Back to Britain, Part 8

By Boat to Greenwich Observatory, Maritime Museum

June 10-25, 2003 (Updated Dec. 4, 2003)



1. London revisited

6.  Royal Gardens at Kew

11. Tate Gallery at St. Ives

2. Dolphin Square Hotel

7.  Tate Britain, Riverwalk

12. Eden Project, Heligan

3. London Eye, Piccadilly

8.  Greenwich Naval Museum

13. Rainy day in Cornwall

4. V&A, Tower of London

9.  Roman baths at Bath

14. Land’s End, Penzance

5. Queen Troops the Colours

10. St. Ives’ Trewinnard Hotel

15. To Gatwick and home


Index to 46 Photos


By Lewis Nolan

Return To Nolan Travels Home Page


Tuesday, June 17, 2003 – To Greenwich


The great weather we’ve been enjoying since our arrival in London a week ago went on holiday today. It was cloudy in the morning and by late afternoon heavy rain was falling in sheets. However, the bad weather didn’t slow us down much since we had planned to spend much of the day inside at the British Maritime Museum anyway.


After my usual breakfast of a ham sandwich and Diet Coke in our flat at the Dolphin Square, I repaired to Zest, the apartment hotel’s excellent fitness club. I spent a half-hour on a stationery bike while watching the BBC news and then did a little Yogic stretching. Betty stayed back to read.

Betty by Cutty Sark
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After a light lunch at the hotel deli, we took the tube to Westminster. Just a few yards downstream from the Westminster Bridge – which dates to 1750 - is a fleet of modern excursion boats. We paid £8 each for a round-trip ride down the Thames to the London suburb of Greenwich. The excursion is well worth the cost. The boats sell snacks and drinks, offer both indoor and outdoor seating and run on the half hour. The captain provided an informative and entertaining narration during the one-hour ride.


If one is to fully appreciate London, it is essential to see the city from the river. Many of the most interesting buildings and other sights were built on or near the Thames over the centuries. Among them are the Houses of Parliament, the County Hall, Millennium Wheel, Old Scotland Yard, Cleopatra’s Needle (an obelisk first erected in Egypt in 1500 B.C. by Pharaoh Thotmes III and centuries later presented to the British people in honor of Lord Nelson’s victory over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798), Savoy Hotel, Royal National Theatre, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tate Modern Gallery, Shakespeare’s Globe, Anchor Tavern, Fishmongers’ Hall, Old Billingsgate Market, London Bridge City, Lloyd’s of London, HMS Belfast, Tower of London, Dickens’ Inn and the Execution Dock at Wapping.


We learned during the boat captain’s narration that the infamous Captain Kidd and other pirates and smugglers were put to death by drowning at Wapping. They chained to the muddy riverbank at low tide. Supposedly they were set free if they survived three, successive, 21-foot tidal flows. But no example of such an act of divine mercy was given during the commentary.


We passed miles of high-rise, luxury condos in warehouses that were once abandoned and thought to be all but worthless 20 years ago. A one-bedroom unit with a river view now sells for £500,000. Opposite the Tower of London is a shiny development of high-rise, glass towers that are stacked around several blocks to form a city within a city. The buildings have expensive, mixed purpose units that include offices, retail and residential. We were told the development is worth several hundred million dollars and is owned by Kuwait’s Royal Family.


That means that the immensely wealthy Arabs are reaping yet more economic benefits of the oil we Westerners discovered, pumped out of the ground, refined, delivered, purchased - and defended. We also cruised past the Royal Barge, a surprising small cabin cruiser owned by the Queen that is rarely used. The boat is tied up to a floating dock anchored near the middle of the river, probably for security reasons.


The ancient town of Greenwich has been a gateway to London for over 1,000 years. The Romans passed through on their way to London. The invading Danes moored their longboats at Greenwich when they raided Canterbury in 1012.


A manor house built in Greenwich in the 15th Century was enlarged by several Tudor monarchs and rebuilt by Henry VII. His son, the infamous Henry VIII, was born there. James I gave the estate to his consort, Anne of Denmark, who started work on a new building in 1616 that came to be called the Queen’s Palace. In 1694, Mary II rededicated several unfinished buildings as the Royal Naval Hospital for Seamen under the design of Christopher Wren (architect of St. Paul’s in London). The Royal Naval College took over the buildings in 1873.

