London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Greenwich: Impressions in Time

25/04/2003, By Candice Caster

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 13014 votes


Designated as the place where “east meets west,” colorful Greenwich is, like so much of Britain, a crossroads where the past meets the present. Rich in maritime history, events in this village, which has its roots back in early Roman times, played a major role in launching Britain toward naval supremacy. This was accomplished through the development of the science of navigation, resulting in the establishment of Longitude 0◦, a crucial tool in ship positioning on the high seas, as well as the baseline of the International Time Zone system.

It was in Greenwich that we found ourselves on the last day of our two-week stay in London. Physically and mentally exhausted, we had rejected a half-considered plan to rush around to all the places remaining on our “must see/must do” list, and sought instead a more tranquil day. Overwhelmed, overloaded and - not to mention - overfed, heads spinning, we needed a break. We felt certain we could name all the British monarchs since Henry VIII, complete with accession dates, but would be at a total loss if we had to recite our telephone number. And, feet blistered and slightly swollen, we longed for a day with little or even no walking. Therefore, a riverboat cruise (lasting all day, if possible!) seemed the perfect activity, or rather, inactivity, so we took ourselves to Westminster Pier.

Once at the ticket window, we were forced to select a destination, and since the trip to Greenwich was the longest (one hour each way), it became our choice. Hands encircling cups of hot chocolate, we fell back into our seats in the nearly empty but heated, glass-enclosed boat on this, the grayest of days, as the boat began its voyage down the Thames. Lulled by the lapping of waves against the boat, we somehow managed to stay awake for the sights along the way: to the left, Portcullis House (a recently constructed office building for Members of Parliament); to the right, the London Aquarium (formerly County Hall) beside London’s newest and remarkably popular landmark, the British Airways London Eye (Millennium Wheel). Then it was on past the huge and unusual looking Charing Cross Station and the elegant Savoy Hotel; on past the Oxo Tower (a rueful reminder of the fine restaurant on its top floor, not yet crossed off our “must see/must do” list).

Turning our heads once again, we saw the unmistakable form of St. Paul’s Cathedral, dramatic against the charcoal sky, but with all the familiarity of a dear friend. On the South Bank was the hallmark of Elizabethan theater, Shakespeare’s Globe (albeit a reproduction); and, beyond London Bridge, the World War II battleship, the HMS Belfast, stood solidly moored into place. The White Tower at the Tower of London rose through the mist, silent and sinister as in days of old, with Traitors’ Gate seemingly poised to admit its next prisoner. We passed under Tower Bridge, reveling in the sight of it, amazed that it continued to inspire such wonder in us time and time again. The boat swept on past the old docklands, dominated by former wharves and warehouses, now gentrified and converted into restaurants, shops and bars, or flats filled with residents whose addresses were among some of the priciest in London. Eventually, the masts and riggings of the tea-carrier clipper ship, the Cutty Sark, came into view, and we knew we had arrived at Greenwich.

The Trafalgar Tavern

Reluctant to leave this welcome state of repose, we lazily stood up, stretched and disembarked. It was our thought to perhaps enjoy a light lunch, and leave soon afterwards. Following a brief stop at the information center, combined with a somewhat longer raid on the gift shop, we walked along the river to The Trafalgar Tavern, a charming pub built at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, highly touted in the literature we had just picked up. Wood paneled and cozy, it seemed the perfect place in which to return to that state of calm we had found ourselves in earlier on the boat. We were seated by the window where we were able to watch the boats drift past.

We began our meal with a plate full of whitebait, for which The Trafalgar Tavern is most famous, having been the site of “whitebait dinners” popular with the political and literary establishment during the 19th century. These small fish, at one time caught directly from the Thames, are fried and served with paprika mayonnaise and are very tasty. Attacking our next course of swordfish and seabass with a zeal, we noticed that outside the mist was lifting from over the river and the sun was even beginning to come out. Eerily, an outline of skyscrapers was emerging across the Thames.

