Royal Observatory review
When I was a kid I always wanted to be a spaceman. Well actually that's not quite true: I wanted to be Darth Vader. So I've always had an interest in the Royal Observatory.
I don't think people quite realise how serious it is though. They turn up thinking it's going to be full of spaceships and entertainment for the kiddies but it's actually more for the adults. It's all antique watches and clocks and period furniture from the days of Christopher Wren. The only bit that's suitable for children is the planetarium.
Once you've paid your money you'll enter the forecourt of Flamsteed House. That's the red brick building that you can see perched on top of Greenwich Hill.
Check out that big red ball on top of the spire — what's that for? ...well that's how the ships in the river used to tell the time. The captains would sit in their ships and wait for the ball to drop down the pole, and that would signal the start of the hour. Clever huh? If you want to set your watch these days then you'll have to wait until 12.55 PM, when it will start rising up the mast. At 1 PM it wall fall down and signal that it's time for lunch.
Have a little walk around the courtyard and you'll find the famous Meridian Line -- the line that splits the hemispheres in two. This is where we slice our days in half and make midnight.
The interior of Flamsteed House has been restored to how it looked when the original Astronomer Royals were in residence, so it's full of old chairs and tables and dusty old paintings of serious looking men. The Octagon Room is right at the top, where they set up their telescopes. Sadly it hasn't got any telescopes inside it today, just a couple of old grandfather clocks and paintings of Charles II.
Downstairs you'll find a museum full of antique watches and clocks, including the first four timepieces by John Harrison which helped to solve the longitude problem. And whilst they are undoubtedly very important pieces... they are just clocks. As are the quartz clocks and atomic clocks, and wind-up watches and grandfather clocks that make up the rest of the exhibition.
Do you see what I mean now... when I say that this place isn't very good for kids? Because so far we haven't seen a single thing that will interest them, and you're probably wondering why I've awarded it my "good for kids" symbol on the index. Well that's because of the next section — the planetarium.
It's possible to buy a ticket just for planetarium alone if you want to, and skip everything that I mentioned before, which will save you a few pennies. They've got a small astronomy exhibition attached as well, but I didn't think it was very good to be honest (it's too small) -- the space exhibition at the Science Museum is far superior. But there are a few push-button displays and hands-on exhibits to keep your kiddies amused before the show starts.
The planetarium is great — it's a bit like sitting inside a giant upturned teacup. The whole screen wraps around you 360 degrees and you can sit back and relax in your reclining seat, and stare straight up into the darkening dome. You don't have to worry about getting a dodgy seat behind a basketball player because the entire show takes place directly above your head.
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