“ The Royal Observatory, home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian line, is one of the most important historic scientific sites in the world. It was founded by Charles II in 1675 and is, by international decree, the official starting point for each new day, year and millennium (at the stroke of midnight GMT as measured from the Prime Meridian). The Observatory, part of the National Maritime Museum, is one of the most famous features of Maritime Greenwich since 1997 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors to the Observatory can stand in both the eastern and western hemispheres simultaneously by placing their feet either side of the Prime Meridian - the centre of world time and space. The Observatory galleries unravel the extraordinary phenomena of time, space and astronomy, the Planetarium lets visitors explore the wonders of the heavens and Flamsteed House, Sir Christopher Wrens original building, also has London's only public camera obscura. „
The Royal Observatory is located on a hill in Greenwich Park in, not unsurprisingly, Greenwich, London. The surrounding area is incredibly picturesque with a view of all Greenwich Park and a fantastic hill-top view of nearby London and on a lovely sunny day you can see miles. To get there I'm fairly certain there is no other option but to walk through the park so, like it or not, you will be forced into having a relaxing walk to get there. At least until you hit the hill on which The Royal Observatory perches. It is a little steep to say the least and will leave your calves burning and lungs starved of oxygen unless of course you are one of those freaky members of society that are actually physically fit.
The Royal Observatory is very easy to get to by public transport - the closest train station is Maze Hill which leaves you with a 15 minute or so walk or Greenwich which is probably a 20 minute walk and buses will drop you off near Maze Hill or just outside of Greenwich Park.
If you actually enjoy driving in London you can go by car. To get to Greenwich by car you will more than likely take the M25 and then A2. There is limited parking in the Museum car park in Park Row or some off-street pay and display car parks for a maximum of 4 hours. You can pay for a full day on Park Row for £6.
There is even the opportunity to dock a boat at the Greenwich Pier which leaves you a 15 minute walk to get to the Observatory so travelling by the river is also an option!
A bit if historical background
Proposed in 1674 by Sir Jonas Moore and commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II, The Royal Greenwich Observatory (now called The Royal Observatory, Greenwich) was built during a time when the need for accurate navigation was becoming critical. Latitude was easy for sailors to work out, but longitude was another story and many sea disasters occurred by loss of navigation.
The budget was tight to Sir Jonas Moore himself actually provided much of the key equipment out of his own pocket as well as two clocks designed by Thomas Tompion which were installed in the main room of the building, the Octagonal Room and were two of the most accurate clocks at the time with only a 7 second margin for error. The King also created the position of Astronomer Royal and appointed John Flamsteed as the very first person to hold this post. His job was to manage the Observatory and his aims were to create accurate astrometric tables / data for navigation. There have so far been 15 Astronomer Royals including Edmond Halley and the present one is Martin Rees.
Since 1884 the Royal Observatory has marked the spot of the Prime Meridan (established in 1851) or 0 degrees longitude. There is a steel strip that runs through the courtyard of the Observatory which means you can stand half to the west and half to the east of the meridian line. Since 1999 a green laser also marks this spot by shooting out north across the sky.
Some interesting facts:
- There is a time ball which drops at 13:00 every day to allow people to synchronise their clocks correctly to GMT time.
- The Royal Observatory was the site of arguably the first "international terrorist attack" when a French anarchist named Martial Bourdin attempted to blow it up with a bomb in 1894. Apparently this inspired Joseph Conrad in his novel The Secret Agent.
The Royal Observatory stopped being an official scientific centre in 1998 and has since become a museum, planetarium and learning centre.
Exhibitions and the Planetarium
There is plenty of great stuff to be seen at The Royal Observatory. It is divided into two areas of expertise - an astronomy route and a meridian route. When you take the meridian route you get to see all the old buildings such as Flamsteen's House which designed by Christopher Wren and built in 1675 and the Astronomers Royal's apartments which allow you to stroll through the past viewing how they once lived.
