Greenwich is eight miles downstream from the City of London and dates from Anglo-Saxon times. It is famous for its astronomical clocks and Royal Navy heritage.
Greenwich started out as a little fishing village in the 1420s until the Duke of Gloucester built a sumptuous palace in the grounds of Greenwich Park. It then became a favourite haunt of many Tudor monarchs.
Henry V assembled a sizable library in the early 16th-century, which formed the basis of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Henry VIII was born there and enjoyed deer hunting in the grounds – adding an armoury, banqueting hall, and tiltyard for jousting.
Its real hey-day came in the late 1500s, when Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I, made it her summer residence. The royal dockyards were built nearby, and Inigo Jones was hired to build the Queen’s House (which still stands today). It was here that Sir Walter Raleigh supposedly laid his cloak over a puddle so that the Queen could keep her feet dry.
When the Civil War ended in the mid 17th-century, the puritans tried to sell the palace to a wealthy noble. But when no buyer could be found, it was turned into a biscuit factory. It then held prisoners of war, until Charles II was returned to the throne in 1660.
His successors fell out of love with the place, and moved their belongings to Hampton Court and Kensington Palace. The palace was then demolished, and replaced with the Royal Naval Hospital (later named the Royal Naval College).
The busy Navy soon had need of new navigation devices, and Charles II commissioned a Royal Observatory in 1675. Its first success was the British Nautical Almanac – which charted star positions throughout the seasons. The importance of this book led to the adoption of Greenwich Mean Time throughout the world.
The Prime Meridian marks the point at which the earth’s eastern hemisphere meets the west – the line which splits the world in two. You can straddle this line yourself, as it is marked upon the ground. A favourite photo for tourists everywhere is to snap yourself with a foot on either side.
The observatory’s second success was to provide an instrument capable of measuring longitude within an accuracy of a few seconds. A watchmaker named John Harrison came up with the goods, and his clocks and watches can still be seen in the building’s museum.
As the 20th-century approached, the smoke from the encroaching city meant that the observatory lost its clear skies, and the telescopes were moved to Sussex. The building now houses a fine collection of early watches, timepieces and telescopes.
The Old Royal Naval College was built by Christopher Wren in 1696 on the same site as Henry VIII’s royal palace. It was meant as a hospice for the old and aged seamen, and set the scene for many famous events – most notably the laying in State of Admiral Nelson in 1805.
At its height the building housed over 3,000 naval patients, but it closed in 1869 and became a school for sailors. The hospital was soon moved south to Portsmouth, and when the school was finally shut in 1995, two of the rooms were turned over public display – the Painted Hall and Chapel.
The Painted Hall boasts the country’s largest painting – the massive Triumph of Peace and Liberty. This was painted by James Thornhill in the 1720s, and measures 105-feet by 49. Just off the upper hall lies the Nelson Room – where the Admiral was laid in state before his burial at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The room now contains a replica of the bust atop his column in Trafalgar Square.
The National Maritime Museum contains every kind of naval memorabilia from scripts and charts, to models and paintings. The history of seafaring is admirably covered, and Admiral Nelson gets his very own gallery.
The prize exhibit is the actual jacket that Nelson wore when he got shot on board HMS Victory – you can even see the hole where the bullet entered his shoulder.
Other exhibits include the golden barge built for Frederick, Prince of Wales, and the environmental lecture – Planet Ocean.
The Cutty Sark is dry-docked by Greenwich Pier. When she was built in 1869 she was the fastest tea clipper of her generation – sailing 360 miles a day. In 1871 she even set a record for the trip between London and China – completing the journey in 107 days.
The opening of the Suez Canal a short time later cut journey times for every boat in the world, and the Cutty Sark’s speed was no longer an issue. She was sold to a Portuguese company in 1895, and bought back in 1954. It now contains a fine collection of ship’s figureheads.
The 54-feet Gypsy Moth IV used to sit next door, but this has since been moved to the Isle of Wight.