Greenwich, a town located in the South East of London within The Royal Borough of Greenwich, serves as a quick weekend getaway from London. It is world-renowned for the Prime Meridian where East meets West and is steeped in navigation history. On a trip to London, we decided to undertake two short trips to Greenwich and experience it up close.
Maritime Greenwich is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a unique ensemble of the beautifully designed landscape and historical architecture associated with maritime history.
Visiting Greenwich Park in autumn and witnessing the green leaves change to fall colours in several shades of yellow, ochre, brown and an occasional red is every nature lover and photographer’s high. We were click happy as we tried to capture the spectacular drama that unfolded between the autumn leaves, gentle breeze and evening sun in our camera frames.
The Greenwich Park is home to the Royal Observatory, the Prime Meridian and has several cafes. It has a planetarium, UK’s largest refracting telescope and an astronomy centre. We saw several tourists trying to click pictures with each foot on either side of the Prime Meridian thus making it possible to be both on the Eastern and Western hemispheres at the same time! Suddenly I was transported back in time to my childhood when my Dad would tune into the late-night news on BBC radio, and a voice would announce the time in London as “18 hours Greenwich Meantime”. It was one of my first lessons as a child on how to calculate the time difference between countries with GMT as a reference.
The hill in Greenwich Park is from where one can get a panoramic view of the Thames river and the central London skyline at a distance and the Royal Naval College and Queen’s House in the foreground. Evenings are the best time to be here as one can then get beautiful pictures in daylight as well as at dusk when the skyline is illuminated. If possible do avoid weekends when the locals, students and tourists flock to the park in large numbers. Several families and friends were picnicking on the green lawns and enjoying playing with their children and pets.
Greenwich Royal Naval College in earlier times served as Royal Hospital for Seamen. Earlier to that it was the site of the Greenwich Palace which was the birthplace of Queen Elizabeth I. Today the University of Greenwich and the Trinity College of Music are located here. As we entered the complex and passed the classrooms of Trinity College of Music, we could see aspiring musicians engrossed in playing the violin and the piano. A class of students was attentively listening to the teacher, perhaps giving feedback or instructions. The high octave sound of a female singer testing her vocal skills echoed through one of the buildings. At that point, I was tempted to drop everything and just enrol in the music college and learn to play the piano an unfulfilled childhood dream.
On moving further, we could see two majestic domes in clearly defined squares. The Chapel housed in the Queen Mary court is on the left and the Painted Hall in the King William court which is on the right. The Painted Hall has some of the most remarkable baroque paintings on the ceilings and the walls. It served as the dining hall for the wounded and retired seamen at the hospital. I wondered if perhaps the beautiful surroundings may have contributed to the seamen’s speedy recovery.
The Queen’s House built four hundred years ago was a former royal residence. A collection of art and paintings adorn its numerous rooms including the iconic Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in a stiff, circular collar. The public raised £10 million and saved it from being sold abroad! That’s the power of collective action by the masses.
If the world of sailors, pirates and explorers and the stories and legends of their expeditions and adventures fascinate you, then the National Maritime Museum is where you must head. It is the largest maritime museum in the world with galleries hosting paintings, ship models, artefacts, navigational instruments, cartographs from the voyages and expeditions undertaken at sea.
If you fancy exploring a 19th-century tea clipper used to ferry tea from China to London, then go aboard the iconic ship Cutty Sark. On one of my earlier visits to London in 2007, I had seen this ship which was later ravaged by two fires. It was a relief to see the restored ship, but it seemed too polished and ’ modernised’ compared to the old vintage beauty that it originally was.
The Greenwich Pier is from where one can take a ferry ride on Thames river to Central London. On an earlier trip, we found this to be a faster mode of transportation from Greenwich to Central London by avoiding road traffic. The relaxing river cruise with the gentle breeze blowing provided a vantage point to see the iconic buildings and structures of London.
Greenwich market, which is more than four centuries old has quaint shops and stalls selling handmade cottage industry as well as vintage art and craft products. One can browse through painstakingly hand-embroidered, knitted and crocheted pieces, leather goods, paintings, jewellery, handmade paper lanterns and knick-knacks made by artists and designers. For foodies, the pavilion with street foods from all over the world or the numerous cafes and bistros that line Greenwich’s cobbled streets and the main access road are a sensory delight. Since the weather was cold and breezy, we got hold of some coffee and hot chocolate for the kids to keep ourselves warm and perk up our energy levels.
Emirates Air Line cable car ride which provides a 360 degrees perspective of London is what we also did. It was a foggy, hazy day and so the views from the cable car were not very remarkable. However, on a clear sunny day, one can enjoy unobstructed vistas of the Canary Wharf, Thames Barrier, The O2, the famous buildings of London and numerous other monuments and structures. After a return journey on the cable car, we headed to the cable car terminal where the Emirates Aviation Experience awaited us. Interactive displays, aircraft models and flight simulators provided us with a glimpse into the nuances and advances in aviation technology. Not just the kids but even we adults were thrilled imagining ourselves as pilots in the simulation cockpit. For school children, this edutainment experience is genuinely noteworthy.
The O2 arena is under the Millennium Dome built to celebrate the turn of the third millennium. It houses cinemas, a bowling alley, music space, restaurants and corporate hire spaces.
Located within the boroughs of Greenwich and Lewisham is Blackheath, an upscale suburb which is the starting point of the London Marathon. Legend is that the district got its name from the plague or ‘Black Death’ that ravaged London in 1665. Pits were dug where the bodies of those who had succumbed to the disease were disposed. Another explanation for the origin of the name is the ‘dark soil’ that is characteristic to this district. The major highlight of this place is the iconic All Saints Church beautifully captured in Bollywood, veteran film director Yash Chopra’s last movie ‘Jab Tak Hain Jaan’ starring Shah Rukh Khan and Katrina Kaif.
While London is on most travellers’ itinerary, it is undoubtedly worthwhile to set aside a day and explore Greenwich. It is an amusing town steeped in navigational history that boasts of being home to the Prime Meridian. A UNESCO World Heritage Site with lots to explore and discover. We chose to see these iconic structures and buildings from the outside. But should you wish to see the various museums and galleries then do sign yourself for a walk-in tour. The entry tickets are between £13- 20 each, so you may want to be selective and prioritize what interests you and your family.
The one thing that stood out about Greenwich for me were the autumn leaves in Greenwich Park. The dance of the rustling leaves and whistling winds is etched in my mind. If I could end by borrowing and adapting the lines from William Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils.
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the autumn leaves.
Nearest Airport: Heathrow and Gatwick are international airports in London. Several international flights from major cities in India can take you to London. From London, you can drive down or take a train or a ferry ride to Greenwich.
Where to Stay: You can check for hotels on the net depending on comfort and budget in case you decide to stay in Greenwich. Alternatively, you can stay in London and take a day trip to Greenwich.
Travel Tip: Get an Oyster card which can be used on the train journey as well as for the Emirates Air Line cable car ride. Do check the weather forecast, in advance and plan your trip accordingly.
This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, July 2018.