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Britain’s maritime legacy

Greenwich

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View over Greenwich and beyond

When people ask on forums where they might go on a day trip within easy reach of central London I often suggest that they look no further than Greenwich.

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River view from a Clipper

It offers history in abundance, elegant buildings, fascinating museums, an attractive market, bars and restaurants to suit all tastes – all in a lovely riverside setting. And to crown it all, you can stand on the Greenwich Meridian, from which the world’s time and all east/west distances are measured.

You can travel to Greenwich by water (river bus or sightseeing cruise) or rail in less than an hour from central London. And a day wouldn’t be enough to see and do everything here, so you will be spoiled for choice.

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Greenwich Pier

My own favourite way to travel is by Clipper, the river buses that ply the Thames. They cost a fraction of the tourist sightseeing cruises and while you don’t get the commentary that those offer you don’t pay their high prices either. You can catch the boats from several points including on the South Bank (near the London Eye) and by the Tower of London.

Seating on board is plentiful (maybe less so during the rush hour) and there is a snack bar where you can buy coffees, beer and wine, crisps and chocolate etc. The boats are fully wheelchair accessible and there are accessible toilets on board. All in all, this is a very comfortable way to travel.

The boats arrive at a pier right next to the famous Cutty Sark, so that’s as good a place as any to start our explorations.

The Cutty Sark

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The Cutty Sark

This beautiful ship was built in Scotland in 1869 as a tea clipper – the fast sailing ships which brought tea from China to Europe. Every season merchants competed to be the first with the new crops by employing the fastest ships, so the Cutty Sark was designed for speed – her owner John Willis had ambitions for her to be the swiftest of all the clippers. Between 1870 and 1878 she made eight voyages between London and Shanghai, taking manufactured goods and wine, spirits and beer to be sold in China and returning with her precious cargo of tea. But she never did win that annual race to be first with the new season’s tea.

By the end of that decade steamships had started to dominate the tea trade as they were able to use the newly opened Suez Canal (sailing ships needed to stay in the open sea to get the trade winds). So the Cutty Sark started to take different cargoes around the world: coal from Nagasaki in Japan to Shanghai; jute from Manila to New York; and jute, castor oil, tea and the Australian mail from Calcutta to Melbourne in March 1881. The 1880s and ‘90s saw her mainly carrying wool from Australia, and she established herself as the fastest vessel, the ‘last chance’ ship to make the English wool sales each January. But steamships moved into this trade too. For a while the Cutty Sark was under Portuguese ownership, sailing between Oporto, Rio, New Orleans and Lisbon, before returning to Britain in 1923 when she was bought by Wilfred Dowman who restored the ship to a close approximation of her appearance as a tea and wool clipper. She was used as a training ship for cadets but her condition and usefulness gradually declined. In 1954 however she was taken over by the National Maritime Museum who brought her to Greenwich where she has remained ever since.

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The Cutty Sark seen in the distance from a Greenwich street

She sits in a dry dock here, as she has done since she was towed here. Initially restored then, and opened to the public, she was again thoroughly restored between 2006 and 2012, a process that was held back for a while by a major fire. Luckily some of her most ornate parts, such as the figurehead, were not on board at the time because of the restoration process, so these escaped the blaze.

It is some years since I was on board, but I remember especially the large collection of figureheads which fascinated me as a child and continued to do so as an adult. These date mainly from the 19th century and came from a variety of merchant vessels. They portray characters from history, legend and literature, such as Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Disraeli, Hiawatha and Sir Lancelot. The Royal Museums of Greenwich website explains more:

‘Figureheads are carved wooden sculptures which decorate the prow of a sailing ship, and were thought to represent the vessel’s spirit. It was believed that they offered the crew protection from the harsh seas and safeguarded their homeward journey. The figureheads were also used to identify a ship—one of a range of subjects would be chosen, reflecting the name of the ship from mid-18th century onwards.

The figureheads in The Cutty Sark Collection were produced by professional figurehead carvers, who lived and worked by the docks. Hard woods, such as oak or teak, were used and might have been treated with resins to increase the figure’s resistance to water, rot and wear. They were lovingly cared for by the crew, who took great pride in the appearance of their ship and its figurehead. The superstitions of seamen meant that the figurehead held great significance to those on board and they would go to great lengths to protect it.’

