. It has the requisite deck-with-cramped-rooms you can visit, the requisite come-draw-a-picture-of-a-ship for the kids, and the requisite gift shop. It also has an interesting display of figureheads from a number of ships. The most interesting part about the Cutty Sark, however, is the outside (and therefore, free) part. Instead of being in the water (yes, it is a ship, but stay with me here), the ship is located just a bit away from the river in a dry berth. This allows visitors to walk down into the berth and look closely at both the fore and the stern (I’m not really sure what the ship parts are called…but you know…the front and the back).

Then I hiked up the hill to the Royal Observatory (why this country insists upon building things uphill and up stairs is beyond me). This, however, isn’t just any observatory; this is the observatory from which both the world’s time and the world’s longitude are measured. Ever heard of Greenwich Mean Time? This is the Greenwich. Ever heard of 0º longitude? This is that 0º. (As further proof that this place is important, ever heard of the Prime Meridian? Yep, this is the place.) Here it’s possible to stand with one foot in the Earth’s eastern hemisphere and one foot in the western hemisphere. There’s also a nice set of exhibits tracing the history of timekeeping and astronomy. You can also climb a set of (what else?) spiral stairs and see the large 28-inch telescope inside the large dome (28-inches refers to the diameter of the mirror (I think) rather than the length…so, a 28-inch telescope is actually a very large telescope).

Since it was getting close to 5:00, the National Maritime Museum was closing, so I had to save that for next time. (Just as a side note, the Royal Observatory, the Queen’s House, and the National Maritime Museum are all national museums, and are therefore, free. The Old Royal Naval College isn’t a national museum but it’s free also.) What I did see, however, was a beautiful rainbow stretching from near the Thames towards the observatory. I’ve got a few nice pictures that I’ll post soon (I hope).

So, I walked under the Thames to the Isle of Dogs. (Yeah, there’s a sentence you don’t see very often.) You see, there’s a tunnel under the Thames built so that workers in the late 1800s could easily get from one side of the Thames to the other without having to wait for, and pay for, the ferry. And the Isle of Dogs is the place in the Thames where the Canary Wharf area is located. From there, I took the DLR towards central London. (Look! More strange letters! The DLR is the Docklands Light Rail – kind of like the Underground but run by a separate company. It also has shorter trains and you can see out the front. This last part, seeing out the front, is probably the best part…you get to see ahead of you through the tunnels. The DLR is also controlled by computer…some times of day there’s no driver on the train. When I rode, though, it was rush hour and there was a person to make sure the doors didn’t close on some last-minute commuter.)

Back in central London, I visited the Tesco Express at Trafalgar Square. Then, I found (miraculously) a dry bench and (even more miraculously) a table. I managed to get my entire meal eaten without being rained upon.

As I headed towards the Internet café, I noticed lights on in the gift shop of the National Portrait Gallery. Never one to pass up an opportunity like that, I decided to stop in. Then, I saw that the entire museum (nearly) was open for a couple more hours. So, I spent some time looking at portraits of old, dead people. Okay, to be fair, not all of the people were old when they were painted, and almost none of them were dead at the time. And, since the National Portrait Gallery is a national museum, it’s free. (Special exhibitions, however, may incur an admission fee.)

After viewing many portraits of many people, I went to the Internet café. Once there, I checked my email and posted a couple entries to my blog. And speaking of my blog, you really should check it out sometime….

Before heading back to Stevenage, I decided to head back to Trafalgar Square and pick up a few Royal Wedding souvenirs (I have this misguided notion that the now misdated commemorative spoons will be worth something sometime). The shop was closed but just a bit further on, I saw a large crown of people in the street.

It turns out that a huge group of people were moving in a solemn procession from Trafalgar Square to Westminster Cathedral. Thousands of people, many of them carrying Polish flags and carrying candles, were moving slowly through the streets in memory of Pope John Paul II. Occasionally, groups would begin singing. I’m not sure what language it was, but it wasn’t English. At the Cathedral, many people left their candles nearby and moved on. Others stayed for a while just to be there.

I followed a group of people moving towards Victoria Station and headed home.


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