Craig recommends… Here’s my latest Royal Observatory review. You may as well make a day of it, so how about starting with a boat from Westminster to Greenwich? There are two companies that do it: City Cruises and TRS. Then you can look around the Old Royal Naval College before boarding the Cutty Sark clipper ship. After spending a couple of hours inside the National Maritime Museum and Queen’s House you can walk up Greenwich Hill to the Observatory.
The Royal Observatory was founded by Charles II in 1675 to provide the Navy with new navigational instruments. Their big problem was the lack of reliable longitudes, and it was hoped the Observatory might provide some better figures.
A location was soon found on top of a high hill in Greenwich. The design was entrusted to Christopher Wren, who was busy rebuilding the city after the Great Fire of London. He named the building Flamsteed House, after the first Astronomer Royal: John Flamsteed.
The Royal Observatory’s first success was the publication of the British Nautical Almanac, which charted star positions throughout the seasons. The importance of this book led to the adoption of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) 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. This is what gives the world its timezones. Anything west of the line is ahead of GMT, and anything to the left is behind.
You can straddle this line yourself because it’s marked on the ground. A favourite photo for tourists is to snap themselves with a foot on either side.
This line was eventually confirmed by international agreement at a conference held in Washington in 1884. (Much to France’s chagrin!)
The observatory has lost many of Christopher Wren’s original interiors, but one of the best surviving rooms is the Octagon Room – which originally housed the observatory’s telescopes.
As the 20th-century approached and industrial London spread, the smoke from the city meant that the observatory lost its clear skies, and these telescopes were moved to Sussex.
A watchmaker named John Harrison eventually managed to provide the Navy with an instrument capable of measuring longitude within an accuracy of a few seconds, and his clocks and watches can still be seen in Flamsteed House’s museum. He was eventually paid a handsome reward of £20,000 for his efforts – but had to wait half-a-century to get it.
The building also houses a fine collection of early watches, timepieces and telescopes, including a 28-inch refractor dating back to 1857. There’s also a collection of 17th-century furniture.
This review originally appeared in his blog
Once you’ve climbed up Greenwich Hill and had a sit down for half an hour to recover, the Royal Observatory is pretty good. The view from the top is pretty great. It’s not quite as good as Primrose Hill but it’s pretty close. You can look out across the park to Queen’s House, the National Maritime Museum and the Old Royal Naval College beyond. You can actually see the whole sweep of the Thames around the Isle of Dogs too, with Canary Wharf at the back.
And the best thing of all is the big hot dog stand they’ve got at the top selling burgers and sausages. You definitely need a burger after climbing that mountain. If you tripped and fell down that hill, then you’d roll all the way to Greenwich Pier – that’s how steep it is. Next time I go I’m taking a pickaxe with me. I wonder if they’ve got a burger van at the top of Mount Everest?
The Observatory’s exhibits are spread out amongst a load of little buildings. Most of them are inside Flamsteed House – that’s where the Astronomer Royal used to live. So it’s not just an observatory either – it’s an actual 17th-century house and they’ve kept some of it in 17th-century style. You can walk around his old study and bedroom and see his bed and books on the table. At the top of the house is the Octagon Room where he housed his big telescopes, but the best ones are kept a short distance away in the Telescope Dome. Apparently you can look out of it if you come back at night, but the roof was shut when I was there.
Amongst the objects on display are load of old telescopes, time-pieces and star-charts. They’ve got four of John Harrison’s big clocks and watches in there, with a detailed explanation of the longitude problem, which he helped to solve. And they’ve got a lot of push-button displays and movies about modern-day astronomy.
To be honest I thought all of this stuff was pretty dry, but it didn’t exactly help that the place was crawling with six billion kids. I must have picked the day when the whole of France had come over for a school visit, so I had them running around shrieking and wailing and ooh-la-la-ling in my ear hole.
One of the most important things to see is the Prime Meridian line on the forecourt. That’s the line that separates the eastern bit of the globe from the qest. You’re supposed to stand there with a foot on either side and can tell everyone you’ve stood with a foot in each hemisphere. Apparently the French are pushing to scrap GMT and make us all use atomic time instead. What??? No way, monsieur! They should have banned their school kids from coming over – that’s what I would have done. No more French kids allowed until the French President gives up his megalomaniac plan to dominate time!
The best bit of the observatory was the planetarium. I remember going to the big one at Madame Tussauds when I was a kid but they’ve shut it down now, so this is the only planetarium left in London. It doesn’t look all that great from the outside but once you get underground it’s pretty decent. It’s a big round room with a 360 degree dome above your head, and the cinema-style seats are angled back a bit so you can have a kip if you get bored.
The whole place is dimmed down to total darkness (pitch black) and an Irish guy gives the commentary. Our show was a bit of a kid-style one with shout-out answers for the audience, but apparently they do a few different kinds with different visuals. So if you get a choice, pick the adult one.
Our show started off by showing the stars that are visible tonight, and went on to explain the constellations, zodia, ecliptic, and all that easy stuff. They put a load of big pictures on the screen too, so we had things like the planets shooting out of the void and filling up the whole room. They had some good shots of the moon too, and the milky way, dust clouds, and other stuff from the Hubble telescope. One of the best bits was when they made it look like we were standing on the surface of Mars, with a 360 degree horizon of actual stills from the planet, and all the stars showing how they’d look if we were standing there for real.
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