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The Cutty Sark figurehead on a stormy day

The Cutty Sark’s own figurehead is a young witch named ‘Nannie’ who was a character in the poem 'Tam O'Shanter', by the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns. In this poem the witch chases Tam dressed only a ‘cutty sark’—an archaic Scottish name for a short nightdress. You can read the full story on the Maritime Museum’s website.

Old Royal Naval College

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The Royal Naval College

The river bank in Greenwich is dominated by the stunningly elegant buildings of the Old Royal Naval College. And don’t just take my word for it – UNESCO described this as the ‘finest and most dramatically sited architectural and landscape ensemble in the British Isles’!

The buildings were the work of Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St Paul’s Cathedral and many of the City’s churches. One look at the domes that crown the main buildings tells you that – they are so reminiscent of his most famous work. They were built between 1696 and 1712 to house the Greenwich Hospital, a home for disabled sailors, on the site of the former Greenwich Palace. The latter was a Tudor royal palace – the out-of-town pleasure palace of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Queen Elizabeth I was born here and loved it too, but under the Stuarts it fell into disuse and, by the middle of the 17th century, into disrepair.

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More views of the Royal Naval College

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The domes are very reminiscent of St Paul's Cathedral, Wren's most famous work

The new buildings were the naval equivalent of the Chelsea Hospital for retired soldiers. Wren gave his services free of charge, as did his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor, because of the charitable nature of the project. His design was the result of restrictions imposed by the then queen, Queen Mary II, who didn’t want her view of the river from the Queen’s House to be blocked – hence the division into two main blocks and the consequent very pleasing symmetry. You can see in my photo below how the Queen’s House, nearer the camera, can peep between these two blocks to see the river beyond.

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The Queen's House and Royal Naval College from the park

Greenwich Hospital was closed in 1869 as with more peaceful times there were fewer seamen in need of the facility. The buildings were taken over by the Royal Naval College which needed to expand from its original Portsmouth base. For over 100 years sailors trained here, at first just men and then from 1939 onwards, women from the Women’s Royal Naval Service – the so-called WRENS. In later years there was even a training facility for nuclear-powered submarines which necessitated a small nuclear reactor on the site (unknown to local residents in Greenwich who might not have been keen to have such a thing on their doorstep). The college closed in 1998 as the numbers in the Navy were declining and sailors could now be trained alongside their Army and Air Force equivalents in the Joint Service College at Shrivenham.

Today the college is maintained and run by a charitable foundation which provides access to the three main attractions, the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, Painted Hall and Chapel. All are open daily with free admission, and there are also regular events held here. Even if you aren’t coming to see any particular sight or attend any event, a stroll around the grounds is a real pleasure, especially on a sunny day when the architecture is to be seen at its best and the river sparkles in the background.

The Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College

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The Painted Hall

This hall is one of my favourite sights in Greenwich, and I never tire of introducing visitors to its glories (although on my most recent visit that wasn’t possible as it was undergoing major restoration during the summer of 2018). It was built by Wren to serve as the dining room for the naval veterans. After its completion in 1703 James Thornhill was commissioned to paint the walls and ceiling, and instructed to include many references to the importance of the navy in Britain’s fortunes.

Thornhill was paid only £3 per square yard for the ceiling, and just £1 per square yard for the walls. However, he did receive a knighthood in 1720 (the first English artist to receive this honour) and is generally considered to have created the finest painted architectural interior by an English artist. The work took him 19 years and as a result of his achievement here the Painted Hall was felt to be now far too grand for its intended purpose! Instead it became a visitor attraction - one of London’s first tourist attractions in fact. ‘Respectable’ visitors were admitted for 3d (the equivalent of about £1.80) and could hire one of the resident Pensioners to give them a guided tour.

It was also a place for significant events to be held. For instance, in 1806, 3 months after the Battle of Trafalgar, the body of Horatio Nelson was brought to lie in state here. A side room today is devoted to Nelson memorabilia. Between 1824 and 1936 it was home to a naval art gallery, displaying about 300 naval-themed paintings.

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Domed ceiling in the entrance of the Painted Hall

But back to Thornhill and his artistic masterpiece. On my first visit here, a few years ago now, I realised that I had seen the hall some weeks earlier in a BBC history programme about the Georgian monarchs, but had not registered then where it was. A happy coincidence, as I was able to recall some interesting information from the programme to share with our weekend guests. Well, I thought it was interesting! If you would also like to know more about the paintings (and don’t have the ‘benefit’ of my half-remembered explanations!) you can book a place on the daily tour (free, at 11.15 am) or pick up a leaflet for just 50 pence. This will explain all the scenes and the mythology and symbolism attached to them. On the main ceiling, for instance:

‘Enthroned in heaven are King William and Queen Mary. Above, the sun god Apollo sheds his light, while Peace, with her doves and lambs, hands an olive branch to William. He in turn hands the red cap of liberty to the kneeling figure of Europe.’

