The Royal borough of Greenwich is one of the 32 London boroughs, and out of the 32 it is one of the three Royal boroughs (the other two being Kingston Upon Thames, and the Royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea).
Greenwich is in South East London on the border of the county of Kent which is commonly known as the garden of England. Despite it being in London, it has a village feel with its quirky boutiques, pubs, restaurants, and trendy coffee shops.
Greenwich is very old indeed. We know that there was a pre-Roman settlement by the river, and that Celtic people that lived on Blackheath, made their way down the hill to fish in the Thames at Greenwich.
There was a considerable community there by the 6th century, we know this because they found a large Saxon cemetery in Greenwich park, and in the 9th century, King Alfred’s daughter had a manor house built close to the Thames.
This was the beginning of a long tradition of great houses in Greenwich. In 1430, Humphrey the brother of king Henry V, built Bella Court and enclosed 200 acres of parkland.
The manor was demolished by Henry VII who replaced it with the palace of Placentia, remodelled later by Henry VIII who was a big fan of the palace.
Henry was born in the palace. It was the birthplace of his daughters, Mary and Elisabeth and it was here that he courted Anne Boleyn (and later signed the document that sent her to her death). It is also where his only son Edward VI died.
During the reign of Elisabeth I, the Royal court moved to Greenwich. It was during this time, that the tale of Sir Walter Raleigh laying down his cloak so that the queen wouldn’t dirty her shoes with mud was born.
From Placentia she watched the explorer Martin Frobisher embark on his search for the North West Passage. On one dark day she signed the death warrant of her cousin, Mary queen of Scots. On one heroic day she gave orders to resist invasion by the Spanish Armada. It was in Greenwich that Shakespeare performed for her in a private play performed at the palace. It was here that in 1581 she knighted Sir Francis Drake after he sailed around the world on his ship, the Golden Hind. Only a mile away, in 1966, Elisabeth II knighted Sir Francis Chichester for the same feat of daring on his tiny boat, the Gipsy Moth.
The Gipsy Moth – that was once moored next to the clipper Cutty Sark – was moved to Hampshire a few years ago, but the Cutty Sark is still on display in Greenwich.
This beautiful clipper was built in 1869 to import tea from China.
Her arrival on the seas came slightly too late however: with the opening of the Suez Canal and the arrival of steam she was too big and too slow, and she made only 8 journeys carrying tea.
For a while The Cutty Sark carried coal and then wool from Australia, and now she spends her time as a tourist attraction in Greenwich dry dock.
There was a devastating fire in 2007, and the restoration has been criticized by some, because the once beautiful lines of the ship’s stern and prow have now been obscured behind a glass enclosure that houses (surprise, surprise) the shop, and the café.
The figurehead is a lady wearing a distinctly revealing garment called a cutty sark, which gives the ship her name. She is known to be based on the witch from Robert Burn’s poem ‘Tom o’ Shanter’.
As the tale goes, Tom was going home a little drunk when he happened upon a group of witches performing some kind of ritual. He couldn’t resist calling out to the prettiest one, but he soon realized his folly when the witches became angry – so he hopped on his horse and galloped away into the night.
The witches had almost but caught up with him, when he suddenly remembered that witches are afraid of water, so he turned his horse and headed towards a nearby river. He had almost made his escape – the horse was about to jump across the stream – when the pretty witch got hold of its tail and that is apparently what she is holding in her hand!
The Cutty Sark is best appreciated from the river Thames, and so is the beautiful baroque building of the Naval College designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul’s cathedral.
To be historically correct, we should call it the Royal Hospital because it only became a college at the end of the 19th century.
For 180 years before that, it was a home for disabled sailors, who often grumbled saying the building was intimidating, cold and draughty. Too grand and magnificent for a place of charity, and all that beauty did not compensate for the severe discipline and enforced celibacy experienced by the sailors.
Eventually there weren’t enough residents to keep the home open, and the building was taken over by the Admiralty. 22 years ago it became part of London University.
The greatest triumph of this building is the Painted Hall, one of the very few examples of the grand baroque manner.
It is the masterpiece of Sir James Thornhill who spent 20 years painting the walls and ceiling fresco, which depicts the English king William III and his wife Mary (as symbols of Peace and Liberty) crashing France (symbolized by the Sun king, Louis XIV).
The mural in the upper hall was painted after the death of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, and it shows her successor George I, next to his son George II and his family.