There are also a fascinating series of Time Galleries devoted to the famous sea-clocks designed by John Harrison when trying to solve the longitude problem at sea (i.e. designing a clock that gives accurate time despite the ebbs and flows of the sea) and just the natural evolution of time-pieces. You can also see a telescope exhibition as well as the 28-inch telescope dome which is over 100 years old and the largest in the UK as well as a Camera Obscura which is in the only one on public display in London. But it also on this route that you can stand on the Meridian Line and allow yourself to get absorbed in all the rich astronomical history.
On the astronomy route you will walk past the Altazimuth Pavilion (named after the type of telescope it used to house) which was built in 1899. It now houses a photoheliograph telescope to allow observations of the Sun and is an interesting piece of architecture. Moving on from there you will walk past the roof of the Planetarium which is made of bronze and if you like laughing in the face of danger you can risk touching this on a warm day to feel how hot it gets. But it really does get very very hot under the sun so only a moron would risk prolonged contact. The bandages will be coming off in a week.
Next you will hit the Astronomy Centre which contains the Astronomy Galleries as part of The Lloyd's Register Educational Trust Learning Centre and the entrance to the Planetarium. I really enjoyed the Astronomy Galleries and I suspect that kids would love it just as much as there are a lot of interactive things to play with and little experiments for people to try to help with learning. There is also a fun game to play requiring three team-mates together which aims to get you building a space probe for different missions and offers humorous public disgrace if you fail - which I did - twice.
There are also temporary exhibitions regularly on display that may only last for a couple of months - I attended a fascinating one on the Solar Story which attempts to understand the Sun more and its effects on the Earth, but it's worth keeping track of what's on if you are interested in attending the Royal Observatory so you can go when an exhibition most appeals to you.
Everything up until now has been free, but you can pay for the chance to see one or more shows at the Planetarium. Prices are free for members, £6.50 for adults, £4.50 for kids or concessions and a Family ticket is £17.50 (2 adults, 2 children OR 1 adult, 3 children). There are 4 shows to choose from: We are Astronomers; Secrets of the Sun; Meet the Neighbours and Sky Tonight Live. You can book and find the show times on line if you want, or just buy on the day - but to avoid disappointment it isn't a bad idea to book on-line.
Each show will last no more than 30 mins which includes the obligatory health and safety spiel from a guide to prevent mass panic in the event of a fire and / or disaster such as an unexpected alien invasion. You sit back, relax and look up at the domed roof of the planetarium as you are treated to a high quality show. I saw the Secrets of the Sun and some of the images were amazing as they really took you to the heart of the Sun, and I can say that a lot of the kids really seemed to enjoy it as well - the small imp located behind me that found great pleasure in kicking my chair was so engrossed that they stopped within seconds of the show starting! I would thoroughly recommend attending the Planetarium if you can.
There are toilets (including disabled) available at both the Astronomy Centre and near the Time Galleries which were nice and clean when I went. There are two shops jam packed with books, DVDs, toys and telescopes among other astronomically related items - one located at the Astronomy Centre and the other near the entrance.
There is also a Cafe at the Astronomy Centre for refreshments although I have to say I wasn't too impressed with this but it could have just been the day/time I went. There was a nice display of cakes so dessert was sorted, but I tried ordering two things off their smallish menu to be told that neither were available - this was at 12:15 so before any kind of peak rush.
In the end I went for their soup of the day which came with a big chunk of wholemeal bread (white bread/rolls weren't available so for anyone with a wholemeal aversion / allergy will have to order something else). It wasn't unpleasant - it was just utterly tasteless, like spoon-feeding myself coloured water. Ah well, at least it didn't taste like cat urine. Still, there is a nice outdoor quadrant to eat your lunch on so the pleasant surrounding somewhat made up for it.
The Royal Observatory is a great place to come for anyone interested in astronomy and the Solar System or horology - there are some really interesting exhibitions, galleries and beautiful historical artefacts and timepieces to look at. There are plenty of interactive elements to the galleries which is also great for kids so The Royal Observatory is also a fantastic place for a family day out - especially being located in Greenwich Park and with it being free (apart from the Planetarium) you cannot really lose. Even if you do pay for a Planetarium Show I think the experience you get from the Royal Observatory far outweighs these costs.