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William and Mary

On the ceiling of the upper hall is Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs. The TV programme I saw pointed out that Thornhill had relegated the old regime to the ceilings and in doing that had portrayed them as aloof and out of reach of ordinary people.

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George I and family

In contrast, the new king, George I, is shown on the far wall of this upper hall as a family man, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Appearances are deceptive however; the truth is that he and his oldest son, also called George, hated each other, and there is a hint of this in the posing of the two figures, as the younger George turns pointedly away from his father (wearing a blue cloak towards the lower right corner of my photo). Also notable is the man standing in that bottom right corner by the pillar looking out at the viewer, as this is Thornhill himself.

Royal Naval College chapel

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The Chapel at the Royal Naval College

Facing the Painted Hall across a lawn is its symmetrical partner, the chapel dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. Its neoclassical interior was the work of James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and William Newton, and is considered one of Britain's finest 18th century interiors.

The intricate mouldings of the ceiling are picked out in Wedgewood blue, a restful contrast to the splendours of the Painted Hall’s decoration. It was designed by the master plasterer John Papworth and its intricate central ornaments carved, rather than cast in moulds.

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Chapel ceiling

Much of the rest of the decoration follows a maritime theme, appropriate for the worshippers for whom it was built, the inhabitants of the Royal Hospital for Seamen. There is a ship’s anchor design in the centre of the black and white floor and wood carvings on the pews that resemble ropes.

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Showing the painting above the altar

The painting above the altar is by an American artist, Benjamin West. It depicts St. Paul on the island of Malta, where he miraculously survived being bitten by a snake. According to the account in the Acts of the Apostles, the weather was cold and wet, and the Maltese showed their hospitality by lighting a fire for Paul. As he gathered firewood, and laid it on the fire, a viper attached itself to his hand. He shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill-effects from the bite.

Various monuments in the vestibule commemorate the achievements of great sea-farers. Of these the most prominent is the marble Franklin Memorial which commemorates Sir John Franklin and the crews of the ships Erebus and Terror who lost their lives in the famous ill-fated 1845 expedition searching for the North West Passage.

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Detail of the Franklin Memorial, and statue of Charity

Also in the vestibule are four statues representing the virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity, and Meekness. My photo is of the statue of Charity. An inscription on the base of the statue reads: 'Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.'

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Carving details in the chapel

National Maritime Museum

This museum is located in a wing that had been added to the Royal Naval School in the 19th century, which was converted for its new purpose after the college left Greenwich in 1933, being finally completed only in 1951 (delayed no doubt by the war). It also has a new wing, the Sammy Ofer Wing, added in 2011 to house special exhibitions, a café and a library.

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The National Maritime Museum

The museum tells the story of the history of Britain at sea, including maritime art, maps and map-making, ship models and plans, scientific and navigational instruments. Its separate wing at the Greenwich Observatory focuses on time-keeping and astronomy. The children’s gallery has lots of hands-on fun, including loading cargo, a galley where you can ‘prepare food’ and a canon to shoot at a pirate ship. Other galleries cover a range of sea-faring themes including exploration, naval warfare and trade. One area focuses on maritime London, looking at life on the Thames, the growth of the docklands and how institutions like Lloyd’s of London and the Baltic Exchange were formed. Another celebrates the life of Lord Nelson and victory in the Battle of Trafalgar.

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Figureheads collection

I particularly like the display of ships’ figureheads dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, when the art of carving these was at its height. In the same area is the gilded state barge which was built for Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1732.

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Details of Prince Frederick's Barge

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Prince Frederick's Barge, and statue of William IV outside the museum

There’s a pleasant café here too (at the rear), with outside tables which afford a lovely view of Greenwich Park – worth a refreshment stop even if you aren’t visiting the museum. While here, have a look at (well, you won’t be able to miss!) Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’. This was originally commissioned by the Greater London Authority for the Fourth Plinth project and was unveiled in Trafalgar Square in May 2010. It now has a permanent home here outside the Sammy Ofer Wing.

