Keeping Time in Maritime Greenwich: 48 hours in Seafaring London

Maker:S,Date:2017-9-29,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-veIt used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire, the consequence of colonisations and land claims that spanned the globe, connected by the ships of the Royal Navy and merchant fleet. And this sprawling seafaring set-up was controlled from the grand halls of Greenwich.

Influences gathered from the corners of the earth have been woven through the history of Greenwich, London, and the rest of the UK, through discovery and exploration, science and research, shipping and trade. Visiting Maritime Greenwich, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an insight into the factors that shaped the idea of Great Britain, both nationally and internationally.

To navigate around the part of London at the heart of global time and travel, I’ve compiled a rough guide to discovering what makes Maritime Greenwich tick.

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The River Thames

The river is essential to Greenwich, and the Thames Clippers river bus from central London is the best way to arrive. It gives you great views of the city’s most famous landmarks, and I’d recommend sailing at least one way in the evening to see the city lights.

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Old Royal Naval College

The centrepiece of the UNESCO site is the Old Royal Naval College, a complex of grand and imposing classical buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Originally a hospital and retirement home for sailors of the Royal Navy, it also housed a school and boarding house for the orphans of seafarers. After these institutions closed, it became the Royal Naval College training the officers that commanded the ships of the fleet right up to 1998.

Guided tours take visitors around the halls, including the spectacular Painted Hall, and you might recognise the buildings as sets for many films and TV shows.

The Old Royal Naval College buildings also house the Greenwich Tourist Information, where you can pick up tickets for other attractions and plan the rest of your visit.

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National Maritime Museum

I love maritime museums, and would easily spend the best part of my days looking at bits of boats. This free museum is extensive, capturing and presenting the key elements of the UK’s relationship with the sea, from military sea battles to the history of exploration and discovery to colonisation and trade around the British Empire to the stereotypical British seaside holiday. My highlights were the collections of charts and atlases, an exhibition on the battle of Jutland, and artefacts from the Battle of Trafalgar, including the coat worn by Admiral Nelson on that fateful day.

The museum also hosts exhibitions through the year, like the recent Death in the Ice exhibition, telling the story of the doomed Franklin expedition and the recent discovery of the wrecks of Erebus and Terror. (Doomed expeditions in the ice where eating boots becomes essential to survive are one of my favourite things). These events may have a charge and/or advance booking may be required.

Emirates Airline Cable Cars

Head along the river from the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO site towards the O2 Arena (It will always be the Millennium Dome) to find the Emirates Airlines cable cars, which lift you across the Thames into the Docklands. There’s great views all round as you cross, especially to the river and boats some 90 metres below.

A standard return crossing is around £9 (adult fare, children are less, and TFL travel passes give a discount). The cable cars close in high wind.

Cutty Sark

The sky-raking rigging of Cutty Sark looms over you as you walk on the Greenwich riverside. Taking her name and inspiration for the figurehead from the poem Tam O’Shanter (just one of many Scottish connections to the ship), Cutty Sark was one of the fastest of the famed tea clippers, and now sits, fully restored, suspended over her dry-dock and cased in a sea of glass.

The stories of voyages from China to the UK, and then on the wool route to Australia are brought to life by interpreters recreating characters from the ship’s history on lead tours at certain times. I also loved the game where you could try to beat the record for navigating the ship home around Cape Horn, and easily spent a few hours exploring the ship.

Cutty Sark Hull1.1

A Day Explorer ticket gives discount entry to Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory on the same day.

Greenwich Park

Climb to the highest point of Greenwich Park, next to the imposing statue of General Wolfe, to look out over the classical buildings of the Old Royal Naval College and Maritime Museum, and the towers of Canary Wharf on the opposite bank of the river. You’ll also be able to look upriver towards central London, and pick out many of the landmarks of the city, like the London Eye, the weird gherkin building, and Tower Bridge.

Royal Observatory and Prime Meridian Line

The buildings in the Royal Observatory played a significant role in the history of scientific discovery, including as the home and workplace of notable Astronomers Royal. Exhibits include the timepieces developed by John Harrison to solve the longitude problem, and the great equatorial telescope.

The Prime Meridian line slicing through the Observatory has been the zero point for measuring time around the globe since 1884 (except in France, of course), and in determining navigational position. I was surprised to find out there’s several other meridians in the area, including the baseline for Ordnance Survey maps and, at the other side of Greenwich Park, the reference meridian for satellite data.

 

Planetarium

The Peter Harrison Planetarium is the only planetarium in London, and the shows are an excellent complement to the information displays in the Astronomy Centre and Royal Observatory. Although it’s really challenging to not fall asleep in the dark, in your comfortable seat, to the relaxing voice of the astronomer.

