Royal Observatory review
When Christopher Wren started work on the Royal Observatory it was overlooking the rubbled wreck of Greenwich Palace at the bottom of the hill. Queen's House was still standing (it's still standing today) but it was another twenty years before he built the Seaman's Hospital (now called the Old Royal Naval College). So that fantastic view that we see today was just a big building site in 1675.
I don't suppose he bothered coming all the way out to Greenwich very often because the city was still rebuilding after the Great Fire of London and he had another fifty two churches and a cathedral on the go -- remember Greenwich was a rough ride on a muddy, rutted road in those days. After he'd been thoroughly shaken about for an hour he'd have stumbled his stiff legs down the stagecoach steps and seen the distant City from atop the hill. We can easily see the dome of St. Paul's from here today so he must have seen the scaffolding going up, seen the dust clouds going up -- that's where I should be, he'd be thinking -- over there, working on my masterpiece!
Christopher Wren's section is that little red brick building on top of the hill -- Flamsteed House. It was named after the first Astronomer Royal who's primary job it was to work out a way for sailors to find their longitude on the open sea. They eventually achieved the feat using a mixture of star charts, clocks and watches but it took them decades -- you'll learn all of this as you walk around the museum. But here's a quick tip before you get going: buy yourself a ticket for the planetarium before you do the museum because it fills up quickly (you can book a time for later in the day). The last time I was here I had to hang around for an hour at the end before I was able to see a show.
Once you're through the gate you'll find yourself standing on the forecourt by the famous Meridian line. This is the line that splits the eastern and western hemispheres. It will likely be heaving with people all tiptoeing down the middle of it or jumping from one side to the other while their buddy takes a photo. They all think they're straddling the centre of the world but alas, they are mistaken. There are actually four different Meridian lines -- Edmond Halley had one, James Bradley had one (you'll learn all of this inside) -- they each created their own line to fix the position of the stars on their charts. Unfortunately the shifting crust has inched the internationally accepted one 100 metres further east, so the true Meridian now lies somewhere on Greenwich Hill.
The museum begins with a walk around the 17th-century house. A lot of the rooms still look like they did a hundred years later and have that old house smell. You walk through deserted nurseries and pantries and parlours, past old paintings of people who lived here, past the muffled tick tocks of grandfather clocks, peering into glass cabinets full of papers, paintings and handwritten letters.
The highlight is the Octagon Room upstairs where they housed the original telescopes. They could do with putting a huge telescope in the middle of it because it's just an empty space now: just a few paintings and plaques to describe what you can no longer see.
After that you're into the museum proper, full of old clocks and chronometers. It sounds a bit dry but some of Harrison's historic clocks are practically works of art. They look both incredibly heavy and incredibly delicate at the same time. If you're interested in how they eventually managed to measure longitude then this is the perfect place to go. If you read every piece of information in here then you'll walk out an expert on it.
Don't forget the little building on the forecourt marked Camera Obscura. It's projecting an image of Queen's House through a pinhole in the roof, and the picture is sharp enough to see people strolling past with pushchairs. Even after they've patiently explained how it works I still can't fathom it out.
To see the astronomy exhibits you have to find the forecourt again, walk out of the gate, and then head into the next forecourt along. This is where you'll finally find some stuff about stars and planets. They've got a few darkened rooms with push button displays and machines your kids can fiddle with, some lenses they can look through, plus a little photography exhibition downstairs. It's not very big (you'll be done in thirty minutes) and if this is all your kids are interested in then you're probably better off going to the Science Museum. It sounds daft but the Royal Observatory's astronomy section is tiny. It really is very small indeed. Unless you've got a soft spot for Christopher Wren the only reason I'd recommend a visit here is for the planetarium.
I’ve been here before…
Events at Royal Observatory…
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