‘What time is it?’ I’ll ask Carmen. ‘Time to get a watch,’ she always replies. I figure there are clocks everywhere, including on my ancient brick of a phone, and if I’m ever truly stuck I’ll just ask someone. I take it for granted that I can find out what the big hand and the little hand are doing. But a recent visit to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in London made me realise what a hard slog it must have been to make the clocks tick.
Greenwich is famous as the site of the Prime Meridian, the line from which all time zones are calculated. We get GMT, or Greenwich Mean Time from it, and it was created to help the world’s explorers and navigators tell where they were. Modern day travellers owe them a great debt.
If you remember geography, the globe is divided by lines of longitude that run top to bottom and lines of latitude that go across. You can use these lines to figure out where you are in the world; but in the old days they only had latitude. That was a big problem. Ships sank, got lost or took an age to get where they wanted to go because they lacked an accurate way to find out exactly where they were. The Royal Observatory was set up on a big hill above the naval town of Greenwich in 1851 to get to the bottom of it and a few other riddles about the sun and stars.
They tried all kinds of things to solve the riddle of longitude. The weirdest I read was a thing called ‘The Powder of Sympathy’ which involved dipping a knife in a special kind of powder and scratching a dog with the blade. The dog would be taken on a ship and when it struck midday in London someone would plunge the knife into the bowl of powder which in theory would make the dog on the ship yelp and let the captain know it was midday in London so he could calculate his position. Rest assured it was discredited as an utter failure.
The basics of the idea to use something on a ship to tell the time were sound though, and when very accurate clocks were invented they became standard equipment on ships so they could calculate their position using Greenwich local time. The math goes likes this – the earth turns 360 degrees every 24 hours with each of those hours representing a 15 degree segment of the planet running east to west. They worked out that each degree gives four minutes local time difference – so if you know the difference you know where you are. I think I follow…
The Prime Meridian is a very popular tourist spot and the Royal Observatory displays old black and white photographs of dainty ladies posing at the metal line on the hill’s apex. These days there is an orderly queue of people waiting for their turn to stand where time begins. We couldn’t be bothered waiting so we just posed for a photo where the line runs through the building. Time is money people!
The best part about the Royal Observatory is the view. It’s quite a climb to get to the top but press on and you’ll see ferries on the Thames ploughing toward the skyscrapers in Canary Wharf clear as day. The park at Greenwich was used as the equestrian venue for the London 2012 Olympic Games and the town itself is very charming with classic buildings, buzzing markets and great pubs and restaurants. When we came down from the hill it was definitely time for a drink!
What you need to know
How to get there - Greenwich is in the east of London so you can take lots of buses and overground trains but the best way is by ferry. You’ll get a river cruise past some of London’s most famous landmarks including Tower Bridge for the price of a one way ticket which is around £7.
How much – Admission to the Royal Observatory is free for under 15s but for those longer in the tooth it’s £7 with discounts for seniors and students.
When to go – Greenwich is ideal on a sunny day but be warned, the park will be absolutely chock a block!