Lewis straddles two time zones
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Rich in history, Greenwich is a wonderful spot to visit, especially for sea buffs like me. As a boy, I was thrilled by the Horatio Hornblower novels about British warships in the age of sail. My favorite author is the late Patrick O’Brian, a popular British writer whose work was made into the movie “Master and Commander.” I’ve read and re-read all 17 of O’Brian’s saber-rattling, mainsail jibing stories in the Aubrey-Maturin series about naval warfare during the Napoleonic Era. Those books earned the New York Times Book Review sobriquet of being “the best historical novels ever written.” 


We had spent most of a day at Greenwich during our trip to England 17 years ago and I had long been looking forward to another visit. Once again and despite the wet weather, it was a glorious outing from Central London. We again admired the Cutty Sark, the great tea clipper built for the China trade in 1869 that is berthed in dry dock a few yards from Greenwich’s front door riverport. The classic ship once held the record for the fastest voyage on the tea route.


A drawing of the ship adorns the label of Cutty Sark scotch whiskey. The popular brand  was the drink of choice for the late President Lyndon Johnson. LBJ’s biographers point out that he never traveled in Air Force One without having several cases on hand; the President supposedly drank two bottles a day.


Inside the hold of the Cutty Sark ship is a collection of wooden masthead figures. The ship’s interior still smells strongly like tea. 


Near the Cutty Sark and also in dry dock is another famous sailing craft, the Gipsy Moth IV. This is the two-masted yacht that Sir Francis Chichester sailed single-handed around the world in 1966-67. I had read his book about the record-setting voyage when it first came out not long after his safe return to England. Thus armed, I got great pleasure from being able to climb aboard and walk through the Gipsy Moth IV during our 1986 visit. Alas, the boat is now showing signs of its age and weathering and visitors are restricted to an adjacent viewing platform. Chichester died some years ago.


We walked a few blocks through the heart of Greenwich and trekked up a steep hill to the Royal Observatory. There, we saw where time really begins. The Prime Meridian – Longitude 0.0.0, as in zero – was fixed here in 1884. The Prime Meridian is the basis for the worldwide-accepted method of fixing time by different zones.


Betty overlooks Maritime Museum complex
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The Zero meridian is an imaginary line that circles the globe and knifes through the hilltop observatory at Greenwich. It is symbolically marked just outside the observatory by a stainless steel line embedded in concrete. Everything to the east of the line is the Eastern Hemisphere of the global time zone. Everything to the west is in the Western Hemisphere of the global time zone. Times everywhere in the world are staggered by their longitudinal relationship to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).


By straddling the line, a visitor can be in two hemispheric zones at once. Lots do. Many have their photos taken, as did I.


Atop the observatory is the time ball, which has dropped precisely at 1 p.m. every day since 1833. It was the first public time signal, put up to help mariners on the Thames set their chronometers. We saw a similar signal in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1985 that was accompanied by the firing of a canon. There was no canon fired this day when the red ball dropped down a black tower at the Greenwich observatory. I didn’t think to ask if one ever was.


The brick-and-wood observatory isn’t much bigger than a Georgian Colonial-style home in Memphis. It was designed by Christopher Wren, England’s greatest architect, and built in 1675 by King Charles II. The observatory provided living quarters and workspace for the first Royal Astronomer, who greatly advanced ship navigation by accurately mapping the stars.


The observatory has many excellent exhibits related to marine navigation and timekeeping. Precise reckoning of positions at sea was not possible until the invention and development of truly accurate clocks that could withstanding the movement of a ship at sea for months. An accurate clock made it possible for navigators to use sighting instruments, mathematic tables and charts to precisely measure the angle of the sun at 1 p.m. local time. They could then calculate their longitudinal distance from the Prime Meridian. Today, navigation is done by radio or satellite signals driven by atomic clocks and interpreted by computers.


One prize in the observatory’s collection is a longitude watch made in 1759 by John Harrison, said to be “the most important timekeeper ever made.” Another is the 28-inch, refractor of 1893, the largest telescope of its kind in Britain. 


The gift shop was crowded with visiting school children so we didn’t buy any souvenirs. It seems that the British schools treat their children to many more outings that do their American counterparts. Maybe it is because there is so much more history in Britain. Or maybe the British kids are better behaved. Or maybe the priorities are way different. Back home, the emphasis is on preparing students to pass standardized achievement tests; Memphis public schools only budget one daytrip per child per year, a disgrace.


