August 7, 2016 – Admittedly, the Royal Observatory Greenwich was not high on my To Do List. But realizing that most London attractions would not be open until 10:00 AM, and with two hours to burn early Monday morning, I made a spontaneous decision: Let’s climb that hill!
And I’m so glad I did.
A Pleasant Stroll Through Greenwich
For starters, the Observatory is fairly easy to reach. As I was already staying at a B&B (St. Katharine’s) in London’s East End, I simply hopped on a DLR (Docklands Light Railway) train from Limehouse Station to Greenwich – ten stops. Even though it was a Monday morning around 8:00 AM, there were plenty of seats, and the train ride was memorable.
Somnambulant Londoners boarded and alighted the DLR train at various stops, one after the other, in a blurry haze: West India Quay…Canary Wharf…Heron Quays…South Quay…Crossharbour…Mudchute (now there’s a name!)…Island Gardens…and finally Greenwich.
The walk from Greenwich Station to St. Mary’s Gate, one of several entrances to Greenwich Park, is about 20 minutes, give or take. For a first-time visitor, it was a very pleasant stroll. School children in uniforms were walking to bus stops and schools, breakfast eateries and small businesses were stirring to life, and moderate car traffic ambled by as Greenwich shook off its weekend slumber.
As a visitor, I love to see how others live and work and get around, and to capture the feel of another city’s rhythms. This morning would be a superficial and quick glimpse, but at least it was a sampling.
I hate to use quaint words like “charming”, but all these sun-kissed morning vignettes were, well … charming. Take your time walking toward Greenwich Park, and you will be rewarded with snapshots of life in this borough.
As I rounded a bend on Burney Street, I caught my first glimpse of Greenwich Park.
The tall sandstone-colored statue that greets you is King William IV (reigned 1830-1837; lived 1765-1837). His placement here, at St. Mary’s Gate and near the entrance to the National Maritime Museum, makes sense in that King William was nicknamed the “Sailor King”. In his youth, he had served in the Royal Navy with stints in North America and the Caribbean. Under his rule, slavery was abolished in nearly all the British Empire and child labor was restricted.
The bird sitting on the statue’s head seemed not to mind my presence. And passersby walking their dogs, strolling or hurrying to work, seemed not to notice the king’s stony gaze.
A Sidetrip to The Queen’s House
From this vantage point, the Royal Observatory is not yet visible. And yet it’s this journey, full of surprising discoveries, and not the destination, that rules supreme.
The long paved walkway past King William’s statue defines one edge of Greenwich Park, the oldest of London’s eight Royal Parks. According to the official website: “Greenwich Park dates back to Roman times and was enclosed in 1427. From the statue of General Wolfe, the park offers imperious views across the River Thames all the way to St. Pauls Cathedral.”
Before ascending the hill, I recommend following the long paved path. To your right, a gently flowing water feature, which descends step by step along the edge of the walkway, offers soothing sounds.
To your left, you will walk by the National Maritime Museum. If you are into “the history of Britain at sea, including maritime art, cartography, manuscripts, official public records, ship models and plans”, then the museum may be worth a visit.
As it was 8:30 AM, and nothing in the park would open until 10:00 AM, I continued walking straight ahead to another grand building: The Queen’s House.
Built between 1616 and 1635, the 400-year-old structure served as the former royal residence. Regrettably, on the day of my visit, the building was closed to the public and undergoing renovation, to re-open sometime later in 2016.
The long covered breezeway leading to the Queen’s House, and its endless columns, will draw you in. From here, you can glimpse the Royal Observatory in the not-too-far distance sitting majestically on the hill.
Before venturing up the hill, turn around. You will be treated to a spectacular sweeping view of a well-manicured lawn, pea-gravel-lined paths, some topiary, and – beyond the gates – a distant view of the Old Royal Naval College, the University of Greenwich and the River Thames.
Time to Enter Greenwich Park and Ascend the Hill
It’s mid-July, just past 8:35 AM. The sun is rising and it’s getting warmer. Time to head into Greenwich Park proper and walk its shady tree-lined paths.
From here, the Jubilee Gate, the walk uphill to the Royal Observatory will take about 13 minutes – in my mind, a surprisingly short walk.
In short order, your straight path will come to an abrupt stop at these steps.
You may be tempted to turn immediately left and to climb the curving path. Something about a path really does beckon you, doesn’t it?
A sign on the fence offers you two options: Turn left and you will reach the Royal Observatory in 6 minutes – tantalyzingly close. Or turn right and take the gradual path up, an 18-minute sojourn.
If your heart and health allow, take the path to the left. There are no stairs, just a well-paved asphalt path that gently curves and quickly climbs the hill. And, oh, the views!
At the summit, catch your breath while you gaze in awe at this spectacular view:
It is now 8:51 AM. The great advantage of arriving so early is the absence of crowds. There is a man and his dog on the bench. And another solitary hiker or two. And then there’s you.
This is your reward for making this early trek. And think about it: It’s not really that early.
The Observatory, like most every other attraction in London, will not open until 10:00 AM. So the crowds will not arrive for another hour. And by then, you may be gone.
The nice thing about traveling is: It’s all up to you.
Discovering the Prime Meridian
I never intended to tour the inside of the Royal Observatory as it was my last full day in London. I had other destinations to cross off my Bucket List.
But by happenstance, a kind Observatory employee pointed me to a non-descript wrought-iron gate when I had asked him an unrelated question. Even though the Observatory itself would be closed for another hour, he said, you could stand on the Prime Meridian just beyond a lower gate.
Huh? What gate? There’s a gigantic clock with standards and measurements on the brick wall.
And I see markers for British Imperial Standards, allowing members of the public to verify measurements for a British Yard, two feet, one foot, six inches and so on.
And across from all that is a statue of General James Wolfe (1727-1759). As a gift from Canada in 1930, the statue commemorates Wolfe’s victory against the French at Quebec which allowed the British to add Canada to the growing empire.
Interestingly, the Royal Parks website says, “Originally a huge statue of Britannia was proposed for this site but there is no doubt that Wolfe is a more inspired choice.” Granted, Wolfe was from Greenwich and his parents reportedly lived somewhere near the edge of the park.
But in terms of aesthetics, grandeur, inspiration – can they vote again on bringing Britannia back? Maybe dust her off and pull her out of storage? But I digress….
So fortunately, I found the concrete marker and the brass strip denoting the Prime Meridian. An unlocked gate, just below the Shepherd 24-hour clock, leads to a path toward the marker.
Doubly fortunately for me, another employee was walking up this little-known walkway when he gave me a short history. Turns out he was either the former director or project manager at the Royal Observatory. Regrettably, I forgot to record his name.
The gentleman even offered to take my picture on the Prime Meridian, which marks the boundary between the Western and Eastern hemispheres and the point from which every other point on the earth is measured.
Unfortunately for me, in my moment of triumph and in all my giddiness, I somehow confused the Prime Meridian with the International Date Line. (Yes, I know they are on opposite sides of the globe, but I got my brain-wires crossed.)
Even worse, I recorded my mix-ups on video. Here’s the proof:
So I learned that you can visit – even stand on – the Prime Meridian before the 10:00 AM opening (and thereby avoid the admission fee). And that you can have the Royal Observatory (at least that portion outside the walled compound) nearly all to yourself, if you are willing to arrive a bit early.
Something to think about the next time you visit London.
Start early. Ask people questions. And enjoy the quiet morning hours.