Greenwich makes a great day out for both ordinary and scientific tourists, with a wealth of historical, cultural and architectural attractions, not to mention some of the best views in London. It is, after all, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its credentials as an unmissable destination for the Scientific Tourist are unimpeachable.
Located on a great meander of the Thames, just a few miles downriver from central London, Greenwich itself and neighbouring Blackheath are an elegant, wealthy enclave in grimy South East London. Greenwich is dominated by the fine Royal Park, which runs steeply uphill from a narrow strip of land along the river. Personally, I think Greenwich is worth a couple of days, especially in fine weather, unless you are particularly indefatigable and try to cram it all into one.
However, it’s undeniable that it becomes very crowded during the summer, when not only it is a major tourist draw, but also a mandatory destination for tour parties of young students and school kids. That just confirms Greenwich’s attractiveness, but the museums can be busy (and noisy), and the central area a little too packed to be comfortable. Thankfully, the park (the oldest in London,) the naval hospital/college and the river walks all provide respite from the crowds.
A great part of the charm of the place is best appreciated in fine weather, when locals and tourists alike throng the markets, shops and restaurants, and sun themselves in the Royal Park. So unless you are lucky with winter sunshine, go in early spring or late autumn, and try to get there early. Fortunately, excellent transport links make that easy to do. Probably the most scenic route is by the river-buses, which run from central London.
A busy road runs through the centre of town where the markets, pubs and restaurants are located, but the elegant edifices of the Old Royal Naval College and Hospital front the river. The newly restored tea clipper, the Cutty Sark is also here, next to the foot tunnel and the jetty. You will probably recognise the graceful buildings, and their impressive courts and porticoes, from the many films for which they have provided backdrops.
Across the road, the National Maritime Museum with its equally grand buildings begins the park, and frames the Old Royal Observatory at the top of the hill.
Greenwich is one of those destinations where, for the Scientific Tourist, a sense of place is almost more interesting than the attractions themselves.
Above all, it is the link between Britain’s needs as a maritime nation and the establishment of astronomical science and measurements, that is so clearly seen at Greenwich. 400 years or more of the complex interplay of science and technology with exploration, trade and, of course, warfare, are all laid out around you. Greenwich shows clearly how science was both the cause and result of maritime success, which in turn paid for these magnificent buildings.
For anyone with an interest in the history of science, especially within a social or historical context, then Greenwich evokes a myriad of stories to be told, and connections to be made. The Royal Observatory was the first purpose built research establishment in Britain, and Edmund Halley (the second Astronomer Royal) commanded the first voyage by a naval ship for purely scientific purposes. The intertwined stories of committees and state funded science are fascinatingly told in the story of the search for the longitude (see Review of Longitude by Dava Sobel). The awarding of prizes as an encouragement to innovation and the perennial problems of funded, goal seeking research were all played out here 300 years ago, as much as they are today.
The observatory (and the post of Astronomer Royal) was established for the main purpose of providing celestial charts and timetables for navigation and the determining of the elusive Longitude. In the end, it was John Harrison’s development of accurate, reliable chronometers that solved this vital problem, and several of his wonderful machines are on display in the observatory. See
Greenwich became the world centre of time, becoming the Prime Meridian from which time (and longitude) are measured. The observatory has exhibits ranging from the earliest timepieces to atomic clocks. And of course, the six pips of the Greenwich time signal have been transmitted (though not from here) for many years and are world-famous.
There is the complex interplay of commerce, science and engineering involved in the whole story. All this is laid out very clearly at Greenwich, where Wren’s architecture shows off the enormous wealth generated by the merchant fleets, protected as they were by the Royal Navy. Some have even suggested that Britain’s expansion into an empire was at least partly facilitated by the superior navigational abilities that Harrison’s chronometers provided.
Not to neglect the purely scientific aspects, the Observatory houses a collection of astronomical instruments of historical interest as well as more modern instruments, and London’s only planetarium. Although the main bulk of the observatory’s scientific and technical work has long since been relocated to more suitable climes, or been outsourced elsewhere, a walk through Flamsteed House, seeing how some of the great men of astronomy (Halley, Maskelyne, Bradley, not to mention Flamsteed himself) lived and worked, is a wonderfully atmospheric experience.
The observatory runs a popular outreach programme and, if you are lucky with timing and weather, the resident (but, alas, not Royal) astronomers demonstrate practical observation.
Speaking of Halley, he was quite a pioneer of Scientific Tourism himself. He was twice given command of Royal Navy vessels to sail down to St Helena in the South Atlantic, where he observed the transit of Mercury as well as mapping the southern stars. Scientific Tourism was more valued and more risky in those days, and his first command ended in a near mutiny. (See Edmond Halley – An illustrious Scientific Tourist)
Around the back of Flamsteed House you can see the remaining bottom end of Herschel’s 40ft telescope. Probably the greatest Astronomer Royal we never had, Herschel was a skilled and prolific telescope maker whose instruments were in demand all over the world. There is one in the Vienna Technical Museum (see Vienna Technical Museum) similar to the 9ft one he used to discover Uranus.