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Nelson's Ship in a Bottle

The Queen’s House

The Queen’s House was designed by Inigo Jones, who had studied Roman and Renaissance architecture in Italy, and is considered England’s first Classical building. His design reflects the Renaissance ideals of mathematical, classical proportion and harmony – for example the Great Hall here is a perfect cube. Much of its original splendour has been lost over the centuries, but you can still see the ceiling of the Queen’s Bedchamber painted in the ‘grotesque’ style, the wrought-iron balustrade of the Tulip Stairs (which was the first centrally unsupported spiral staircase in Britain), the painted woodwork of the Great Hall and its impressive geometrically-patterned black and white marble floor.

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The Queen's House

The house was built for Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I, who wanted a pavilion at Greenwich to serve as a place of private retreat and hospitality. The story is that the king gave it to her as a gift to apologise for swearing in front of her after she had accidentally killed one of his favourite dogs during a hunt. She however died before it could be finished and work only restarted when James's son Charles I gave Greenwich to his queen, Henrietta Maria. It was finished in 1638.

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A ceiling in the Queen's House

The house is supposedly haunted and a famous ‘photograph of a ghost’ was taken on the Tulip Staircase. You can see this photo and read all about it on the website: https://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/we-recommend/attractions/queens-house-ghost

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The Tulip Staircase in the Queen's House

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Another view of the staircase, and a decorative detail

The house holds a significant collection of paintings, including works by Gainsborough, Hogarth and Reynolds among others. One highlight is the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, which has recently been restored to reveal the original colours after centuries of dirt and discoloration. It portrays the queen as a ruler in command of the seas and has been instrumental in shaping our vision of her.

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The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

The Queen’s House website explains:

‘Like many Tudor portraits, it is packed with meaning and metaphor. Elizabeth’s upright posture, open arms and clear gaze speak of vitality and strength. She is draped in pearls – symbols of chastity and the Moon.

Numerous suns are embroidered in gold on her skirt and sleeves, to signify power and enlightenment. She rests her hand on a globe, with her fingers over the New World, and above can be seen a covered imperial crown: both signal her potency as a ruler, not just of England but also as a monarch with overseas ambitions.’

The Royal Observatory

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The Royal Observatory's Flamsteed House on the hill

Crowning the hill that forms Greenwich Park is the Royal Observatory and the nearby Planetarium. The original part of the observatory is Flamsteed House (1675–76), which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain. The ‘Time and Longitude’ gallery tells the story of the quest to find longitude at sea in the age before satellite navigation. You can also see the Astronomers Royal's apartments and the Octagon Room designed for the observation of celestial events such as eclipses, comets and planetary movements.

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The Royal Observatory South Building

On top of Flamsteed House is one of the world's earliest public time signals, the bright red Time Ball, which is visible from some distance as my photo above attests. This was added to signal the time to ships on the Thames and to Londoners in general. It was first used in 1833 and still operates today. Every day at 12.55 the time ball rises half way up its mast; at 12.58 it rises all the way to the top; and at 13.00 exactly, the ball falls, thus providing a signal to anyone who happens to be looking. Of course, you need to know to be looking, so you have to have a rough idea of the time already for this to be of help!

In front of Flamsteed House is the Meridian Courtyard. Here you can stand on the world-famous Greenwich Meridian Line, which represents the Prime Meridian of the World, 0º of longitude. Every spot on Earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from this line, which divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth just as the Equator divides the northern and southern ones.

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The set of measures

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Standing on the Meridian Line

It has always seemed a bit unfair to me that you have to pay for this, probably because (puts on ‘grumpy old woman’ voice) when I was a child you could enter the courtyard and stand on the line freely. So I was gratified on a recent visit to find that you don't have to go far to be able do just that. If you look to the right of the courtyard gate (through which everyone will be peering for a glimpse of the line) you will see an old clock on the wall (an early example of an electronic clock) and below it a set of standard British measures.

To the right of these is a black metal kissing gate, leading to a narrow path that runs below the observatory's courtyard. You only have to walk a couple of metres along this to see the line running down the wall and crossing the path in front of you. Space is tight for photography but it's perfectly possible to stand on the line and get that souvenir shot, as my Virtual Tourist friend from Estonia, Mare, demonstrates.

I should add that I'm not for a minute recommending that you don't visit the observatory, which is very good, but if you don't have time for that or aren't very interested, at least you don't have to miss out on seeing the famous Meridian Line.

By the way, you don't even have to visit Greenwich to stand on the Meridian. This map shows other locations in the UK where it is marked.

