Maritime Greenwich, England

observatory maritime greenwich
From its perch on the top of the hill, the Greenwich Royal Observatory defines the meridian that divides east and west. Astronomers who worked there in the 18th Century accurately defined the earth's movement, permitting precise global navigation.

The 17th and 18th century buildings at Greenwich, and the park which frames them, represent the height of Neo Classical English architecture. The Queen's House, by Inigo Jones, was the first building of the Venetian Renaissance Palladian style in England. The collection of buildings that was until the 1980s the Royal Naval College was designed by Christopher Wren. The park, laid out on the basis of an original design by the French landscape artist André Le Nôtre, (who also designed the gardens at the the Palace of Versailles,) contains the Old Royal Observatory, which is also the work of Wren and the scientist Robert Hooke.

The Queen's House and the Maritime Museum are both free to visit and are definitely worth an hour or two of your time. The Observatory (£15) and the decorative bits of the Royal Naval College (£12) require a ticket. Unfortunately there is no combination ticket and neither venue offers a “concession” price for seniors. Children are cheaper, however.

The essence of Maritime Greenwich

To me, though, architecture aside, the most important thing about “Maritime” Greenwich is, obviously, its maritime history.

The Greenwich Maritime Museum, which is considerably updated from when I first visited it in 1978, is more accessible to the casual visitor than it used to be. However, I found it almost too easy to breeze through and its organization into both geographical and historical rooms gives short shrift to the depth of English maritime history.

Captain James Cook, arguably the greatest mariner who ever lived, is given only the briefest of displays. The old museum had extensive discussion of his accomplishments and displays of his actual logs, instruments, and other interesting paraphernalia. To those of you who don't know about Cook, here's a brief synopsis of his accomplishments that weren't listed at the Museum: he made the first European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia; he was the first European to reach the Hawaiian Islands; and he made the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand.)

In the Maritime Museum, a sextant from the 18th Century, when Britannia ruled the waves, and Greenwich was the port of discovery.

The story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, involving the infamous Captain William Bligh, a former sailing master for Cook, is reduced to a couple of plastic boxes where you can drop a wooden chit to vote if you'd have gone with Bligh or Fletcher Christian, with absolutely no information to go on about how you might have made such a life changing decision. There is an interesting log there, however, which is a record of the mutineers and their families on Pitcairn Island, where they retreated to after the mutiny.

Another side note on Cook's voyages: his botanist on his first voyage was Joseph Banks, who was primarily responsible for the establishment of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, which eventually became the world's preeminent botanical preservation organization.

The main attraction of the Observatory, as far as I'm concerned, is the collection of super accurate (for their day) timepieces, including ones invented by John Harrison. Copies of Harrison's designs were carried by Cook on his last two voyages and were instrumental in Cook's accurate calculations of longitude.

The Royal Observatory was the original “home of time” and, to this day, all world time is notated in relation to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT.) The Prime Meridian, i.e. the line of zero longitude that divides east from west, is within the Observatory grounds. You can place one foot on either side, if such things interest you.

Maritime Greenwich is a UNESCO World Heritage site. To see a list of all the UNESCO World Heritage sites in the United Kingdom, with links to stories about the ones we've visited, click this link.

maritime greenwich london skyline
Looking over the Greenwich Royal Park at the classic buildings of Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren and the modern London skyline

How to get to Greenwich from central London

There are two easy ways to get to Greenwich from central London. First, take the Underground to the Tower of London and from there, take the boat from the Tower pier to Greenwich. The boat ride costs £7.30 and takes less than half an hour. You can use the Oyster card London Transport payment system.

Greenwich makes a nice addition to your visit to the Tower. You can easily do both in a day.

You can also take the Underground to either Cannon Street, Canary Wharf, or London Bridge. From there take the DLR train to Greenwich. You can use the Oyster card on that train as well. Total fare on the Underground/DLR route should be around £4. That journey takes around 45 minutes total from central London, depending, of course, on train schedules of the DLR, which runs less frequently than the Underground.

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9 thoughts on “Maritime Greenwich, England”

  1. This post about Greenwich made me review one I wrote in 2016 when I couldn’t visit the Queen’s house because it was being renovated, but I did visit the Maritime Museum and the Observatory where I had Mr. Excitement take the requisite silly picture of me straddling the Prime Meridian. The highlight of our time was a dinner for Mr. E’s conference in the Royal Naval College—not for the food, but for the over the top ceiling and wall paintings. Ours was the last even scheduled there before a big conservation project, so I don’t know if it is reopened yet.

    Reply
    • Suzanne, it has reopened, but the ticket just to see the ceiling painting was £12, on top of the £15 ticket for the Observatory. The Queen’s House and the Maritime Museum were free (with a suggested donation of £5.) So I skipped the painting. If I want to see the best British maritime art, I go to the Tate to see the Turners.

      Reply
      • I probably would have skipped it for 12 pounds too. But, our dinner was on the dime (euro?) of the European Respiratory Society. It was nice to enjoy the painting while surrounded by science-speak.

        Reply
  2. Greenwich looks like a calm spot to recharge after time in the big city. Love the architecture, greens and that view. I know my partner, always interested in Maritime issues, would adore the museum.

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    • One of the things I like about it is the large park and the long walks. Whenever there was a royal home, you could count on a landscaped masterpiece for the entertainment of the king and queen.

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  3. As a lover of the ocean I am always up for viewing anything related. Maritime museums always offer something new about the navigation and travel of those before us and the Greenwich Maritime is no exception. Your photo of the London skyline is fantastic! I still have yet to get further then the airport.

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  4. I am sad this is one place I didn’t visit during any one of my visits to London. The Greenwich Maritime Museum and all its features are what can get me back there for a trip. Plus the British Museum that I also missed~

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    • I always try to work in a visit to the British Museum every time in London. There’s so much there you can’t possibly see it in one day. And, if you have the time to really study the Maritime Museum, it will reward you as well.

      Reply

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