When London overwhelms you and you prefer to escape to a quiet, easy, breezy spot, put on those sneakers and head towards Greenwich. It is after all, the birthplace of olden royals from another era, the Tudors from which Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were descended. But its most interesting offer is none other than the amazing Royal Observatory, the sole witness to the birthplace of time as we know it.
The fastest way to get to Greenwich is to take the Tube, London’s underground rail network. A bus ride will take about an hour from Central London. Or you could take the ferry and cruise the 6.5-kilometer River Thames en route to Greenwich just like what King Henry VIII used to do. In fact, getting there via river cruise is more enjoyable because you get to see British landmarks such as the Tower of London, London Bridge, Millennium Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Tate Modern, Albert Hall and the HH Belfast moored on the embankment.
Greenwich played a key role in Britain’s rise as a seafaring superpower. It was from its shipyards that the English naval fleet was built and sent off to countless expeditions and explorations. It was the Tudors that capitalized on this maritime blueprint and Greenwich was the center of it all.
Three of England’s monarchs were born here. Henry V built the Greenwich royal manor in the early 1500s. The manor was improved and became the Palace Placentia or Pleasant Palace, where Henry VIII was born in 1491. When he became king, he built a new chapel and a sprawling park where the Greenwhich Park now stands. It was here that Henry VIII, a young prince then, married the older Catherine of Aragon. His daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, were born here. Each went on to rule England as Mary I and Elizabeth I.
Today, Greenwich continues to host to the British monarchy. The Queen’s House built beside the park is one of the summer residences of Queen Elizabeth II. On her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, the queen herself will bestow upon Greenwhich a Royal Borough award. It will join London’s three existing royal boroughs – Kensington & Chelsea, Windsor & Maidenhead and Kingston. The award recognizes the close links forged between Greenwich and the royal family from the Middle Ages to the present day. It also recognizes Greenwich’s global significance as the home of the Prime Meridian, Greenwich Mean Time and its status as a World Heritage Site.
Greenwich and the Creation of Standard Time
The Greenwich Mean Time or GMT is the basis of standard time throughout most of the world, and the zero point used in reckoning geographical longitudes since 1884. The naval countries at that time have agreed to hold a maritime conference that will determine the standard time to be used. Forty-one delegates from 25 nations met in Washington DC for the International Meridian Conference. By the end of the conference, Greenwich had won the prize of Longitude 0º by a vote of 22 to 1 against San Domingo, with 2 abstentions from France and Brazil.
Why Greenwich? By the late 19th century, 72 percent of the world’s commerce depended on sea charts, which used Greenwich as the Prime Meridian. The decision, essentially, was based on the argument that by naming Greenwich as Longitude 0º, it would be advantageous to the largest number of people. Therefore the Prime Meridian at Greenwich became the centre of world time, and will be the official starting point for the new Millennium.
Now there is an amazing thing you need to do in Greenwich. Follow that steel line drawn on the ground across the observatory. Walk along with it until you reach the globular sculpture at the end. Turn around to face toward the digital clock and place your feet on either side of the steel line. Congratulate yourself for you can now say that you were able to exist in two different places at the same time. That line is the demarcation of the Prime Meridian that divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth, just as the Equator divides the northern and southern hemispheres.
A World Heritage Site
In 1997, the UNESCO declared Greenwich as a world heritage site. The Old Royal Observatory itself is England’s first purpose-designed facility. It houses a 28-inch refracting telescope, the largest of its kind in the UK and the seventh largest in the world. Completed in 1893, it was designed to keep the Royal Observatory at the forefront of contemporary astronomy.
Outside the Observatory, the tranquility of Greenwich Park perfectly complements the Italianate beauty of the Queen’s House. Built in 1616 and designed by Inigo Jones, the Queen’s House is a fine architectural structure that boasts of its cantilevered tulip staircase. The Palladian design is one of the unique royal treasures of England. Adjacent to the Queen’s House is the Royal Naval College, yet another architectural wonder built in the Baroque style by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. The four blocks that comprise the compound is actually the site of the old Greenwich Palace. The soft glow of the twilight sky added more character to silhouettes of the St. Peter and St. Paul Chapels, constructed in the Georgian style. But there was more to behold from the drama that the Painted Hall offers. It felt like entering a smaller Sistine Chapel with all the renaissance-like ceiling paintings greeting the visual senses with tableau-like imageries. Paintings made in the trompe l’oeil style, can be found on the columns, windowsills and in the Vestibule and each has its own story to tell.
A Timeless Experience
As we head back to the hustle and bustle of the city, I took one last snapshot of the pier to remind me of this one fine day spent in the outskirts. The majesty of its environs remained as timeless as the setting of the sun, as noble as the proud marble statues of kings past. “Time and space are relative,” Einstein said in his famous theory. For me, Greenwich captures the essence of that idea. It is massive yet subdued, grand but composed, both Baroque and modern at the same time. Indeed, a timeless, classic piece of wonder in this part of the world.
This article also comes out in the latest issue of Pulse Magazine, the official publication of First Gen Corporation and subsidiaries.