12 June 2010

London Museums, Part II: Greenwich

Greenwich has a special place in my heart because of the time during 12th grade astronomy when my friend Najja noticed our textbook had accidentally spelled it "Greewinch," which then became our running joke for the rest of the year. But whatever way you spell it, Greenwich is a treat.

The National Maritime Museum has the actual uniform Nelson was wearing when shot on the quarterdeck during the Battle of Trafalgar. The bloodstains still on the uniform are dramatic, but what I found most touching were the non-regulation stockings, which sailors often wore in place of uniform goods because they were warmer. I like the idea of Britains' greatest naval hero dealing with such a plebeian concern as cold toes.

We also offer a hearty salute to the Discover Greenwich Museum, where Justin accidentally left the camera among a set of foam blocks but fortunately recovered it in time for the rest of the tour. The museum has interesting and accessible information about the town as well as the pre-naval history of the site (including Anne Boleyn's palace).

Greenwich Naval Hospital wasn't really a hospital in the modern sense - that is, a place for treating patients. It was more of a nursing home for sailors too old or injured to serve at sea anymore. It housed sailors between 1694 and the 1860s, when it was closed down, and was funded both by charitable donations and mandatory deductions from the paychecks of active sailors.

Wearing replica pensioner's garb:

Relaxing in a replica Hospital room:

(For those of you who don't think Justin is in enough pictures, that's his shadow on the bunk. That's kind of like a picture of Justin. Maybe?)

But Greenwich, England, did not earn its UNESCO World Heritage status as "Maritime Greenwich" for its museums, even though they're quite nice and spectacularly free of charge. It received it because, among other reasons,
Criterion (ii): Maritime Greenwich bears witness to European architecture at an important stage of its evolution, exemplified by the work of great architects such as Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren who, inspired by developments on the continent of Europe, each shaped the architectural development of subsequent generations...
Criterion (vi): Greenwich is associated with outstanding architectural and artistic achievements as well as with scientific endeavour of the highest quality through the development of navigation and astronomy at the Royal Observatory, leading to the establishment of the Greenwich Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time as world standards.
Let's tackle Criterion (ii) first.

Christopher Wren, perhaps best known as the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral, planned the Old Royal Naval College with a dedication to symmetry and under the strict mandate not to interfere with the view of the Queen's House (by Inigo Jones) to the river. In fact, the foam blocks where Justin mistakenly left the camera were there so you could experiment with the way you would have responded, architecturally, to Wren's challenge. I'm fairly sure, however, that Wren had no foam blocks and had to do it the hard way.

Wren ultimately devised this remarkable panorama, seen more clearly in the Wikipedia article here:

The Queen's House is so tiny that Justin and my combined big domes (did you know there wasn't a ski helmet in all of Japan that fit Justin's head?) completely erase it from the picture. Here it is when I relocate to the right:

I always thought my college dining halls were fairly attractive. Compare them to the Painted Hall, they're downright dull.

Those clever things in the middle are mirror tables. Having schlepped all over the world getting neck cramps trying to look at all those ceilings people spent squillions of dollars on, I heartily say, forget the architecture. These tables constitute Greenwich's greatest service to mankind. Here's the ceiling, as photographed in the table.

The man who painted them, James Thornhill, was paid by the yard and eventually knighted for his work. Who wants to volunteer to tell Michelangelo?

The Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul is a lovely English Baroque space for both worship and music. We were lucky enough to visit during a rehearsal by some students from the Trinity College of Music, also located in Greenwich. The acoustics were lovely, as was the chance to sit down for five minutes. Traveling ain't always as glamorous as it looks.

And now on to Criterion (iv), the one about the Royal Naval Observatory. Before coming here, I knew Greenwich more as the home of Greenwich Mean Time than the home of anything else. (It also is the home of Meantime Beer, which is outstanding).

Dava Sobel's (fun and readable) book Longitude outlines Britain's search for a practical way to determine, quite literally, where on earth you were. For a pretty long time, it's been easy to calculate your distance north or south by using the stars. Unfortunately, calculating your distance east and west was not so easy. A mistake might mean that rather than being safely at sea, you were in fact six inches from crashing into Tierra del Fuego.

The solution, devised by clockmaker John Harrison in the mid-1700s, was a clock that worked at sea. If you had three pieces of information - time at your home port (as shown by the clock), the longitude of your home port (previously calculated), and the time where you were (set by noon, the sun's peak in the sky), you could then calculate your longitude mathematically. This represented a colossal breakthrough in navigation, and also in the art of crafting timepieces, since Harrison couldn't use wood (warped by humidity) or weights (rolling at sea) in his oceangoing clocks. The series of clocks he made are on display at the observatory.

The Greenwich Time Ball on top of the observatory here is raised and dropped at 1 PM every day, a holdover from Ye Olden Times as a way to signal the time to ships in the harbor (harbour!), therefore allowing them to set their clocks for navigation. Edinburgh has its own equivalent - a ball on Calton Hill and Edinburgh Castle's One o'Clock Gun, presumably because Edinburgh weather does not always allow you to see the hilltop.

I was so excited at this prospect that I dragged Justin out of the museum in the rain to take a picture.

He was not impressed, hence the lack of climactic "after shot" of the dropped ball. Alas.

The Greenwich Meridian, also known as the Prime Meridian, is the officially designated line for 0 degrees longitude, which means it divides the Western and Eastern Hemispheres. It's like the Equator but going up and down instead of around the middle. Unlike the Equator, it's completely arbitrary. The Equator is astronomically and geologically defined: it marks the location on the earth's surface when the sun is directly overhead at noon on the solstices. It also marks the spot at which every day, regardless of the season, has the same amount of daylight (on Earth, roughly 12 hours. I, by contrast, live in Scotland, where last winter's December solstice featured a soul-destroying six hours and fifty-seven minutes of daylight and the upcoming June solstice will probably be around seventeen hours and thirty-five minutes long. As I write this post, it's 10:21 PM and light enough to read a book outside. It's a weird place, Scotland.)

Anyway, unlike the equator, which has to be where it is, the Prime Meridian could be located anywhere. Beijing. Hoboken. Your house. There was, in fact, a time when other Prime Meridians were in use, most particularly the Paris Meridian by the rival French. But in 1884, when it was put to a vote, Greenwich won by a vote of 22-1. (France abstained). This is primarily due to the fact that just as Britain's navy dominated the seas, Britain's mapmakers dominated cartography, and most people had just become used to calculating their longitude from a British map using a Greenwich meridian. America's choice of Greenwich as the starting point for its domestic time zones, and therefore also for its maps, probably didn't hurt, either. Oh, France - have we always been a thorn in your side? I hope the answer is yes.

So here you have them, folks, a large part of the reason I went to Greenwich and definitely all of the reason I schlepped up the huge hill to the observatory: Photos at the Prime Meridian!

Justin doesn't know which way to go:

Our marriage looks good from the outside, but really, we're not even in the same hemisphere these days:

My brother-in-law Ryan always mocks my family for being slow, but I bet he's never run across two hemispheres in two seconds!

(Ryan is probably saying, "How did that take you two whole seconds?" I blame our camera's busted autofocus, which means it takes us way too long to take pictures.)

So that's Greewinch. Hope you enjoyed!

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