It started raining just as we left the observatory. We donned our knee-length, GoreTex rain slickers, but still got out pants legs wet during the walk of a half mile or so to the National Maritime Museum. We found the galleries to be vastly improved since our last time here. I could have easily have spent an entire day touring the artifacts, displays and memorabilia of Britain’s seafaring history.


Admiral Nelson
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I particularly enjoyed the new Nelson Gallery. It houses a remarkable collection that focuses on the life and times of England’s most beloved admiral and greatest naval hero. Among the displays is the uniform coat Nelson wore when he fell at Trafalgar 199 years ago, with the fatal bullet hole clearly visible. I’ve read several biographies of Lord Viscount Horatio Nelson, whom I consider to be one of the most interesting and compelling world-shakers in history.


I was sickened to learn that a privately owned collection of Nelson’s medals had been stolen in the 1870s. Worse, I learned that an intricate, multi-diamond hat decoration that spun with a watch movement had been stolen from the museum in 1951. It also had never been recovered. The priceless piece was awarded Nelson by the grateful ruler of Turkey, whose throne was saved by one of the admiral’s brilliant naval moves against the French.


I think that stealing a reminder of the greatness one man can rise to is an abomination. Such theft is a crime against all mankind. Nelson’s memory belongs to the ages, like that of Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Winston Churchill. Stealing a visual reminder of their greatness is like desecrating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.


A museum guard offered that the Nelson “chelengk” - as the diamond ornament was called – was likely the slimy work of a skilled thief working on a specific commission. The guard speculated that the piece was probably on an airplane out of London within a few hours of its removal from the museum display case. It was then probably delivered to a very rich collector with no morals or conscience. To this day, the guard suggested, the piece likely stays in a vault somewhere (possibly in Asia or the Middle East) only to be taken out a time or two a year for solo viewing. It makes me angry to think how such national and world treasures continue to be stolen and spirited away into private collections in order to feed the egos of the selfish monsters who buy them.


We spent most of our time at the Maritime Museum in the Nelson Gallery, which actually is a string of rooms. But we did hurriedly walk through another grand exhibit, this one  dealing with ocean liners. On display in several galleries are reconstructed cabins of historic vessels and a great many scale models.


We had a tasty lunch in one of the several museum restaurants and I purchased a small, metal bust of Admiral Nelson in the gift shop. The bust now stands amid my modest collection of Patrick O’Brian and other seafaring books.


I was amused but saddened to learn that the ignorance of the world around them among young adults knows no national borders. I asked two, pleasant, young women who work as Maritime Museum hostesses how far Greenwich is from the English Channel. Neither had a clue whether the distance was 10, 100 or 500 miles. An older man who worked as a museum host told me it was probably 40-to-45 miles as the crow flies but closer to 50 miles by way of the Thames River.


As they did centuries ago, large boats still come up the British Channel, pass by or possibly tie up at Greenwich and ride the tides up the river to London. Long ago, the enormous tidal flows allowed un-powered vessels transport the commerce of London by sailing up and down the river. The boats used their sails to steer in the proper channel. Nelson’s body was taken to London by such a ship and then transferred to a custom-built barge for an elaborate, waterborne parade and ceremony. Some old prints in the Maritime Museum show the Thames almost bank-to-bank with sailing vessels at Greenwich.


We had the tide going our way for the return trip to London via excursion boat. It was raining cats and seadogs. There was no commentary on the way back, possibly because of the foul weather and possibly because the captain had been tipped on the downriver stage of the trip earlier in the day. We couldn’t see much because of the heavy rain. I enjoyed a highball during the 35-minute return trip upriver to Central London.


Back at the Westminster Station, we encountered an annoying incident. Betty tried to pass through the automated gates at the entrance to the tube’s train-boarding area. She inserted her prepaid subway pass into the mechanism just as a confused, inconsiderate woman ahead of her stopped in the gate at mid-stride. By this time the machine had already processed Betty’s ticket even though she had been blocked from passing through the gate. We had to get a security guard to reactivate the ticket.


With the rain making unattractive another foray outside, we decided to eat dinner at one of the Dolphin Square’s restaurants rather than walk several blocks to a nearby pub. I had an excellent shank of lamb and Betty had beef and vegetables. Afterward, I reviewed our travel plans for the next day. We had to figure out the optimum route to get out of  London while avoiding the £5 per day “use tax” required for driving in the Central District. Once I saw just how complicated it would be to drive through London traffic and north to Stratford-on-Avon, then south and west to Bath, we scrapped our visit to the town made famous by the Bard. We decided to drive to Bath by the most direct and fastest route across southern England. 


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