Newest Review: ... job was to manage the Observatory and his aims were to create accurate astrometric tables / data for navigation. There have so far been 1... more
Definitely not a waste of time...
The Royal Observatory (Greenwich)
Member Name: Mildew82
The Royal Observatory (Greenwich)
Date: 25/04/10, updated on 27/04/10 (757 review reads)
Advantages: Interactive and highly interesting - will appeal to adults and kids
Disadvantages: The Cafe
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.
Summary: A very interesting place for fans of astronomy or horology
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