Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from goo.gl/Ta4oAX.
Published December 31st 2014
A Journey Through Time and Space
I've been putting off going to the Royal Observatory Greenwich for some time for two reasons. One, it is a bit of a pain to get to from where I live, and second, I thought it was going to be a big place that would require a whole day to explore. My need to complete the Paddington Trail, however, gave me reason to put in the effort, and I discovered two things. One, it is not as difficult to get to as I initially thought, and second, it only take a couple of hours to see the main exhibits. Of course, while I was there I learnt a great many more things.
The Royal Observatory Greenwich was commissioned by Charles II in 1675 because what king wouldn't want a giant telescope in their home? Designed by Christopher Wren, it cost £520 to build, using recycled material from Duke Humphrey's Tower. It is located in the grounds of Greenwich Park, on the former site of Greenwich Castle, once occupied by the Tudors. It is strategically placed on top of a steep hill for optimum stargazing.
As a result, it does mean the climb can be quite gruelling for those not at full fitness, and might be a struggle to reach if you have poor mobility or are easily out of breath. If you do make it to the top, the view is certainly worth the effort. If you're willing to insert a pound, you can also use a talking telescope to get a better look.
The Royal Observatory Greenwich is not one large building, but divided into a succession of smaller annexes that you can explore in bite-size chunks. About half of these places are free, while the other half is ticketed. Each section has its own small gift shop, and although you can get mostly the same things from them, each gift shop does specialise in its own area, depending on the exhibition, such as clocks or telescopes.
Outside the first building, you can see Shepherd Gate Clock, the first electric clock from 1852. I find it interesting, because it is the ony analogue clock I have ever seen that shows twenty-four hours. Inside shows a chronological history of time keeping from sundials to smart phones. The observatory is the whole reason that Britain use Greenwich Meantime (GMT) during winter. Four separate meridians have been drawn through the observatory, including longitude, the Prime Meridian, established in 1851. GMT was calculated at the Royal Observatory Greenwich until 1954, when it started to be calculated at other observatories. So that the rest of the country could keep in synch, the astronomer, John Pond, installed a time ball in 1833 (a new one was replaced in 1919), which drops daily at 1pm.
Up a spiral staircase, you'll find yourself on the roof, where you get a lovely view of the garden. Walk further down the balcony and you'll get to the Astronomers' Tower, which holds the Great Equatorial Telescope. The Great Equatorial Telescope is the largest telescope in Britain, and was part of a nineteenth century race by observatories to make the best and biggest. It was built in 1893 and in use until 1947. The main purpose of the telescope was to observe double stars (two stars that circle around each other).
The exit leads to the Meridian Garden, which has a number of interesting features, such as the Armillary Dial. Constructed in 1968, it is a type of sundial that represents a globe made from a series of rings. The dial gets its name from the Latin armillae, meaning 'rings'.
The first astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich was John Flamsteed, and he invented a very long telescope that he placed inside a hundred-foot deep well. His intention was to sit at the bottom of the well to look through it, hoping that the long focus would give finer measurements. Unfortunately, the dampness of the well made it unusable.
William Herschel is an astronomer famous for his discovery of Uranus in 1781. He went on to build a forty-foot telescope in 1789, which at the time was the largest in the world. Unfortunately it was too difficult to operate, so his son ended up dismantling it. Further tragedy struck when a tree fell on it, and destroyed most of it. Only a small section remains today.
In the courtyard you will find the Altazimuth Pavilion, named after the type of telescope once housed inside. The pavilion was completed in 1899, and currently holds a photoheliograph telescope, used for taking pictures of the sun. Inside are a few fact sheet posters and an interactive questionnaire.
The Weller Astronomy Galleries are inside a beautiful architectural building. The Peter Harrison Planetarium is on the basement level, and is a ticketed exhibition. The planetarium cone is one of the single largest uses of bronze in the world, with nearly two-hundred and fifty plates welded together.
The rest of the gallery is free, and where where you can touch the oldest object on Earth. The Gibeon Meteorite hit earth in prehistoric times, and is about four and a half billion years old. The meteorite was found in Nambia, and made up of nickel and iron. The surface patterns tell us that it cooled slowly as it travelled through space.
The whole gallery is very interactive, as it has video screenings (with sign language), and fun games to play. In one game, you take on the role of a scientist building a rocket; you have to decide what material the rocket will be made from, and what objects to take with you. All your decisions will be calculated to determine the scenario that plays out, and whether or not the mission is a success or not.
Currently on display are the winners from the Astronomy Photographer of the Year Award 2014. The competition received a record number of seventeen thousand entries from fifty countries, and has produced the most awe-inspiring images.
If you can't face walking up the rather steep hill to the Observatory, walk south from the Cutty Sark along Greenwich Church Street to Nelson Road and take bus 386 towards Blackheath.
Get out at Wat Tyler Road and transfer to bus 53 going towards Plumstead. Get out at the Greenwich Park stop and walk along a nice level pathway.
You can walk downhill to Greenwich Village after visiting the Observatory.