It wasn’t until my fifth visit to London that I finally made it to the Royal Borough of Greenwich, one of 33 local authority districts within Greater London. When Mr. Excitement was invited to attend a speakers’ dinner hosted by the European Respiratory Society in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich (along with at least 350 of his science peeps), we finally had our
excuse raison to visit Maritime Greenwich, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.
We spent two nights in Greenwich, giving us a full day for sightseeing. However, most Greenwich tourists arrive for the day, many by boat on the River Thames from central London, including from a stop at the popular, enormous sight-seeing ferris wheel, the London Eye. Greenwich is also accessible via the London underground (subway, metro) system and by light rail. Public transit options are fully explained on the VisitLondon website. Because I was lugging a suitcase and had time issues, I took an hour long Uber ride from Paddington Rail Station to Greenwich for approximately 25 pounds, about $30.50 with today’s exchange rate favoring the US dollar. (London is big!)
The Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site takes in the Royal Park laid out by André Le Nôtre in the 1660’s and the adjacent area of Greenwich. The following venues are located within the World Heritage Site:
The Old Royal Observatory
My fellow geography geeks know Greenwich, England to be the location of the Prime Meridian or zero degrees longitude, the imaginary line dividing the east and west hemispheres of the world. This line, runs through the Old Royal Observatory, established in 1695 on a hill in Greenwich, outside the pollution of the coal fires that heated London homes at that time. The Royal Astronomers appointed to the Royal Observatory were charged with observing and mapping the stars and moon in order to provide mariners with an accurate way of measuring longitude on their long sea voyages.
The admission fee for the Old Royal Observatory includes a good audio guide, which provides narration for viewing the old astronomical equipment and living quarters. There is a also a room with exhibits that provide an in depth recounting of the various methods undertaken to try to solve the problem of measuring longitude at sea.
The Cutty Sark
One of the Royal Museums of Greenwich, The Cutty Sark, is a restored 19th century tea clipper ship. The Cutty Sark won speed records during the years she sailed the world. The Cutty Sark is the museum closest to the Greenwich piers used by river transportation to and from central London, so it is most efficient to plan your visit to the Cutty Sark for the beginning or end of your day in Greenwich. Visitors can tour below decks where cargo was stored and the crew lived. I was most in awe of the rigging top side. Bend your neck all the way back to see the tops of the masts and imagine being a sailor having to manage ropes and billowing sails during heavy weather.
The National Maritime Museum
It is not surprising that this island nation with a proud seafaring tradition boasts the largest maritime museum in the world. It is well worth a visit for those fond of all things nautical and for
unashamed history geeks such as myself. In addition to its regular collection which includes the uniform in which Admiral Lord Nelson, the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, received his mortal wounds in 1805, there are revolving special exhibitions. We spent some time in one covering the First World War Battle of Jutland off the coast of Denmark. Visitors can check information about hours and special exhibitions at the website of the National Maritime Museum.
The Queen’s House
Officially part of the National Maritime Museum, the Queen’s House is a royal residence constructed between 1616 and 1635 under the direction of famed architect, Inigo Jones. It is said to be the first building in England to be built in the Classical style. Unfortunately, we were unable to visit the Queen’s House as it was just finishing a major restoration and conservation project. It is now reopened and houses a substantial collection of 17th to 20th century marine paintings and portraits, including the famous Armada portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Information about visiting this museum is available on the Queen’s House website.
The Old Royal Naval College (formerly Greenwich Hospital)
The Old Royal Naval College Chapel
Between 1696 and 1712, a complex known as the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich was built on the site of the old Tudor palace where Queen Elizabeth I was born. The buildings were designed by the famous architect, Sir Christopher Wren who is also responsible for Saint Paul’s Cathedral. In 1873, the site became a training college for the Royal Navy until 1998 when it was taken over by the Greenwich Foundation which has leased some buildings out for educational and cultural uses, including a music college. We were fortunate to
accidentally time our Chapel visit to coincide with a final exam concert by a counter tenor. Because of the concert, we were not allowed to take photographs of the interior of the Chapel, but they are available on the Chapel’s website along with other information to help plan your visit.
The Painted Hall
As I mentioned, our decision to visit Greenwich was encouraged by Mr. Excitement’s invitation to a speakers’ dinner held at the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College. Also designed by Sir Christopher Wren as a companion to the Chapel, in 1708, painter Sir James Thornhill was retained to decorate the walls and ceilings with murals dedicated to Britain’s naval history. It took him 19 years to complete his work. As much as I adore conversing with international scientists
and pretending to understand what they’re talking about, being there for a dinner, gave me ample time to explore this magnificent venue between courses. I was particularly intrigued by the use of Trompe-l’œil in many faux representations of architectural and decorative detail. For example, many of what seemed to be carved columns and medallions were, in fact, flat painted surfaces. The Painted Hall is being conserved, so it is important to check the website for information about visiting.
So, ahoy matey, maritime Greenwich is certainly worth a day long visit, at least. If you truly have salt water in your veins, consider spending the night in Greenwich so you can have an extra day or half day to savor this multi-museum World Heritage Site. If you will be visiting during the summer tourist season, buy your tickets ahead of time on line. Combination tickets for the various museums are available both on-line and in person.
For ideas about other UNESCO World Heritage Sites to visit, check out these articles by other Travel Buzz Media collaborators:
Grand Canyon National Park and UNESCO Heritage Site by Noel Morata of Travel Photo Discovery
Suomenlinna: A Helsinki UNESCO World Heritage Site by Betsy Wuebker of Passing Thru
71 UNESCO World Heritage Sites You May Have Visited Without Knowing It by Kerwin McKenzie of Pass Rider