I think a lot. I think about what I’ve done and wish I had done in the past. I think about what I’m doing now. I think about where my life is headed in the future. I think about time a lot and how fast life goes by. On my last full day in London (and Europe, in general), I felt like it would be a somewhat symbolic gesture to head over to Greenwich and explore the home of Greenwich Mean Time. My mind is weird like that.
I hopped on a Southeastern train from London Bridge to Maze Hill and got to Greenwich Park easily. Greenwich Park is one of the eight Royal Parks in London and it covers 183 acres of land. It is the oldest enclosed Royal Park and has had a long history which dates back as far as Roman settlement. The land was inherited by the Duke of Gloucester and passed down through different royal members over the years until it eventually was opened up to the public.
Near the entrance, there’s a giant sundial called the Greenwich Millennium Sundial. This was designed by Christopher Daniel and placed in the park in 1692. Just kidding. It’s a millennium sundial. Of course it’s from 2000.
The park is huge and very green, but soon enough, you also realize that there are a ton of hills and some of them actually feel pretty steep. The Royal Observatory is at the top of one of these hills, so there is a bit of a climb to get there.
Before going into the Royal Observatory area, I did take some time to appreciate the view of the city. You can see the Thames and some notable structures like the Gherkin and the O2 Millennium Dome.
A ticket to the Royal Observatory costs £9.50 (~$14.36 USD) and it provides you access to the Astronomer Royal’s house and the Prime Meridian line. An audioguide is included in the ticket price as well. I had a weird conversation with the guy working at the counter. He asked me where in the United States I was from and I said Los Angeles. He then says that he hasn’t heard of it but he’s been to several cities like New York, San Francisco, and L.A. I don’t know if I just said “Los Angeles” weird or if he didn’t recognize that “L.A.” and “Los Angeles” are the same thing. I did meet several people in Europe who didn’t understand what I was talking about when I said “United States” and only got it when I clarified “USA”, so who knows.
Anyway, in the garden area, there are some cool things to see like a reconstructed circle of bricks that marked the approximate site of Flamsteed’s well telescope, which the first Greenwich Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed used to observe stars passing overhead. There is also a dolphin sundial in which the midpoint between the shadows of the tips of the dolphins’ tails reveal the current time.
After getting my audioguide, I went to check out the line set in the ground to mark the point of the Prime Meridian. I was standing at 0º latitude and stepping in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. The Prime Meridian marker also lets you know how far several large cities around the world are from the line. Los Angeles lies 118º15′ to the west.
I went to the Flamsteed House, home of the Astronomers Royal, but quickly went out again after reading that the Time Ball on the top of the house drops at 1 PM daily. That was maybe five or ten minutes away, so I didn’t want to miss it, especially if it happens only once a day. The Time Ball was installed in 1833 and helped sailors accurately set their time from afar. Five minutes before 1 PM, the ball would be halfway up the pole. Two minutes before 1 PM, the ball would be all the way up. Exactly at 1 PM, the ball drops. It’s not an event with much fanfare, but crowds still gathered to see it happen.
The original ball was replaced by an aluminum one in 1919. In 1960, it was taken down when the roof was being renovated. The workers thought it was going to be thrown away, so they used the ball for various games and it got a lot of dents in it. It turned out that the ball WASN’T going to be thrown away and was supposed to put back on top of the building. They didn’t fix the ball and it still has the dents on it today.
Afterwards, I headed back into the Flamsteed House, named after John Flamsteed. Ever since then, a long line of Astronomers Royal, including Edmond Halley of Halley’s Comet fame, have lived in the house. The first floor contains replicas of what life looked like for some of the families. Upstairs, there is the Octagon Room, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral. There are tall windows that allow for astronomers to look out at the skies using long telescopes, but none of the windows line up with a meridian line, which made it impossible to make positional observations. Besides the astronomical instruments in the room, there are also clocks…that had some kind of significance that I forgot. Oops.
The next area focuses more on the problems of navigation at sea. People at sea could find their latitude to figure out their position north or south of the equator, but tools had not been developed yet to find the proper longitudinal position. This was important due to the increase in international trade and errors often led to shipwrecks.
In July 1714, a £20,000 reward was offered for anyone who could solve the problem. John Harrison, an English clockmaker, submitted his first timekeeper in 1736 to be tested on a sea voyage. It was the most accurate sea clock so far, but it wasn’t accurate enough. Two more clocks were tested unsuccessfully, but it was Harrison’s fourth clock that won him the reward offered by Parliament. The contest ended in 1772, 58 years after it had started.
A sea clock is not the only method of finding longitude though. Sailors could also map the stars and figure out their position by following the motion of the moon, though I believe this was a much more difficult process and wouldn’t be effective during the day.
Over time, there were a lot of interesting methods of sharing the accurate time with the public. One way to get the exact time before 1833 was to bring your pocket watch to the Royal Observatory to have it set there. In the 1920s, you could call a phone number for a speaking clock to tell you the accurate time. You would hear recordings like, “at the third stroke, it will be 9:59 and twenty seconds” or “at the first stroke, it will be 8:57 precisely”. We’ve come a long way, but speaking clocks still exist.
Back outside, I went to the meridian line again to take some more pictures. Did you know that there is another meridian line marked in the area? Bradley’s meridian line was set by the third Astronomer Royal, James Bradley, in 1750. Ordinance Survey maps use this line over the traditional Prime Meridian today.
It was getting really cold, so I started to make my way back to the Maze Hill station. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that Maze Hill was in zone 3, so my Oyster Travelcard didn’t work. Not wanting to pay more, I just walked to the Greenwich station and waited for a train there. While I was waiting, I sat on a bench and fumbled with a map, causing my phone to fall out of my pocket and the screen to crack. Just my luck that this would happen on the day before I came home from Europe. I have dropped my phone so many times before without incident, so at least I should be grateful for that. It still bummed me out for a significant amount of time.
Time. Four weeks moved by so fast and I was now reaching the end of this adventure.