Royal Greenwich – a great day out in London

By | Category: Travel destinations
Natasha standing on both sides of the meridian

Natasha standing on both sides of the meridian

Arriving at Greenwich by boat along the River Thames is like stepping back in time. It is no wonder that Maritime Greenwich is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Greenwich is well-known as the location of the Meridien line from where we calculate the time, and for being home to the Cutty Sark, but there is also so much more to see.

Greenwich is often perceived as not being part of London and even I, as a Londoner, thought it further away than it actually is. I was surprised to find that it is within zone two of London’s transport system.

None of the sites in Greenwich open until 10am and all close by 5pm. I found that with so many attractions, and to get the most from a visit I really needed more than a day. Fortunately everything is within walking distance and confined to quite a small area.

The visitor centre is in the Old Royal Naval College facing onto the River Thames. Guided walks take place from here every day at 12.15 and 2.15pm. Two of the Grade I buildings are open to the public. The Painted Hall, originally intended to be used a dining hall as part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen. Its interior with decoration on both the walls and the ceiling, which took 19 years, is by Sir John Thornhill, the first painter to receive a knighthood.

the painted hall in the old naval college

the painted hall in The Old Naval College

The ceiling, which is currently being restored, depicts Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny. Members of the public can contribute towards its conservation by paying £75.00 for a square foot. Sadly the neo-classical Chapel of St. Peter & St. Paul, which apparently has one of the finest examples of an eighteenth century interior, was closed to visitors that day as it was being used for the film Kingsman 2. As this area is so well preserved, it is used frequently in films as it has been in the Pirates of the Caribbean and Les Misérables. An added bonus, the complex houses the Trinity College of Music, so while walking around I could hear beautiful music being played by the students.

All the Royal Museums in Greenwich illustrate the importance of the sea, ships, time and the stars, and their relationship with people, and is the ideal setting for the Victorian clipper the Cutty Sark. From the river, its masts can be seen towering into the sky but to see the hull, learn about its history, and see its interior, its necessary to go into the building that has been especially created to house it. Although the hull is wooden, to preserve it, it has been covered in copper. Inside, I learnt the history that made it the fastest sailing clipper in the world, and were able to see where the captain and crew lived and slept. On board is also a collection of brightly-coloured, decorative figureheads taken from Merchant Navy boats. The lower hold has been converted into a performing arts space, which includes a theatre.

Cutty Sark © National Maritime Museum

Cutty Sark © National Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum, said to be the world’s largest museum, has Nelson’s ship in a Bottle at its entrance. The artwork by Yinka Shonibare MBE, was once on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, and is a replica of Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. Entry is free although there is a charge for special exhibitions. The current one ‘Above and Beyond’ which runs until 29 August allows visitors to experience what a space flight is really like with a glimpse into its future. For me the highlight was seeing Turner’s painting of the Battle of Trafalgar, his only work commissioned by George IV.

One of the must-sees the Queen’s House is currently under-going a major refurbishment with July set as the month for it to be reopened for its 400th anniversary. Designed by Inigo Jones in 1616 for the wife of James 1, Anne of Denmark, the house was England’s first classically built building.

Travelling by river boat is the best way to see the imposing Thames Barrier, built to protect London from flooding. Made up of ten rotating gates, it became operational in 1982 although because of climate change there is already a need to improve on it. It is open for tours but only from Thursday to Sundays.  We also passed the iconic O2 centre, the controversial venue now used for major music concerts. From the boat, I could see people walking over its white roof. From this vantage point too, I could also see the cable cars 90 metres above us of the Emirates Air-line, which go from the O2 to ExCel, London’s major exhibition centre. As well as running during the day, there are also night flights, complemented with music and an on-board film.

Greenwich Market © Visit Greenwich

Greenwich Market © Visit Greenwich

Behind the historic complex is a large expanse of greenery, Greenwich Park. At its top, with a very steep climb, there is also a less strenuous route, is the Royal Observatory, home to Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian of the world. A must, and of course, I did it, is to stand with my feet on either side of the line which divides the earth’s eastern and western hemispheres. A red time-ball on the roof of Flamsteed House, the Astronomer Royal’s apartments, drops daily at 1pm. Within the Royal Observatory is the Great Equatorial Telescope, which in 1893, was one of the largest in the world and placed the Observatory at the forefront of research into the nature of the universe. During the winter, they run observer evenings. Inside the observatory is an exhibition devoted to John Harrison who solved the longitude problem, designing an accurate and portable sea-going clock. Alongside it there is also a planetarium.

For a bit of retail therapy within the World Heritage site, the roof covered Greenwich Market is filled with craft stalls, boho designer shops, and ethnic take-away food outlets.

Getting there is easy by public transport but the most impressive way to arrive is by boat. MBNA Thames Clippers link central London with  Greenwich and Thames River Services provide a service enabling you to get to the Thames Barrier.

For more about Greenwich, click here.

To read more of Natasha’s travels, click here or go to



If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.
Tags: , , , , , ,