Royal Museums in Greenwich # 1

When visiting London and you want some respite from the hustle and bustle of the city, I highly recommend a trip out to the Royal Borough of Greenwich, commonly referred to as simply Greenwich. The 4 Royal Museums of Greenwich are definitely worth a visit – National Maritime Museum, Queen’s House, Royal Observatory and Cutty Sark. Visiting all 4 in a day is possible, but I preferred a more relaxed schedule and took 2 days.

As a retired mariner, I was in heaven, but Judi also thoroughly enjoyed her single day, especially the Observatory & Prime Meridian.

Royal Palace – Queen’s House

While Greenwich is famous for the Royal Observatory, the Prime Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time, I will start with the Queen’s House, as this is most likely what drove the construction of the Royal Observatory.

Queen’s House

Although a Royal Palace has graced Greenwich since 1443, the current Queen’s House was started in 1616 by King James 1, for his wife – Anne of Denmark. Designed by Inigo Jones, it was the first building in UK designed along the line of Greek & Roman classic architecture. However, it was not completed until 1635, with King Charles 1 giving it to his wife Henrietta Maria.

The palace consists of a large multi-floor hall in the middle, with residential rooms down both sides, one side for the King and the other for the Queen.

Great Hall in the centre of the Palace

Great Hall – Upper Floor & Reconditioned Gold Leaf Ceiling

The gold leaf ceiling, seen above, is reputed to be a tad controversial, having been replaced during the recent 2015/16 restoration project.

Red Walled Queen’s Chamber

Queen’s Chamber Ceiling

Queen’s Privy Chambers

The above photos show some of the art collection accumulated over the past 400 years and displayed in the 22 rooms. The adjoining National Maritime Museum also provided some artwork for rooms on the King’s side of the building.

Queen’s House & National Maritime Museum to the right

Queen’s House – Main Gate

View of River Thames from Queen’s House

When demolishing the original Royal Palace, Queen Mary II, decreed that the Queen’s House shall retain an unobstructed view of the River Thames. Therefore, when building The Greenwich Hospital, now the Old Royal Navy College, the architect had to leave a gap in the building, as seen above.

Admission – Free (a small donation UKP 4.00 suggested)

Royal Observatory

Situated atop the hill in Greenwich Park, it is a fairly short walk from the National Maritime Museum.

Greenwich Park & Royal Observatory

The most direct route using the paths through the park is a rather steep incline at the end, so you may want to consider the longer route, staying on the road once entering the park.

Commission by King Charles II in 1675, it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed the following year. The King also created the Astronomer Royal position, to rectify the table of motions of heavenly bodies, and to perfect the art of navigation. John Flamsteed was appointed the first Astronomer Royal.

Sighting Instruments in the Octagon Room

The above photograph depicts one of the Astronomers observing a heavenly body from the Octagon Room, which is 20′ high and is the main room in the Observatory. In addition to observing heavenly bodies, the observatory was tasked with improving navigation, which required an accurate time. Therefore, 2 very accurate pendulum clocks were installed in the Octagon Room, which had 13′ pendulums and were accurate to within 7 seconds per day – not bad for the 1600’s.

Shipping developed rapidly on the River Thames, and mariners required an accurate time signal prior to departing on a voyage. This service was provided by the Observatory.

Greenwich Time Ball

Located on the Royal Observatory’s roof, the red ball has provided a time signal to all mariners in the area at 13:00 every day since 1833. The ball is visible in the first photograph in this section, and is in the down position.

Sketch showing operation of time ball

In addition to accurate time, navigation on the world’s oceans required a means of measuring Longitude. Latitude was easy – the Equator was zero and 90 degrees at each pole, but they required a convention to decide where to measure Longitude.

The International Meridian Conference of 1884, selected the Prime Meridian, or 0 degrees, would be in Greenwich.

Judi Straddling the Prime Meridian

Above shows Judi with 1 foot in the Eastern Hemisphere & the other in the Western Hemisphere.

Both of us at the Prime Meridian

We have now visited 2 of the major lines around earth, as we stood on the Equator back in Kenya about 4 years ago.

In addition to determining the Prime meridian, they also developed a standarised  series of 24 time zones, around the world, based on the Greenwich Prime Meridian. This was known as Greenwich Mean Time.

Burgess Clock – a highly accurate pendulum clock

Ship’s Chronometer

Every ship had at least 1 chronometer. It would be set to the Greenwich Time Ball prior to departure and every day, at about the same time, it was wound by exactly the same number of turns of the key. Daily, we received a time signal from the BBC World Service and we compared it to the chronometer. The error was calculated and recorded in the log. We did not reset the Chronometer daily, so it retained an error, which we applied when calculating sights.

We sped though the museum fairly quickly (about 2 hours), so I could return and easily spend a full day.

View from plaza beside Royal Observatory

The above photo shows the Queen’s House with unobstructed view of the Thames between the towers of the Old Royal Navy College. In the background are the towera of trendy Canary Wharf, formerly a part of the old London Dockyards.

Admission – Adults UKP 9.50, Seniors (60+) UKP 7.50

National Maritime Museum

This was one of my most eagerly awaited attractions. I had no idea what to expect, but hoped to see some excellent information on the Merchant Navy (MN). While most enjoyable, sadly they have very little information on the MN.

National Maritime Museum entrance

The main floor has a central complex with a couple of excellent presentations – London in the early years and Battle of Jutland. They also had a number of exhibits.

Functioning Model of Paddle Wheeler engine

Royal Prince’s Gilded Barge

The above royal barge was entirely covered with thousands of ultra thin sheets of gold. On the upper floors, I enjoyed the presentation about Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. They also have an extensive research library, with visitors welcome. I was provided a temporary pass and one of the volunteers walked me around explaining where everything was located. I elected to research my first 2 ships.

MV Otaio – my first ship (courtesy NMM Library)

The Otaio was a cadet training vessel, where the 50 cadets performed the role of the crew. It was the equivalent of 4 months of military boot camp. Ah! character building. We learned many really useful skills, like scrubbing decks with a tooth brush. However, we all gained an exceptional grounding in basic seamanship, which served me very well throughout my career. I would not have traded this experience for any other less demanding ships.

SS Uganda in British India Livery (courtesy NMM Library)

SS Uganda as hospital & troopship (courtesy NMM Library)

Joining SS Uganda was a severe culture shock, as a cadet were expected to be Junior Officers, but on Otaio we only learned seamanship and lots of cleaning. On joining Uganda, I was given 2 weeks to learn how to navigate, basically a 4-year apprenticeship condensed into 2 weeks: yes, a tough learning curve. I somehow survived the 2 weeks and spent 3 excellent months on this ship.

Admission – Free (UKP 5.00 donation suggested)




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