As well as enjoying all that the Observatory has to offer, a climb up the hill in Greenwich Park is rewarded with some wonderful views as you can see. The elegant buildings of the Old Naval College, the Queen’s House and the Maritime Museum lie at the foot of the hill. The Thames flows beyond, with lots of river traffic coming and going. And on the far bank rise the dramatic skyscrapers of London’s Docklands. Further to your left (the west) you can see some of the buildings of the City, the Shard and even the London Eye.

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View from the hill

But if you can’t manage the hill, there are still good views to be had along the river bank, as my photo below shows.

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Canary Wharf from Greenwich

Greenwich Market

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Entrance to the market

As a contrast to all the history that surrounds you at Greenwich I think it is fun to spend some time in the lovely market. This is tucked between some of the streets in the town centre and has a variety of stalls but with three main focuses: crafts, antiques and street food.

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Wood turner

On one visit we bought a beautiful hand-turned wooden bowl as a wedding gift for friends. Each of these pieces is unique, so they aren’t cheap, but they are well worth the price. The same applies to some other of the crafts-people selling here, but you can also get lower-priced jewellery and pretty items for the home.

One of my most interesting purchases here, from one of the antique stalls, was a photo album which really captured my imagination. It dates from the 1930s and shows the travels of an English couple (I assume) in north Africa, pre-war Germany and the Mediterranean.

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Old photo album

I was so intrigued by this that I scanned all the photos and created a website in the hopes of tracing some information about those captured in them: http://sarahwilkie8.wix.com/travel-1930s-style. So far, sadly, no one has been able to identify them although one friend did point me towards some ships’ passenger inventories of the time which unfortunately failed to come up with any likely names.

At one end of the market there is a cluster of food stalls selling the cuisines of several countries: Brazilian churros, Indian street food, Ethiopean vegetarian dishes, sushi, noodles and much more.

Around the edge of the market are some interesting little shops with goods likely to appeal to those who also enjoy the market – more crafts, quirky fashions, art and items for the home. I can happily spend several hours (and more than a few pounds) here! There is also a good pub, the Coach and Horses, where I have had several pleasant lunches. As well as a cosy interior it has some tables outside in the market.

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In the market

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The Coach and Horses

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Inside the Coach and Horses

The O2

To the north of this main centre of Greenwich is an area called, unsurprisingly, North Greenwich. Here you will find the (currently named) O2 arena. In the run up to the year 2000 a number of Millennium projects were planned for London. Despite some teething problems, most people agreed that the new bridge was a great success, once it stopped wobbling, and of course everyone enjoyed the fireworks! But the biggest project, the Millennium Dome, was something of a PR and financial disaster – failing to capture the public’s imagination and attract the visitor numbers that would have covered the cost of building it. Perhaps that was because of the rather didactic nature of the exhibition it housed, the Millennium Experience. This was intended to be a World’s Fair style showcase of British life and achievement, but most of its 14 zones were lacking in content and rather dull (I know – I took my mother-in-law along and we were neither of us wildly excited by it, though I remember feeling that it was not as bad as some of the media had suggested).

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Looking north east from Greenwich Park
The Millennium Dome / O2 is visible centre left

The building itself also received mixed but largely unenthusiastic reactions. It is an interesting one however, its design full of symbolism. A huge white (today rather grey) ‘tent’ is supported by twelve yellow poles, one for each month of the year or each hour of the clock face – a nod to the nearby Greenwich Meridian and the importance of time to this part of the country. And it is 365 metres in diameter, one for each day of a (non Leap) year.

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View from the upper tier of the O2 -
tennis tournament

After the end of 2000 the exhibitions were dismantled, and for a while just the roof of the dome remained, a bit of a white elephant. There was much debate about what to do with it, and many more disparaging remarks. Eventually though it was developed as a sports and entertainment complex, with multiple venues sited under the main roof and a network of restaurants, shops, offices and housing around it. Today it is home to a cinema, bowling alley, a number of chain restaurants and an arena that hosts sporting and music events. In a fairly recent development you can also climb the roof for a view of London with a difference (and no, I haven’t done that – yet!!) But we did come here a year or so back to see the Masters tennis event, and were impressed by the excellent views even from our upper tier seats, so I think we’ll be back to see the rejuvenated Dome again.

There is even more to do in Greenwich than I have included here, as I haven’t talked about sights I am yet to visit (such as the Fan Museum). But I hope I have convinced you that it is well worth the trip from central London to spend a day here!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:04 Archived in England Tagged art skylines boats architecture london park history views church market river city museum science Comments (17)

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