Getting Nautical in Greenwich

There are many ways to reach the Royal Borough of Greenwich in southeast London. You can take the bus, or the underground, or the futuristic Docklands Light Railway. Or, in keeping with the strong naval heritage of the area, you can take a boat. Along with the profusion of tourist cruises on offer, commuter boats stop at Greenwich pier, and it is by far the best way to get an overview of the area. As you approach the jetty, you can see the elegant outline of the restored tea-clipper, the Cutty Sark, the fastest ship of her time, and beyond that the architectural grandeur of the Old Royal Naval College. The vista has scarcely changed since Canaletto painted the scene in 1751.

 The grand buildings of Greenwich contrasted with the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf on the other side of the river

The grand buildings of Greenwich contrasted with the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf on the other side of the river

Greenwich has many claims to fame. As the site of the prime meridian, it is the place where time begins. It is home to the oldest royal park, enclosed in 1433, and the city’s first urban cable car, which crosses the river from the Greenwich peninsula to the Royal Docks. It is the birthplace of both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and was the favoured retreat of the early Stuart kings. But it’s not all history at Greenwich. The area has a distinctly youthful air, thanks to the presence of the University. Many of the area’s grand buildings, designed by such luminaries as Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawskmoor and Inigo Jones, now house various university faculties. On my last visit, showing my parents around the town, we weren’t able to see the extraordinary Painted Hall as it was being used for a graduation ceremony.

The Baroque ceiling in the Painted Hall

The Baroque ceiling in the Painted Hall

As if that weren’t enough, Greenwich even has its own brewery, called Meantime, naturally. It also has a small museum devoted to fans. There’s something for everyone at Greenwich.

I would recommend starting with a visit to the Heritage Centre, a free exhibition near the river that charts the history of the area. A dashing statue of Sir Walter Raleigh stands outside, while inside there are some fascinating objects, including suits of armour, gold jewellery and the coat of arms of Anne Boleyn. For the movie buffs among you, at the time of my visit there was a small exhibition on the upper level charting Greenwich in film. Look closely, and you’ll see Greenwich in such films as Les Miserables; Thor: The Dark World; Pirates of the Caribbean; On Stranger Tides; and Four Weddings and a Funeral, among many others. Chances are, if you’ve seen any of these aspects of Greenwich they will seem familiar, even if you’ve never been here before.

Sir Walter Raleigh cuts a dashing figure in front of the Heritage Centre

Sir Walter Raleigh cuts a dashing figure in front of the Heritage Centre

For the more nautically minded, the National Maritime Museum is a treasure trove. Free to enter, it houses everything from royal barges to record-breaking speedboats via a history of the Thames and the story of Lord Nelson. The museum’s art collection is housed in Queen Anne’s House, which is linked to the main structure by a covered walkway. Designed for Queen Anne by the architect Inigo Jones, it is gorgeous. Quite apart from the paintings, I loved the Tulip Stairs, the first centrally unsupported spiral staircase in Britain.

Greenwich Park is the oldest royal park in the country

Greenwich Park is the oldest royal park in the country

Behind the Maritime Museum lies Greenwich Park, a beautiful expanse of undulating greenery. First enclosed by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in 1433, it attained a very modern fame in 2012 when it played host to the equestrian events at the London Olympics.

Up on the hill in the centre of the Park lies the Royal Observatory, which dates back to 1675 when King Charles II appointed John Flamsteed as his first Astronomer Royal. Here you can visit the planetarium, and stand with a foot in both hemispheres. It is a little surreal to see the Greenwich meridian laid out on the ground, an abstract idea made tangible. Inside, the exhibition is fascinating, and guaranteed to bring out your inner astronomer. The John Harrison clocks, which finally enabled navigators to determine their longitude, are prize exhibits.

The Royal Observatory on the hill in Greenwich Park

The Royal Observatory on the hill in Greenwich Park

This site was chosen for the Observatory primarily for its height and its distance from the smoke of London’s chimneys. Today, it affords wonderful views of the city. From here it is possible to contrast the timeless outline of Greenwich with the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf just across the river. I can’t help but wonder what Christopher Wren would have thought of them.

Ships at Greenwich during the 2014 Tall Ships Festival

Ships at Greenwich during the 2014 Tall Ships Festival

The river is wide here, and there are often a variety of nautical events going on during the summer months. On previous visits I have visited a Royal Navy frigate, and taken a multitude of pictures at the Tall Ships Festival. These beautiful sailing vessels return to Greenwich in August 2015, so I suspect I will be returning.

 Written by and photos by Paris Franz for EuropeUpClose.com

 

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