At 12:58 p.m. the red ball on the top of the Royal Observatory in London’s Greenwich Park began its slow ascent to the top of a long pole on the building’s dome. Following the docent’s instructions, my eyes, and the eyes of other visitors, were fixed on the dome. As the docent foretold, at exactly 1 p.m. the ball descended slowly, silently, without fanfare. It was hardly high drama—just a ball ascending and then descending, but, we were told, it was a ritual that has happened every day since 1833.
Our guide explained that the ceremony we witnessed was ordered by the Admiralty centuries ago as a visual time check for sailors on the river Thames. Such was my introduction to one of the many traditions in Britain carried on faithfully through the centuries.
Over the course of two decades, every June and July, my late husband John and I lived in Greenwich, immersing ourselves in British life and delighting in learning more about these quaint rituals. We lived in faculty housing at the University of Greenwich in a spacious “flat” with a lovely garden; it was directly across from Greenwich Park and steps from Vanbrugh Castle.
Our love of London grew exponentially, as did our affection for Greenwich and Blackheath, its neighboring village. Although we were transients, we gradually became “regulars” at the concerts and plays in the park and “Sunday Roasts” in the pubs.
These two communities and all they have to offer gave us the richest years of our lives. We called our time there our “Halcyon Days.” (In Greek mythology, the “Halcyon Days” are the idyllic and unusual short periods of calm that come about when the bird known as a “kingfisher” or Halcyon” comes to rest.)
The town attracts visitors from all over the world and is famous for its maritime history. Greenwich is a heritage site and within it you will find the Old Royal Naval College with its spectacular Painted Hall, the National Maritime Museum, The Royal Observatory, and Cutty Sark clipper. The prime meridian line, or longitude zero, separating the eastern and western hemispheres, is at the Observatory. Tourists have their pictures taken with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and the other in the western.
Other buildings of note are the Queen’s House, Vanbrugh Castle, and St. Alfege Church. Displayed like an outdoor museum near the Thames, is Cutty Sark, the last surviving tea clipper ship from the 19th century, known for her speed. Tourists board her, examining the upper decks and galleys below.
A large, indoor market with 120 stalls selling antiques, arts and crafts, and various goods, is open year-round in the town center.
Of all the pubs in Greenwich, and they are numerous, none is more grand than the Trafalgar Tavern, built in Victorian times. It is a splendid structure and has pride of place on the river Thames, where diners can watch the waves washing the shore. There is dining upstairs and downstairs, rooms for private parties and weddings, and seating outside.
Other favorite pubs of ours are The Plume of Feathers, on Park Vista at the bottom of Greenwich Park, and the Cutty Sark Tavern, with outdoor seating along the Thames.
The village of Blackheath is south of Greenwich and is reached after a stroll over vast green space known locally as the Heath. The lovely, tranquil, village has splendid Georgian and Victorian homes and an interesting variety of independently owned specialty shops, restaurants, and pubs nestling comfortably against each other. A farm market is near the train station.
The community’s history is steeped in mystery and intrigue, including how Blackheath got its name. The popular misconception is that the town got its name from “The Black Death,” a plague that killed most of the village population in 1349. According to this myth, those who died during the pestilence are buried under the Heath. Historians, however, say not so, the Heath got its name around 800 or 900 C.E., more than 500 years before the plague, possibly because of the color of the soil. And, they add, there are no bodies buried underground.
One of our favorite pubs in Blackheath is the Princess of Wales, a popular gathering spot for people who come to watch cricket, ruby, and kite flying on the Heath’s vast green spaces. Another is The Crown, the most “traditional” English tavern in Blackheath, with its pub food of shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, and salmon with mushy peas.
We enjoyed getting take out menus and dining at home with bottles of French wine in our garden. We shopped at Le Bouchon, a French Wine Bar, that had different selections of home-made food every day and a nice variety of fresh bread and cheese.
In my view, Greenwich is an ideal place to stay for the tourist who wants easy access to the best London has to offer while being away from crowds in central London, just twenty minutes by train, light rail, or boat. Slightly longer rides by busses will also take you directly into many of the City’s neighborhoods, including the theatre district.
Four-star accommodations can be found at the De Vere Devonport House Hotel on King William Walk, just a block from the entrance to Greenwich Park. Another choice with a great location near the park is Hotel Ibis; it is connected to Cafe Rouge which has a wraparound, outdoor porch where many tourists and locals come for lunch and afternoon tea.
For the thrifty traveler, The University of Greenwich makes its dormitory rooms available In Daniel Defoe Hall of Residence from mid-July to mid-September when the students are gone. With rooms costing just 60 to 72 pounds a night, it has to be one of the most economical places to stay in all of London. Reservations can be made for a room at Daniel Defoe Hall of Residence through booking.com.
If you like Maritime history, heritage sites, relaxing in pubs, and walking in one of finest, enclosed green spaces in London, you will love Greenwich and Blackheath. The most helpful information on planning your trip will be found on this website: visitgreenwich.org.uk. Here you will find details on all the tourist attractions, the famous O2 arena where world-class concerts are held, and the relatively new Emirates Air Line cable car, the only one of its kind in London.
Images: All photos of Greenwich are the property of VisitGreenwich Tourist Center, Greenwich, London.
Author Bio: Aurelia is a professional travel writer who specializes in writing about London and Greece. She lives for two months of every year on one of the Greek islands and spends time, also, in London browsing the book stores. Aurelia is the author of two novels, A Lone Red Apple, and Labyrinthine Ways. http://www.aurelia.us.com
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