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Food and Drink

There’s a great selection of places to eat and drink in the area. I tried:

  • The Green Cafe, on Greenwich High Road, for brunchy breakfasts and good coffee. It also had a big selection of cakes, and plenty vegetarian and vegan options.
  • Museum Cafe, in the Maritime Museum, for a coffee and cake refuel between exhibitions. The sun terrace looks out to Greenwich Park and up to the Royal Observatory (and the view is still great if you’re inside because it’s raining stair-rods).
  • The Old Brewery, by the Old Naval College, for posh pub food and great selection of craft beers in a historic setting.
  • Bill’s Restaurant, on the corner of Nelson Road, for a long leisurely lunch with a bloody Mary menu.
  • Greenwich Market, for world street food from Ethiopian to Korean. I had Argentine empanadas, followed with Brazillian churros with dulce de leche.
  • The Gypsy Moth, next to Cutty Sark and named for another famous vessel, for real pub grub, big burgers, and a beer or two (actually several).
What would be in your plans for a visit to Greenwich? Do you have any recommendations for me? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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Where I’m going in 2018

I know its getting a bit late in the month now, but Happy New Year to one and all!

Now the celebrations are past, first footing is long over, and resolutions may be wobbling, it seems to be a good time to reveal the new look for These Vagabond Shoes, and to share some of my plans and goals for the year.

 

First Foot Compton
First footing with a walk along the beach at Compton Bay, Isle of Wight

 

I known it’s fairly standard fare for bloggers to create a post like this in early January, but I’ve found it’s been really helpful in laying out my thoughts and identifying my priorities for the year ahead. A kind of roadmap for the year ahead, albeit a vague one sketched in pencil. Whether or not I’ll stick to these plans remains to be seen, but hopefully there’s a few of the goals I’ll be able to say I’ve achieved by the end of the year.

These Vagabond Shoes

So, we’re starting the new year with a clean slate on the blog, ready for a new focus on telling travel stories, sharing inspiration and ideas for adventures, and passing on some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years.  Expect things to build up slowly over the year, as I’m just a one woman band behind the scenes, but there are plans in place.

And I promise more regular posts through the year.

Travels and Adventures

Explore more of the UK, especially Scotland. I want to spend more time getting to know my own country better, especially as its been a few years since I’ve had the opportunity. I want to visit the Western Isles, Northumberland and North Wales, but I’ll start off with my adopted home of the Isle of Wight and the surrounding area, where I’m working until the end of March.

 

Seilebost Beach
Photo Credit: ecololo on  cc 

 

Do a long distance walk. I’m really taken with the idea of backpacking and camping for several days at a time. And you discover so much more about a place when you travel through it at walking pace. The walks I’m most excited about are the Cape Wrath Trail and the Hebridean Way.

Mess around in boats. I have been hooked on sailing since I took my first steps aboard Draken Harald Hårfagre in August 2013. I want to do more sailing voyages, on lots of different boats and ships, and work on building up my sailing skills. And I’m planning on taking the Day Skipper course soon.

Do a course in expedition leadership. Talking about skills, this is an area I want to work on. I’ve got some ideas for bigger adventures and more challenging trips, and I think that this might be a useful thing to have under my belt.

Go to a blogging conference. I went to TBEX Europe conference held in Athens in 2014, which really opened my eyes to the whole travel blogging scene. Not just the workshops and talks, it was the people that I met that made it an unforgettable experience. I quite fancy Traverse in Rotterdam, or TBEX in Ostrava.

 

Atyla in Greenwich
Photo Credit: Robert Pittman on cc

 

My Goals for 2018

Talk to more people. Something I think really makes travel into something that enhances and enriches my experience is the people I meet along the way. Sharing time with people that don’t share your background opens your eyes to new ideas, outlooks and discoveries.

Be more environmentally aware. As my job is all about encouraging people to consider their own impacts, I think I should be leading by example.  I’ve taken steps to cut the amount of waste I produce, especially plastics, but there’s always more work to be done. I plan on shopping more ethically, organising beach cleans and getting more people into conservation volunteering.  And I’ll keep on sharing my passion for the marine environment.

 

Draken at sunset
Draken at sunset, Faroe Islands. Photo credit: Viking Nilsen, Viking Kings Expedition America.

 

Finish the damn book. I’ve been working on this project on and off (mostly off) the past year. It will get done. There will be Vikings.

Watch the sunrise more. Especially from a wild campsite or the deck of a ship.

So for now, that’s my 2018. And it seems there are many more dreams than concrete plans, but if the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that there will always be opportunities just around the corner. Some of my most exciting adventures have been spur-of-the-moment, rather than well planned in advance. Whatever they may be, I’ll be ready!

What are your travel plans for the year ahead? Where would you most like to go?
Let me know in the comments below.