For me the only let down was the Cafe, but I only attended it once and it could have been an off day for the staff. Overall I would thoroughly recommend the Royal Observatory for a fun and educational day out.
The Royal Observatory Greenwich was re-furbished and extended throughout 2005-06 and re-opened to the public in May 2007. If you have not visited for a long time, do note that the experience will be quite different from what you remember. The front part of the site contains the apartments of the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed who worked in the late 17th century. The apartments are a creative reconstruction so note that the furniture and posession you see are not Flamsteed's.
The new galleries relating to Time are much more interactive than the old galleries which were more contemplative and academic in tone. The same array of objects from astrolabes and globes to scientific instruments and prints are still on display but there is more audio-visual to accompany the gallery narratives. The galleries are quite dark because of the rare paper material on display. The centrepiece is the display of Harrison clocks with interactive touch tables between them where visitors can learn more about the horology and Harrison himself. This is an imaginative use of manuscript material that would have been dull to look at in a showcase. This interactive is suitable for 5 years old upwards and is fun to use for all the family.
The new astronomy galleries in the re-furbished building to the south tell visitors about the latest astonomical research going on in Britain. They are highly interactive with imaginative displays such as the large astonomers' table- where using a puck you can conjur up astronomers to answer your questions about the universe. The four galleries are small however and there will be queues for popular exhibits. The content will also date in time so the Observatory will need to update material in a couple of years. The interactives will also need much maintenance as software dates, so don't be surprised if you see an out of order sign on any of the exhibits, it is inevitable.
One also should not neglect the outdoor spaces and views from the site, including the front courtyard with the museum's 'laid out for you to see' meridian line for you to straddle and take photographs. There are meridian lines to straddle further back in the site especially near the Time for the Navy gallery if the courtyard is too busy.
The signage is frustrating but they are working on. Basically you need to wander and lose yourself rather than be fixed about what you want to do on your visit as the spaces are small and you may have to wait to use an interactive or even get into a part of the building. The museum has a faintly ridiculous policy of no pictures in the galleries- an over zealous attitude to copyright but if you smile nicely the sensible front-of-house staff won't deny you a family picture for the album.
The Royal Observatory and the Planetarium
A few weeks ago now I went to Greenwich for afternoon and wandered over to the Royal Observatory which I would recommend as it is well worth a visit. The Observatory is actually part of the National Maritime Museum which also encompasses the Maritime Galleries and the Queen's House.
The Royal Observatory was commissioned in 1675 by Charles II and is situated on a hill in Greenwich Park overlooking the River Thames. It is a really beautiful building and even if you are not interested in the outside it is worth a look just at the architectural beauty on the outside. The original part of the Observatory was designed by Sir Christopher Wren so you get an idea of how wonderful it is just from that. It was commissioned to house scientific instruments and was the first purpose built scientific research facility in Britain.
The Observatory is extremely easy to find and fairly easy to get to if you don't mind using public transport. You have to take the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) which is easily accessible from various tube stops and get off at the Cutty Sark stop. This probably takes about 20 minutes from Central London, so not very long. Once you get off the train there are very good signposts pointing you in various directions and the Observatory is prominently written on the signs to help you get there. You walk through the park and then make sure your leg muscles are working properly! As it is at the top of a very large hill you have to walk up a very steep path in order to reach the building, boy were the back of my calves stinging after that work but there is a railing you can hold onto to help you. Once you're up though it is well worth the walk, the views over London are beautiful. You can see the Thames, the city and the Gherkin one way and the 02 stadium the other.
The great thing about the Observatory is that entrance is free so you can spend 10 minutes in there if you want to without feeling like you should stay longer to get your money's worth. It is open from 10am to 5pm, Monday to Sundays. They do say that the busiest times are around lunchtime on Saturdays and Sundays so maybe avoid it at that time. We went on a Wednesday afternoon and it was pretty empty which was nice.
They have some amazing galleries at the Observatory. The Weller astronomy gallery is an interactive gallery where you can learn about stars, see how the universe was formed and even play at being an astronomer. This is such a brilliant museum for kids as there is so much for them to do and touch and learn by doing that I definitely recommend it if you have families. At the entrance to the Observatory they have a meteorite on display that you can touch and that they say is over 4.5 billion years old, really incredible stuff.
