Along the Thames, Greenwich Is Still in Its Prime

The Old Royal Naval College, on the Thames, is one of the architectural, scientific and historical attractions that draw visitors to Greenwich.
The Old Royal Naval College, on the Thames, is one of the architectural, scientific and historical attractions that draw visitors to Greenwich. (James Mccormick - Britainonview/McCormick-McAdam)
By Diane Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 26, 2008

Time starts here -- right here where I'm standing on a hill overlooking the River Thames, here at this long metal strip set in the cobblestones outside the Old Royal Observatory. Wherever you are, time is determined by your distance from this symbol of the invisible line bisecting the Earth from pole to pole. Every 15 degrees distance from Greenwich means an hour ahead or behind. But here at the Prime Meridian, zero degrees longitude, you can bestride the planet like a colossus, one foot in the Western Hemisphere, one foot in the Eastern. A gaggle of blue-blazered English schoolchildren are straddling the longitude line right now, giggling at the sheer coolness of it.

Blame it on a misspent, "Star Trek"-watching youth: Greenwich, with its historic telescopes and whirring golden clocks, has always been one of my favorite places. I got to thinking about space and time (as one does) after reading about Europe's Large Hadron Collider, smacking protons together like quantum marbles, looking for Higgs's boson, the particle that will explain life, the universe and everything. I decided a picnic at the mother ship of Greenwich Mean Time would be a logical way to spend an autumn day in England.

Like Edmund Halley (of comet fame), Queen Elizabeth I and other notables who have traveled from central London to Greenwich, I took a boat. Thames cruisers leave from Westminster Pier, near the Houses of Parliament, and cost about $18 for a round trip. It's not exactly a royal barge, draped in purple velvet and manned by sturdy Tudor rowers in puffy breeches. But it has a motor. And a fully stocked bar.

Past St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London, past the old wharves (now mostly fancy apartments with glass balconies) and the site of the 2012 Olympic Village, Greenwich looks like a neoclassical dream: colonnaded white stone buildings, perfectly symmetrical, surrounded by green. The banks of the river once held the medieval palace where Henry VIII and Elizabeth I held court. Their Stuart heirs tore it down; they wanted something modern. From 1616, when Inigo Jones brought the Palladian style from Italy, the greatest English architects worked here: Jones, Christopher Wren, John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Greenwich became a center of learning, and eventually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the astronomical observatory, the Old Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum.

On my way up from the pier, I wander through some of the rooms of the museum, taking in the coat Lord Nelson wore at the Battle of Trafalgar (you can see the hole from the fatal bullet in the fabric!), and, at the college, Wren's lavish Painted Hall, its ceiling depicting monarchs William and Mary directing Britannia to rule the waves and the continents of the Earth. (America is represented as a young Native American woman, supposedly Pocahontas, who died in England in 1617.)

The observatory is a 10-minute walk up the hill, an elegant brick edifice (also by Wren), built in 1675. Charles II created the post of Astronomer Royal to study "the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find the so-much-desired longitude of places for perfecting the art of navigation."

Longitude was the key to accurate sailing, and the race to measure it led to innovation in how humans understand not just the Earth but the cosmos. (Read "Longitude," Dava Sobel's wonderful 1995 book.) I am taken with the beautiful objects in the observatory's Time Galleries: ancient Arabic astrolabes, sextants and clocks designed by John Harrison, the self-taught scientist who solved the longitude problem with "the most important timekeeper ever made," the 1759 "H4."

Outside in the rose garden, I am shown where John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, began to observe the heavens, from the bottom of a deep "observation well." Not surprisingly, the well proved uncomfortably damp, and perhaps Flamsteed became disabused of the long-held notion that stars could be observed in the daytime sky if viewed from deep down in the dark. Anyway, he went upstairs to the Octagon Room, with its huge, 19-foot windows, and began to make the first accurate star map. He entertained the likes of King Charles and Sir Isaac Newton, and gave Czar Peter the Great a close-up look at the planet Venus.

"You can really feel the history of this place, can't you?" says John Griffiths, one of the Royal Observatory's resident astronomers. "All the geniuses who passed this way: Halley, Wren, John Harrison, Captain Cook. . . ."

Griffiths presents "Black Holes" in Greenwich's state-of-the-art planetarium (admission about $11), but I have an hour till it starts, so I grab a tuna salad sandwich, a chunk of homemade shortbread and a Diet Coke from the inexpensive cafe, and take my lunch outside. Greenwich Royal Park was founded in 1433 but has been inhabited for far longer, at least since the Romans, who built a temple here nearly 2,000 years ago. I sit with my picnic near Queen Elizabeth's Oak, the remains of an ancient tree where, the story goes, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII used to meet secretly. Later, their daughter Elizabeth I liked to sit and read underneath its great canopy.

Elizabeth was famously keen on studying the heavens. She employed the mathematician and astronomer John Dee to track the stars and planets for her. God knows what they would have thought of black holes, those cosmological monsters that eat light and bend space. I take my seat in the purple darkness of the planetarium, and suddenly overhead there's the big bang, the explosion that is thought to have formed the universe 14 billion years or so ago. "Black Holes" takes us around hot blue young stars, and up close to a red supergiant as it collapses under the weight of its own core and explodes. We also discover the uncomfortable fact that there's a black hole at the center of our own Milky Way.

Griffiths says not to worry, the black hole can't hurt us way out here in the galactic suburbs. Still, as he points out, the full story of the big bang is still a puzzle, quoting the current Astronomer Royal: "As Martin Rees says, 'We don't know what banged or why.' "

I take a look at the Astronomy Galleries, with exhibits showing how cosmology has developed from Flamsteed's day of mechanical clocks and early optics to the Hubble space telescope, quantum physics and the large particle accelerator on the Swiss-French border. But the great mysteries -- where did the universe come from, where are we going -- remain. Griffiths shows me a meteorite at the entrance to the Royal Observatory's Astronomy Center. "It's 4.5 billion years old," he says. "That means it dates almost from the formation of our solar system."

I touch the meteorite. It's metallic and eerily cold, a piece of deep space. I ask Griffiths why he works at Greenwich; the real scientific work moved long ago to Cambridge University. "Ah," he says. "But this is where it started. This is the home of time."

Old Royal Observatory, Black Heath Avenue, Greenwich, 011-44-20-8858-4422,

© 2008 The Washington Post Company