If you feel confident about answering the question, “what time is it?”, you can thank the British penchant for orderliness.
For it’s only been since the 1850s that time-keeping as we know it was standardized around the world, driven by expanding rail travel. Time before then was observed locally, by the position of the sun. The concept of zones of time, where it was the same exact time in cities some distance apart (the better to schedule departures and arrivals of trains) came from England, though its actual creator, Sir Sandford Fleming, was a Scottish-born Canadian. And the marker from which all other time zones were measured became known as Greenwich Mean Time, set at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.
Greenwich, on the south bank of the Thames River, is now part of the metropolis of London but began life as a country retreat for the aristocracy.
Greenwich was the favourite country estate of a host of English royals since the fourteenth century: both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born here, although the Tudor palace from those times was razed in the 17th century to make way for newer buildings. On our recent stay in London, we travelled to Greenwich the way Henry or Elizabeth would have done; taking a boat along the Thames.
As our genial tour guide explained – another from our many London Walks adventures which, on occasion, use boat or transit to get you to the place where you walk – the impressive, symmetrical, palace-like structures that dominate Greenwich today began life as one wing of a new palace, constructed by Charles II when he was restored to the English throne in 1660. However, his project fizzled due to lack of money: That one building was later twinned, and more structures added, to create the Royal Hospital for Seamen, a charitable impulse and vision of Mary II, who died before the building began. Her husband, William III, saw through the project, completed in the 1750s.
Designed by England’s most famous architect at that time (and possibly to this day), Sir Christopher Wren, the buildings “were built to house naval pensioners, retired veterans of Britain’s navy”. An ornate “Painted Hall” was meant to be their dining room. Over time, however, it turned out the vast space was rather impractical for the navy men, given many were wounded or infirm.
In the 1870s, the hospital reopened as the Old Royal Naval Academy, a training school that continued until the 1990s, when the University of Greenwich took over much of the space, although the most historic portions are now operated as visitor attractions.
Because of all the students, the place has a liveliness to it unlike what it might be if all the buildings were “museum-ified.” For instance, we were unable to take any photos inside the Chapel of St. Peter and St, Paul, described in the brochure I picked up as a “neoclassical masterpiece … one of Britain’s finest eighteenth century interiors,” because a group of students choristers were rehearsing for upcoming Sunday service, although we were welcome to sit and listen: a delightful gift.
There’s more to see at Greenwich than can be fit even into a full day of visiting; it’s on my “must get back here again, someday” list. The Royal Observatory, founded in 1675 by Charles II, and its planetarium are a long hike up a sloping path, south of the academy buildings. We did the obligatory east-west “hemisphere straddle” at a point within the residential part of the town, instead, and then headed to the National Maritime Museum, founded in the 1930s. Both the observatory and museum, along with two other historic sites at Greenwich (more on those in a moment) since 2012 are administered as the “Royal Museums Greenwich.”
We had time to explore only a fraction of the maritime museum’s vast holdings, among them a royal barge, a 1920s speedboat, and everything from cruise ship porcelain to navigation instruments.
We wanted to finish our Greenwich day by checking out the museum for the Cutty Sark, the first thing we saw in Greenwich as we began our tour. As we approached the town dock, our guide told the story of 19th-century clipper ship, used to speedily get tea to England from India. The prow of the ship has a figurehead of young woman hanging on to what turns out to be a horse’s tail: it’s inspired, the museum site says, by the famous poem Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns. “It is about a farmer called Tam who is chased by a scantily-clad witch called Nannie, dressed only in a ‘cutty sark’—an archaic Scottish name for a short nightdress.” He escapes by driving his horse across a shallow river, knowing that witches could not cross water – but she somehow tags along by grabbing his horse’s tail.
Alas, the precision of common zoned time, so celebrated here in Greenwich, was our enemy, this day: The Cutty Sark was closed to visitors by the time we got back to the boat dock where we had arrived.
Main photo: Greenwich Royal Park and, at top, the Royal Observatory.