Archive for October, 2009

26
Oct
09

Greenwich Hill, London

[Setting off to write about London has always been a tough task….not merely because the essence of the city is too hard to describe in words, but for the simple dilemma of deciding where to begin ! The city is so vast and immense that there’s something for everyone ….Which is why perhaps, it is a good idea to start from square one, or rather in the case of London, from longitude 0.0000 :)]

Anyone who has ever used a watch or a clock would probably have heard of the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). However, not many know that it represents the mean solar time at a particular point on a small but historic hillock in Greenwich, London. Greenwich Hill as it is called, is situated in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Maritime Greenwich, around 6 miles downstream from Central London along the river Thames. Pronounced as ‘Grenich’ [yea, the English have strange ways of gobbling certain consonants in the middle of words], Greenwich had traditionally been a maritime town just outside of London. However, over the centuries, London has expanded far beyond its original city walls and today Greenwich lies within Zone 2 of the city. Steeped in history and blessed with some stunning architectural marvels, Greenwich is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.

Greenwich Hill:
Nestled amidst the massive green expanses of Greenwich is Greenwich Hill. Once home to the medieval Greenwich Castle [where it is said King Henry VIII lodged his mistresses, while he stayed at the nearby Palace of Placentia] , the hillock has been home to the Royal Observatory since 1675, when King Charles II commissioned it. Astronomers used the Royal Observatory as a reference for their calculations and Greenwich’s mariners used it as the basis of navigational measurement. Out of this concept, arose the Greenwich Meridian, which later went on to become the Prime Meridian of the world, thus forging Greenwich’s association with time-keeping forever ! Today, unlike any other historic/tourist spot in London, Greenwich Hill’s claim to fame is its unique longitudinal co-ordinate – 0° 0′ 0″ E [Frankly, I’m not sure how 0 degrees can be treated as being East :O].

Greenwich Town:
Greenwich had started out as a small fishing village but over time, grew into an important sea-faring town from where ships sailed to all corners of the British Empire […which pretty much covered the whole world !]. During the Tudor era, the monarchy set up base here at the Palace of Placentia, and some of England’s most famous and notorious kings and queens were born here. More importantly, the Royals made impressive contributions to the skyline of Greenwich, including the Royal Observatory at Greenwich Hill.
Today, Greenwich is a buzzing and colourful district of London, dotted with restaurants and having a high concentration of pubs, some of which may very well have been in existence since the time they served medieval sailors few centuries ago. Greenwich market, which dates back from the 1700’s, is located in the heart of town.

Getting to Greenwich Hill:
One can get to Greenwich from Central London by road, rail or the river. I personally prefer taking the ferry on the way up and the Tube/DLR to get back:

1) Ferry – The ferry is hassle free and offers fantastic views of the city’s skyline as seen from the Thames. They start at the piers alongside the London Eye and passengers can also get on them further downstream near the Tower of London. The journey to Greenwich takes about 45 minutes and the ferry sails past landmarks such as the Westminster Parliament, Big Ben, London Eye, Cleopatra’s Needle, St.Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London and Tower Bridge. There’s running commentary as well, to fill-in on all the gyan.

2) Tube + DLR – This is a much faster option. From central London, one has to take the Tube to Canary Wharf and switch over to the DLR towards Greenwich. The Tube journey, being underground, has nothing great to offer in terms of sights, however, the DLR is pretty interesting, as the train passes through and alongside some of most futuristic and gleaming sky-scrapers of Canary Wharf.

Disembark at Cutty Sark station, which is just before Greenwich station. [Do not be misled by the station names ….as I’ve been a couple of times, as the latter is much farther away from the main tourist attractions.]

From the boat pier or from Cutty Sark DLR station, follow the sign boards towards the Royal Observatory and in 5 – 10 minutes, you arrive at the gates to the massive Greenwich Park. Cut diagonally across the park and Greenwich hill appears right in front of you, with the Royal Observatory perched on top.