Gradually, the buildings became more distinct, and we recognized, from its home in Canary Wharf, Canada Tower, one of the tallest office structures in all of Europe. The Millennium Dome was now visible off in the distance, and I thought about its official opening on New Year’s Eve of 1999 by the Queen after travelling by barge, with much fanfare, down the river. By the time we each finished eating our piece of pie (banoffee and pecan, respectively - so much for our “light lunch”!), the weather had changed completely, and so had our spirits. Fortified by food and buoyed by blue skies, we left with a quickened and lively step, now ready to explore the grounds of this delightful place.

The Cutty Sark

We walked past the buildings of the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Christopher Wren and built on the site of the 15th century royal palace where Henry VIII and his daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I, once lived. The College was intentionally built in two halves so as not to obstruct the view from the river of the Queen’s House, the centerpiece of the group of buildings in this tableau. Ah, the Queen’s House – what a lovely sight it was before us, its white façade sparkling in the sunlight. Originally begun by James I as a gift to his wife who, sadly, died before its completion, it was later finished by Charles I for his own wife.

Designed by Inigo Jones and the first building in England to appear in the true Classical style, it is an architectural marvel. Its Great Hall is a perfect cube in all three dimensions (40 feet), and its spiral staircase (known as the “tulip stairs” for the tulip pattern in the wrought-iron railing) curves upward with no central support. It was up this staircase we climbed to begin our tour of the House, which is now basically an art gallery, displaying paintings by renowned artists such as Hogarth, Reynolds and Gainsborough. Dreamily, we glided from room to room, very much taken in by the impressive collection of portraits and landscapes. Although light and airy, there was about the house that peculiar sense of wistfulness that seems to attach itself to the Stuarts. We spent quite awhile here, listening to the commentary on our hand-held audio guides.

Leaving the Queen’s House, we walked the grounds of Greenwich Park, the oldest of all Royal Parks. There, at the crest of the hill, stood the Old Royal Observatory. If the Queen’s House is the centerpiece of this eye-pleasing setting, then the Royal Observatory is indisputably the focal point. It is directly through here that the meridian dividing the earth’s eastern and western hemispheres passes, marked by a laser beam at night. Another Christopher Wren-designed building, it was here that Charles II commissioned the work to be done to “perfect the art of navigation.”

Much star gazing, scrutinizing and calculating were performed at this location, chosen, among other reasons, for its distance from London ensuring that observation would not be impeded by chimney smoke. However, in 1948, the lights of London were deemed too bright for further observatory work, at least by the Astronomer Royal, who moved his operations to Cambridge. Regrettably, we did not take the tour of the Royal Observatory as it was getting late and nearly time to catch the boat for the return journey. We passed the National Maritime Museum with similar regret, and vowed to return someday for a much longer stay when we could venture further into the village itself which, reputedly, was full of antique shops, bookstores and pubs.

Shades of pink streaked across the slowly darkening sky as we boarded the boat. Once again settled into our seats, we were silent, caught in an undercurrent of memories, as the boat resolutely carried us along the river for our last look at London. The now-familiar sights along the riverbanks appeared a bit blurred and out of focus against the vivid lights of the city. We were sobered by the reality of the conclusion of our trip, but satisfied by the day we had just spent in Greenwich. Relaxing yet invigorating, it had been a good day in that most interesting of places where time is, quite literally, a measured – and precious – commodity.

Candice Caster

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Re: Greenwich: Impressions in Time

By Rebecca Kennedy 01/05/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 11878 votes)

We too, walked all over London, producing swollen and aching feet. But what a delight! We spent 2 weeks there and saw a lot of what you mentioned in your article. London is an awesome place. You cannot possibly see everything in 2 weeks though. It is just not possible. That may be a good thing. It gave me the desire to return again and again. I have been 3 times and have yet to be satisfied. I long to come back. My list of "must see" has not been completed. I will return! I must return!

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Re: Greenwich: Impressions in Time

By Richard Wyland 01/05/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 12047 votes)

I and a friend were in Greenwich on our last trip to London...It was lovely to be reminded of so many of the same things we did and places we enjoyed...

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Re: Greenwich: Impressions in Time

By Robin 02/06/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 11973 votes)

It is a shame Candice missed the village, as the very centre of Greenwich is quite delightful (though the attraction fades quite quickly as you move further out). Another place to visit if you have time is Blackheath Common that lies just outside the upper North gates.

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