The Naval College (originally a home for retired seamen – how grand is that?) provided vital training for the officers who protected the mercantile fleet and established the empire. It once held a working nuclear reactor for training purposes, but this was removed in 1999. It was almost certainly the world’s only reactor housed in a 17th century building designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
Wren also designed Flamsteed House, and if you stand by General Wolfe’s statue by the Meridian Line and look upriver, you can also see Wren’s iconic masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral. Wren was also renowned for astronomy and mathematics, as well as his more well-known achievements as an architect. Robert Hooke, so famous for his work on microscopes and springs, supervised the building of the observatory. Nothing to do with science, but amusing nonetheless, is that Wolfe is said to have recited Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard to his officers before the battle, adding: “Gentlemen, I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec tomorrow.”
At the National Maritime Museum, this Scientific Tourist was a little disappointed to see that the museum concentrates more on the historical than the scientific or technical, but there is still plenty to see. It’s big on trade, but less informative on the technologies that made it possible. For instance, the SS Great Eastern surely deserves an exhibition. Nevertheless, it hammers home the relationship between science and technology and wealth and trade.
Down in the town you can see the Cutty Sark, an example of the final culmination of a technology (sail power) just before it was replaced by steam. The Cutty Sark was designed to be an ocean-going greyhound, speeding the cargoes from the very furthest reaches of empire. She has now been extensively restored and re-mounted. It is impossible not to feel some of the romance and adventure of the great days of sail. Look out for the sailor aloft on the yard arms to add a touch of the deadly dangerous reality.
Ironically, Isambard K Brunel’s last great steamship the Great Eastern, was built across the river. Designed for the Britain to Australia run without refuelling, the Great Eastern was by far the largest ship of her time, built with the then innovative double hull, and powered by steam-driven paddles and screw, she was a bold piece of engineering, designed to supplant sail. She was launched sideways into the river by hydraulic rams built by Tangye of Birmingham. The same Tangye built the steam pumps at Brede (see Whispering Giants)
Never a commercial success, she was later converted to lay cable, and established the first successful trans-Atlantic link. You can still see some traces of the slipway.
Dava Sobell’s book, Longitude – The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. This is well worth reading before you visit. See Review.
The ascent up to the observatory etc. from the riverside is about 30m, and there is no transport available.* The most direct ascent is rather steep. For a gentler approach, use the main avenue. If you are disabled, consider taking a bus to the Blackheath gate and walking down to town.
The Maritime Museum and the Old Royal Observatory both have cafes serving a variety of hot and cold food, and both have terraces to enjoy the sun. However, while the fare offered is perfectly acceptable, the prices are very high, even for Greenwich. £5.50p for a small bottle of ‘craft’ beer is quite frankly a rip-off, although you could take the view that by spending your money there you not only get a chance to take a break during your tour, but you are also, albeit indirectly, supporting the museums.
The prices in the cafes in the park are slightly more reasonable but still high. Better to stock up at a supermarket, and picnic in the park. Greenwich is packed with restaurants of varying prices and standards, and there are plenty of food stalls in the market. Less expensive and touristy restaurants can be found a few hundred metres east along Trafalgar Road.
Although all the tourists jostle to take their selfies at the Prime Meridian line in the courtyard of Flamsteed House, the modern meridian actually runs about 100m east, along the path towards where the fallen bole of Queen Elizabeth’s Oak lies today. So if you want to stand astride the line separating East and West, take the footpath.
Speaking of the Meridian, a small footpath leads from the Electric Clock outside Flamsteed House, where most people gather to take pictures, down around the house to the Astronomer’s Garden, passing over the Meridian Line on the way. The Astronomer’s Garden is a quiet, pretty little place to enjoy some tranquillity.
Don’t miss the formal Flower Gardens at the Blackheath end of the park, or the Deer Park nearby. The gardens are very well maintained and contain some fine trees. Take a few moments to enjoy both the waterfowl in the lake and the rockeries, including the heather gardens. Herds of Red and Fallow deer occupy their own little wilderness area behind the shrubberies.
If you’re around for a few days, there is a local scientific society, Blackheath Scientific Society – which arranges authoritative and interesting lectures from October to May, and visits to sites of scientific interest
Away from the park, try to take a stroll along the riverside east of the Naval College, past the Trafalgar Tavern, to see some interesting architecture before arriving at the Cutty Sark pub.
The best view of the Royal Naval College, Queen’s House and the Observatory in all their architectural glory, is from the Isle of Dogs, which can be reached by a foot tunnel under the Thames. Canaletto painted this view from here.
Do check that the London Marathon (which begins in the park) is not being run when you visit!
* There have been small road trains in the past, ferrying people around – there’s even one featured on the Park’s website. However, I’d definitely try to get confirmation from the Park (good luck!) before relying on them.