Royal Observatory:
The short climb up Greenwich hill to the Royal Observatory can appear daunting to the feeble. But take it slow, and once up there, the spectacular view that it offers makes up for the effort. The Royal Observatory stands on the foundations of the erstwhile Greenwich castle and today, is a museum housing a vast collection of astronomical and navigational devices, and various kinds of historic precision clocks. Like most museums in London, entrance is free, and the first thing that you notice as you enter the compound is a silver line marked on the ground – yes, the Greenwich Meridian !

Facts: For centuries, the Paris Meridian a.k.a the ‘Rose Line’ [popularized by ‘The Da Vinci Code’] had been considered the Prime Meridian of the world with the Greenwich Meridian merely being a formidable rival. But in 1884, the British earned an astounding victory over the French, when the International Meridian Conference in Washington DC, adopted the Greenwich Mean Line as the Prime Meridian. Understandably, the French weren’t too happy and abstained from accepting it officially until 27 years later in 1911.

The panorama:

One of the highlights of Greenwich Hill is the stunning panoramic view of Greenwich, the Thames and the city of London that it offers.

Here’s a description of some of the major landmarks that can be spotted from Greenwich Hill:

1) Greenwich Park – Surrounding the hill, is the massive expanse of green comprising Greenwich Park. The park had originally served as hunting grounds to the royals based at the adjacent Palace of Placentia, and even today is a Royal Park. However, her Majesty has been kind enough to open the park to the public, and on a sunny summer day, one would find the place dotted with scores of sun-bathing Londoners.

2) The Old Royal Naval College – One of the most striking views from the top of Greenwich hill is that of the magnificent, symmetrical lay-outs of the Old Royal Naval College. Up until 17th Century, this had been the location of the Palace of Placentia (Greenwich Palace) – a major Tudor Palace. King Henry VIII was born here, and so were his daughters Queen Mary I [a.k.a ‘Bloody Mary’] and Queen Elizabeth I [a.k.a the ‘Virgin Queen’].

[We love Henry VIII not for the fact that he married 6 times and had 2 of his queens beheaded, but for his flamboyant, scandalous and extravagant life-style, that perhaps redefined the term ‘living life King size’ ! If not for him and his offsprings, medieval English history may have been as boring as an account of growing grass ……Besides, the Church of England may not have existed, the Royal Navy may not have been created, a popular cocktail of vodka and tomoto juice may not have had a name, Cate Blanchet may not have won a Golden Globe and my favourite TV series – ‘The Tudors’ may not even have been made 😉 …….. Needless to say, his contributions to English religion, society and history have been legendary!]

After having played host to several key royal weddings, births, scandals and deaths, the Palace of Placentia finally fell into disrepair during the English Civil War. Later in 1694, it was demolished and the Greenwich Hospital built in its place. The ‘Queen’s House’ originally an adjunct to the Palace of Placentia remained, and the distinctive symmetrical design of Greenwich Hospital with the open avenue in the middle was formulated so that the river-side view of Queen’s House and Greenwich Hill would not be obstructed.

Greenwich Hospital had served as a residential home for injured sailors for nearly two centuries, until it got converted into the Royal Naval College. The college served as a training establishment to the Royal Navy until 1998, and today, houses the Greenwich University and the Trinity College of Music.

3) Canary Wharf – Beyond the Old Royal Naval College and across the Thames, are the massive sky-scrapers of Canary Wharf. This futuristic development represents the ultra-modern side of London and is home to some of the largest banking corporations in the world.

4) Greenwich Power Station – The gigantic chimneys of the hundred-year old Greenwich Power Station are a distinctive sight towards the right. Once coal-powered, the power station now runs on oil and gas. It is still in operation and serves as a back-up electricity source for the London Underground.

5) O2 Arena (formely the Milleninum Dome) – Further to the right, is the O2 Arena – one of the largest indoor arenas in Europe. It is a popular venue for concerts and sporting events. Michael Jackson’s well-publicized come-back tour was supposed to have taken place here.

6) London City Airport – Towards the extreme right is the London City Airport – the 5th major international airport of London [after Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton] and the one closest to the city.

7) City of London – To the far left, lies the endless expanse of the city of London ! The sky-scrapers of the city, including the oddly-shaped Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe), stand out in the horizon. On a clear day, one can see as far as the Tower Bridge and St.Paul’s Cathedral.

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