#35: UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Maritime Greenwich
Maritime Greenwich: included on the UNESCO World Heritage list primarily for its architecture which influenced the development of European architecture during the 17th and 18th centuries but also for the scientific advances made there in the fields of navigation and astronomy. The site includes the landscaped Royal Park and the Royal Observatory, the Baroque buildings of Sir Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital for Seamen (now known as the Old Royal Naval College) and the Queen’s House, built by Inigo Jones and the first Palladian building in Britain. The whole was developed and built to incorporate existing Royal Palaces into a symmetrical and elegant design, which is especially beautiful when viewed either from the Thames or from the Royal Park.
In addition to the importance and artistic contribution of the architecture, the work done at the Royal Observatory allowed accurate measurement of the Earth’s movement for the first time and the Observatory is also associated with the quest to be able to accurately measure longitude. Without this, long distance ship journeys were extremely hazardous and liable to take much longer than necessary as it was impossible for sailors to know where they were so navigation was often a matter more of luck than judgement. Even now, Greenwich is the international standard from which time is measured via Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), taken from the Greenwich Meridian at 0 degrees longitude and this remains the baseline for measurement of longitude at sea.
On the day of my visit, I thought it would be lovely to approach on the river as the Royals would once have done, so I took the Thames Clipper from the London Eye pier. It was fascinating to cruise along the Thames, passing sights such as the Globe Theatre and the Tower of London and sailing underneath Tower Bridge, as well as seeing more modern constructions such as Canary Wharf and the Shard. The old wharf buildings which line the banks of the river are testament to the crucial role the Thames played in the development of London and indeed Britain’s role in the Empire. It was easy to see that the river used to be the major highway, linking the key parts of the city together. It was also interesting to be above ground and able to see how the various landmarks relate to each other, rather than just disappearing into the Underground and popping up somewhere else with no idea of what you’ve passed along the way.
Sadly, I visited on a grey and rainy day so the sights were not always as visible as they might have been, but nevertheless, the amazing grandeur of the buildings of the Old Royal Naval College was clearly apparent on arrival at Greenwich pier.
It’s free to visit the beautiful Painted Hall and the Chapel (although no photography allowed). The Queen’s House is also free to visit and is home to an exhibion of war art. Not my thing so I didn’t worry about the exhibitions, but I did enjoy wandering about and seeing the design of the house as it is beautiful.
During my lunch stop I was lucky enough to catch the ‘once a day only’ trip of the Greenwich Time Ball – once a hugely important maritime signal as it operated as a visual signal giving absolutely accurate GMT to any ships within sight of the Royal Observatory. They could use this to set the timepiece which for the rest of their voyage would allow them to know GMT and therefore to calculate their longitude. Every day at 12:55 GMT (therefore it seems an hour late during British Summer Time as GMT remains consistent throughout the year), the Time Ball raises halfway. At 12:58 GMT it goes to the top and then at 13:00 GMT precisely it drops:
My next trip was up to the Royal Observatory, from where there is a magnificent view of the gorgeous Greenwich architecture (again, slightly spoiled by the weather conditions!), but it’s possible to see exactly how impressive this would have looked when it was built more than 200 years ago and was surrounded by little more than fields.
A visit to the Royal Observatory was in order to learn about the work done there and, of course, to stand on the famous Meridian Line itself.
Did you know there are actually several meridian lines? Several different royal observers created their own meridian lines, based on the alignment of their observing equipment, but the one which is most commonly used now is Airy’s meridian, or the Prime Meridian. However, the first Ordnance Survey map produced was based from Bradley’s meridian which is nearly six metres west of the Prime Meridian, and this is still used as the meridian for Ordnance Survey maps today. In time terms, it’s only two one hundredths of a second different from the Prime Meridian. It was also fascinating to learn that it used to be the case that the only way to accurately set a timepiece was to physically take it to Greenwich and set it from the unusual twenty four hour public clock
This was all well and good for London watchmakers but proved a problem for those in other parts of the country, so some enterprising folk set up businesses where they would effectively courier timepieces to Greenwich, set them and courier them back. For more information on the meridian, see: http://www.thegreenwichmeridian.org/tgm/articles.php?article=0
The area of the World Heritage site now includes the National Maritime Museum and the Cutty Sark, so I was able to enjoy a quick look around those too, as well as visiting St Alfege’s Church built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, who studied under Christopher Wren and had worked on the Royal Hospital. There was just time after a very full day to wander back to take some photographs at night and to see the green beam marking the meridian line projecting out from the Observatory over Greenwich, before enjoying a scenic cruise back along the Thames.
If you’re interested to read more about the world heritage site, see: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/795