The artist included himself in the composition with his hand open as if asking for money. He was only paid £3.00 per square yard for the walls, and £1.00 for the ceiling. To add insult to injury he was never even paid in full!
Beautiful Greenwich Park is just across the road from the Painted Hall, and the first building that you encounter is the National Maritime Museum, the largest maritime museum in the world.
Two galleries of the museum are dedicated to Admiral Horatio Nelson who defeated Napoleon at The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Amongst many other amazing exhibits, is the coat that Nelson was wearing when he died.
The museum is connected by a colonnade to the Queen’s house, the masterpiece of architect Inigo Jones who built it in 1615 for Ann of Denmark, who was the wife of King James I. His inspiration came from Andrea Palladio whose villas near Vicenza he had admired on a visit to Italy.
From the Queen’s House it is a very steep incline to get to the top of the hill, but the view that you get when you get there makes it worthwhile, it is magnificent.
This is where you’ll find the Old Observatory, which was the first government scientific institution in the world and was founded by King Charles II in 1675.
Despite having a reputation for being a bit of a rogue and philanderer (he had no legitimate children, but he had 17 illegitimate ones from 17 different ladies), King Charles did have one genuine interest that greatly benefitted his kingdom, and that was navigation.
So the story goes, his mistress had heard rumours of a man in France who had developed a new method of navigation, whereby longitude at sea could be determined by observing the position of the moon in relation to the stars.
King Charles II, who didn’t want his sailors deprived of any help the heavens could provide (and because he wanted to get there before the king of France..), ordered the construction of the observatory, also designed by Christopher Wren.
John Flamsteed, the first astronomer Royal, observed the skies for 45 years from the observatory which was also his home. The books that he wrote were to lead to Greenwich being accepted as the prime meridian – Longitude Zero – the home of the dividing line of the world into Eastern and Western Hemispheres.
Navigators started calculating their longitude and time from Greenwich, and that increased in the 19th century, until 1884 when Greenwich Mean Time was officially adopted worldwide.
Determining latitude was easy in that it could be calculated from the altitude of the midday sun, with the aid of an instrument that gave the sun’s declination for the day. However, nobody could determine their longitude at sea, and that led to some big problems. Shipwrecks were common, and so were ailments like scurvy because without knowing where the land was, it was of course incredibly difficult to get enough fresh fruit and vegetables.
In 1707, four warships of the British Royal Navy fleet were lost off the Isles of Scilly. Some 2000 sailors lost their lives, and something had to be done.
In 1714 the British Government offered a prize of £20.000 to the first person to discover a reliable way to pinpoint a ship’s location at sea by knowing its longitude. This was a huge sum of money at the time and a fortune for most people.
Astronomers started observing the motion of heavenly bodies to come up with a solution. John Harrison, who was a clockmaker, saw things differently: to know one’s longitude at sea one had to know the time aboard the ship, and also the time at the home port at exactly the same moment. The difference in the times of the two clocks could be converted into the number of degrees covered East or West.
The earth takes 24 hours to complete a revolution of 360 degrees, this means that 1 hour corresponds to 15 degrees. The navigator would reset the ship’s clock to midday local time (when the sun reaches it’s highest point in the sky) and would then look at the time on the homeport clock. Each hour’s difference would mean 15 degrees of longitude.
The problem encountered was that because of changes in temperature aboard ship, and the motion of the vessel, the clocks were of no use because they were all pendulum driven.
Harrison produced three clocks (the H1, H2, and H3) over a period of 45 years, but it was the H4 that won him the coveted prize.
However, the clockmaker would wait until he was 80 years old to get his money, and it was only thanks to George III’s intervention that Parliament ruled Harrison should be paid in full at all.
The four Harrison clocks, together with some of the most important timepieces in the world, are kept in the Old Observatory.
Its Royal origins and association with outstanding artistic and architectural achievements, as well as countless scientific endeavours that led to the establishment of the prime meridian and Greenwich Meantime as world standards, are just some of the reasons Greenwich has been nominated as a World Heritage Site.
My name is Cosetta Zanobetti-Lawlor, and I have worked in the tourism industry for over thirty years.
Born and brought up in Italy, I got a BA Honours degree in History of Art at Birkbeck University, taught English as a foreign language for several years, and I got a PGCE to teach Modern Foreign Languages.
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