Greenwich: What time is it, and where are you?

Greenwich: What time is it, and where are you?

By Vivienne Mackie

England's great maritime history and its place in defining world space and time is pronounced "Gren-itch."

This area of London, a World Heritage Site, has so much to see and do that next visit we plan to spend a couple of days right there and use it as a springboard for a slice of what the city has to offer.

We arrived at Greenwich on the DLR (Docklands Light Railway Line) at the Cutty Sark station, but our family there says it's also fun to start with a Thames River boat trip that docks at Greenwich Pier, just below the Cutty Sark.

Soon after exiting the station, what immediately strikes your eyes is the Cutty Sark (built 1869), one of the most famous clipper ships. The composite of wood and iron has found a permanent resting place after a terrible fire in May 2007 and subsequent restoration. She is the only one of these sailing ships still in existence, a memorial to the great days of sail and all those who served on all ships.

Plan to spend at least a couple of hours wandering the decks, now a museum to the tea trade with China and to clipper ships, and marveling at all the masts and rigging. It's a beautiful, elegant, lean vessel that was fast and very specialized.

Using (replicas of) old tea chests as part of the flooring now is a nice touch. It's easy to visit and fun for adults and kids as there are a number of interactive features to help reconstruct that era and imagine life on a boat like this. It's a life long gone and very unlikely to reappear, a time of romance and mystery in a way: the romance of the high seas, of bringing a new exotic commodity (tea) to the British market.

But, there's always a dark side to romance: competition and trying to be the fastest in bringing the tea to Europe; the opium trade, for example.

As you wander under the hull of this vessel, you'll notice a collection of ship figureheads at the prow end. This Long John Silver collection is known as the biggest collection of figureheads in the world, and it's interesting to see the different shapes, sizes and colors — human figures, but we spotted one golden eagle. Included is the Cutty Sark figurehead (a replica is on the ship).

It is Nannie, a beautiful witch in a "cutty sark" or short under dress, who features in Robert Burns' poem "Tam O'Shanter." Nannie chases Tam, he escapes but she pulls out his horse's tail. No one is quite sure why the owner, John Willis, chose this name or figurehead. But it is very striking!

Buy a combo ticket for the Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory online before you visit. It's cheaper, and you can avoid long lines. A concession ticket (senior) was 12.25, regular adult 16.50, kids 5-15 7.50.

Have lunch at The Gipsy Moth, a large very popular pub right next to the Cutty Sark. Because of its location it's crowded, and service is a little slow. But the backdrop of the intricate rigging of the clipper ship makes up for that.

We enjoyed the cider-battered cod with chips and peas; the wild salmon fish cakes with salad and celeriac and apple slaw; and the cheese board.

After that, pass by the excellent Tourist Information Center and Discover Greenwich Visitor Center, with great displays of the history and development of this area. It's in one of the buildings of the Old Royal Naval College.

The other buildings now house the University of Greenwich and various libraries and galleries, all of which you can visit if you have time available. Nearby is also the Greenwich Market, and if you're feeling energetic you can walk the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which runs below the Thames between the Cutty Sark and Island Gardens.

Then, depending on your time and ticket, head through St. Mary's Gate into Greenwich Park and up the hill to the Royal Observatory. There's a wonderful view from outside the observatory, over the park down to the huge National Maritime Museum and Queen's House, over the Thames and across parts of London.

The observatory is important for many reasons (good exhibitions), but for most visitors (including us) the most exciting part of the visit is to find and straddle "The Line," with one foot in the East and the other in the West, as it really is a defining spot in so many ways. Why?

Perhaps more than Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, the Royal Observatory reflects the British empire's command of world affairs at the height of its power. The Observatory became the earth's measuring stick when geographers drew an arbitrary line there that became the prime meridian, the starting point for the grid system of navigation that has helped mariners and geographers locate their position from before the days of Lord Nelson to the age of Google maps.

The Prime Meridian is longitude zero degrees. Every place on earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from this line.

The observatory also serves as the planet's standard of time. Since 1884, the Prime Meridian at Greenwich has been the coordinate base for calculating Greenwich Mean Time. The 24 time zones and the International Date Line were also created then.

Before this, most towns in the world kept their own local time. However, as railway and communications networks expanded during the 1850s and 1860s, it became obvious the world needed an international time standard.

The world's clocks are set to GMT, though the actual atomic clocks that officially track time's passage are no longer located there. GMT is basically the same as Coordinated Universal Time, an atomic timescale available since 1972 from broadcast signals.

Vivienne Mackie is an Urbana resident, an ESL teacher and freelance travel writer and photographer. Read her blog at

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