My favourite part of this museum though is the Planetarium. The Planetarium underwent redevelopment recently and was newly unveiled on May 25th 2007. It is called the Peter Harris Planetarium. This is now the only Planetarium in London. The outside of the building is absolutely stunning. It is covered in bronze and is one of the largest uses of bronze in the world. It looks like just one big chunk but it's actually made up of 250 sheets. It's actually a really interesting, intellectual piece of sculpture because it actually has meaning in its field. The actual shape of the cone relates to the stars and according to an article I read:
* The north side of the cone is aligned with the point in the sky perpendicular to the Greenwich local horizon (zenith)
* The sloping southern side points towards the north celestial pole (Pole star). The angle of the slope is 51º28'44", equal to the latitude of the Royal Observatory
* The top of the cone is sliced at an angle parallel to the celestial equator
* The planetarium is aligned with the local meridian (north-south line)
There are various different shows on at the Planetarium during the day and these you do actually have to pay for but it is well worth it. An adult ticket costs £6 and children are £4. They do offer a family ticket which is think is cheaper if there are four of you. The inside of the Planetarium has 120 seats which are extremely comfortable. Then angle you in such a way that you are looking up and it does not strain your neck (I was so comfortable that I actually nodded off for a few minutes during the show but that was not because it was boring, I was just very very tired). Up above you is the big dome which illuminates once the lights go off and turns into the sky. We saw the Sky Tonight Live show. An astronomer from the Observatory talks you through what you can see in the sky the actual night of the day you go, pointing out the famous constellations, stars, planets etc. The gentleman that gave our talk was extremely knowledgeable and made the presentation very interesting. I think it only lasted for about 15/20 minutes but was definitely a very good introduction if you have never really learnt about the stars etc. Other presentation they offer include a show about black holes, star gazing for beginners and Invaders from Mars. As each show is different you can go to the Planetarium a number of different times and see different things every time.
AS a day out I would 100% recommend the Royal Observatory as there are some many things to do and see which are fun and interesting.
It was an 1884 conference in Washington that finally settled on Greenwich as the prime meridian. That is longitude 0. The point on earth from which time is measured.
The story of Greenwich actually starts much earlier than that. It was in 1675 that Sir John Flamsteed was appointed the first Astronomer Royal, and it was also in that year that Christopher Wren began work on the Royal Observatory building at Greenwich, the first purpose built scientific research facility in the country.
The primary purpose of the observatory was to improve the navigation of ships by helping them to determine their exact location while at sea.
The Royal Observatory moved out of Greenwich in the 1950's due to increased light pollution from London. Today the observatory site forms a part of the National Maritime museum and houses a fascinating collection of clocks and navigational instruments.
I visited the site with my wife recently and this is what we found:
On first entering the observatory site you cannot miss the famous meridian line with an almost constant stream of visitors queuing up to stand with one foot in each hemisphere. We joined the queue and got some photographs taken with one of us in the east, and the other in the west.
Before starting on the main tour of the observatory we headed for the camera obscura which is housed in Flamsteed house. This is the only public camera obscura in London and is well worth the visit on on its own. When you first enter the room you can see almost nothing, but once your eyes start to get accustomed to the gloom you discover that there is a table in the centre of the room and onto that is projected an image of everything that the camera can see in the outside world.
In the main galleries of the observatory a real effort has been to be interactive, and to engage with visitors. Generous use has been made of touch screen technology, and there are plenty of moving parts, and exhibits to keep the attention younger visitors. The galleries tell the history of time measurement, which includes everything from John Harrisons famous clocks, to the the precision clocks of today.
The one area of the observatory that I was disappointed with was the gift shop. This was ridiculously overpriced, and I would suggest any future visitors would do well to give it a miss.
The observatory itself is free to enter and look around, as indeed is to entire National Maritime museum of which it forms a part.
One important point to mention is that the site is presently undergoing a major redevelopment which will see improved display, and educational facilities, but most interestingly there will also be a new planetarium, something that has been seriously lacking in London since the closure of the one associated with Madame Tussards.