Today’s blog takes you to the zero meridian, to the Royal Borough Of Greenwich to be precise. Our elaborate journey into East London of the past weeks will conclude at this favourite tourist hot spot, where the maritime heritage and history of Great Britain is celebrated on every street corner.
As you arrive in Greenwich either on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) or -perhaps more appropriately- on a riverboat, you will be awestruck by the majestic beauty of the Cutty Sark – one of the last tea clippers to ever be built (in 1869). This massive ship hails from the days of the Great Empire and recounts numerous tales that even predate the Industrial Revolution. Badly damaged in a fire in 2007, this permanently docked vessel has only recently been restored and opened up to the public again. No other landmark in the area symbolises the hard and hardened spirit of the erstwhile local sailors as this listed edifice.
On the open square around the Cutty Sark, there are plenty of restaurants, cafés and pubs to relax at after an elaborate tour of the ship. But no rest for the wicked: to the immediate north of the ship you will see a domed structure – this is the entrance into the Greenwich foot tunnel, one of only two pedestrian tunnels that run under the River Thames. It is well worthwhile a visit, as even in the hottest days of summer (of which Britain only gets about a week’s worth) it remains cold and somewhat eerily damp down there. The ten minute walk across the tunnel (which has elevators at either entrance if you wish to avoid the steps) will take you into a different underworld – a world that is almost as old as the Cutty Sark, in fact. Leave it to the Victorians to master such engineering feats… The journey will lead you to the southern tip of the Isle Of Dogs, a largely residential area populated by professionals working in the nearby financial centre, Canary Wharf.
But back above ground, just by the Cutty Sark, you can carry on feeling the timeless maritime spirit by walking a couple of minutes downriver along the Thames to the Old Royal Naval College. This beautiful, twin-domed structure by Britain’s “showcase architect” Christopher Wren has been featured in countless movies, most recently for the set of the 2012 remake of “Les Miserables”. This truly is one of the most beautiful edifices in all of London; one that is often overlooked and forgotten.
Inside, you can explore Britain’s history as a global naval power at the National Maritime Museum, or visit one of the ever-changing exhibitions hosted at the Naval College if you’re an art junkie. Some of the rooms are also being used by local universities, especially the University of Greenwich and the Trinity Laban Conservatory; so don’t be surprised if you’re treated to a free concert while just walking on the grounds. You can’t help put allow this to put a smile on your face.
From here on you can easily explore Greenwich Park, which is particularly popular both with tourists and locals on weekends. If you’re up for the challenge you might want to race up the hill to the Royal Observatory. Perhaps a bit outdated for modern-day stargazing, you can nonetheless enjoy a spectacle at the adjacent Peter Harrison Planetarium – another hidden and oft-forgotten London gem. Forget IMAX, this is the real deal. And while you up there on this picturesque hill, rest assured that you’re standing right on top of the Greenwich meridian; an absolute delight for all science buffs and those who wish they were. At the other end of the hill, you will see the 2012 London Olympics site for equestrian sports; consider yourself lucky if you’ve managed to get a ticket; Princess Margaret is expected to open this ceremony in person, making it one of the most quintessentially British events at the Games!
But there are many cultural delights beyond sports and royalty that Greenwich is known for, and a few others that remain rather unknown. A tip for an unusual outing is the nearby Fan Museum, which holds the only collection in the world that is entirely dedicated to fans. It also has a delightful tearoom in its orangery and features beautiful gardens. Or if you’re looking for spiritual renewel, consider going to St. Alfege’s Church around the corner, another masterpiece created by Sir Christopher Wren. And you thought he was only known for St. Paul’s cathedral, didn’t you?
Before you rush off to into town to admire other landmarks created by Wren, remember that you simply can’t leave Greenwich without paying a visit to the market, which is one of the most unusual in London. It is open on most days and holds everything from world food items to objects d’art. But be careful: you could easily bleed you wallet dry here!
The next time you set your watch, remember: wherever you are in the world would literally be ‘timeless’ if it wasn’t for Greenwich Mean Time.