Greenwich Millennium Time


This town-turned-suburb, which makes Rudyard Kipling a liar and bears a measure of blame for all the world’s shrieking alarm clocks, looks innocent enough. Built around a handful of historic buildings and an immaculate grassy park, it lies 15 minutes by train from London’s Charing Cross station, an hour down the River Thames by tour boat. For a Londoner or a city-weary tourist, it’s an easy day trip.

Or, should you take the longer view, Greenwich is a cradle of civilization-changing ideas, a longtime rallying point for astronomers, sailors and mechanical engineers. It is home of the prime meridian at zero degrees longitude, headquarters of royal astronomers through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the origin of Greenwich Mean Time and reference point for global timekeeping. Lately, it also seems to be the epicenter for British millennial boosterism.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 8, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 8, 1998 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Solo sailors--Due to a reporting error, an article last week (“Greenwich Millennium Time,” Nov. 1) named Francis Chichester as the first man to have sailed around the world alone. In fact, Chichester was the first Englishman to do so. The first recorded solo circumnavigation of the globe was made by Canadian-American Joshua Slocum, from 1895 to 1898.

Hence, if you stand atop the highest rise in Greenwich Park and look north beyond the green fields and 18th century architecture of the Queen’s House and the Royal Naval College, you see a strange construction project rising alongside the river in North Greenwich, a hulking white pincushion with a dozen protruding yellow needles.

That’s the Millennium Dome, theme park, cultural exposition, redevelopment project, tourist attraction and alleged billion-dollar boondoggle, due to open on Dec. 31, 1999. Prime Minister Tony Blair calls it “a beacon to the world” and “the most spectacular celebration anywhere in the world to mark the millennium.” Playwright David Hare, one of millions of English millennial skeptics, calls the dome an “insane piece of statist grandiloquence.”


But if you are visiting London before the great click-over to 2000, the Greenwich of market stalls, maritime history and scientific inquiry may do just fine for you. It did for me this fall. In fact, it filled up three days.

It’s a good walking neighborhood. Once I’d checked into my plain but tidy above-the-pub room in the Mitre Hotel on Greenwich High Road, I walked everywhere and resorted to a taxi only when it came time to invoke press privileges and take a hard-hat tour of the Millennium Dome site, about two miles downriver.

My first destination was the Greenwich market. From Friday through Sunday, the Greenwich Town Centre, a covered courtyard shopping area between the twin main drags of Greenwich High Road and King William Walk, hosts an arts and crafts market. There’s been a market at the site since 1849, when produce was the main product (thus the sign over one entrance: “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight”). In the last few years, however, the scene has become so popular that it spills into neighboring streets.

This was a Sunday, and the stalls offered an inventory of such eccentricity that a browser had to smile, even if some merchants refused to. Eighty-year-old cricket-player trading cards. Mobiles made of marbles and elegantly mangled flatware. A plate commemorating the Queen’s 1953 coronation ($23). A plate commemorating Prince Andrew’s 1986 wedding with Fergie ($12). Burmese magazines from the 1950s. A 6-inch Peruvian tarantula, framed and preserved under glass ($45).

This city being the perfect place to scoff at Kipling’s poetic assertion that East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, I looked for a volume by the writer. No luck. But as someone who’s explored London’s larger and more widely known Portobello Road and Camden Locks markets, I liked this one best of all, because it seemed much calmer.

My friends Doug and Claire, who’d come up from Oxford to join me for the day, seized on one of the old trading cards. I sprung for some artfully mangled flatware, which my wife has dangled from a corner in our kitchen.

National Maritime Museum, founded in 1934 and now in the throes of a $32-million expansion, stands a few blocks from the market at the foot of Greenwich Park. Completion of the expansion is scheduled for March, when curators will unveil more than a dozen new galleries on themes including art and the sea, ocean ecology, trade, empire building, explorers and maritime London. But even in its current transitional state, the museum is a valuable stop.

In addition to a striking set of maritime paintings and models and the kid-friendly All Hands gallery, the main attraction is an exhibit on Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the ferocious maritime warrior who trounced the French navy at a time when Napoleon seemed a good bet to take over the world. The show explores Nelson’s outsize and difficult personality, which outsiders might underestimate as an element in the English sense of identity.


How many Americans know that control of Europe hung in the balance when Nelson won his storied victory against the French--and was killed--off the coast of Spain in 1805? He led ships into battle for nearly a decade with one arm and one working eye, occasionally defying his superiors. The Nelson exhibit--artifacts run from the bullet-pierced coat in which he was killed, to a wicked 1995 portrait by illustrator Ralph Steadman--is expected to run for several years.

Next door to the maritime museum is a 17th century royal villa known as the Queen’s House, designed in 1616 for Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of James I. The house is part of the National Maritime Museum complex. Closer to the water’s edge, there’s the Cutty Sark, a dry-docked 1869 clipper ship that took its name, as did Cutty Sark whiskey, from a Robert Burns poem. Next to the Cutty Sark stands the Gipsy Moth IV, the ridiculously small boat in which Sir Francis Chichester made the first solo circumnavigation of the world in 1966-67. Under a glass dome a few steps away lies the entrance to a foot tunnel that crosses beneath the Thames, its walkway dank and full of muddled echoes, and emerges next to a park area and rail stop on the Isle of Dogs.

A few steps from those idle vessels sprawls the grounds of an ornate complex that was conceived as a navy hospital in the 17th century, then housed Britain’s Royal Naval College from 1873 until this year. Though the navy just vacated the imposing stone buildings (the University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music will take over most of the space), the public will still be able to visit the campus’s two grandest rooms. One is the chapel, designed by architect Christopher Wren, its interior rebuilt after a 1779 fire with such intricate patterns and light pastels that the ceiling looks like an epic piece of Wedgwood china.

The other is the painted hall, its walls and ceiling filled with staggering frescoes by the seldom-celebrated James Thornhill. This is where Nelson’s body was viewed in state after his death in the Battle of Trafalgar. About 100 naval cadets and instructors, a navy guide told me, were still taking their meals under those secular cathedral ceilings. But come Oct. 31, the guide said, grinning slyly, the new academic tenants would step in and the whole scene would be changed. “After [that],” he sighed, “we’ll be knee-deep in Ecstasy tablets, surrounded by badly spelt graffiti and serenaded by tubas.”


In the commercial district next to the maritime exhibits, shopkeepers fill their windows with gleaming brass nautical fittings, model ships, “Nelsonia,” old maps and history books.

One evening I had an after-dinner lager at the Trafalgar Tavern, a pub overlooking the Thames once frequented by Charles Dickens. Another day I had a terrific lunch of traditional French cuisine at the Spread Eagle Restaurant (in quaint irregular rooms on Stockwell Street that are said to have held taverns since the 17th century), then a great half-hour’s browse next door at what can only be described as an olde curiosity shoppe.

On the way out, I shared a few words with the cashier about the Blair government, the heavy spending on the Millennium Dome and the closure of the Greenwich Theatre, a historic playhouse just across Stockwell Street, for lack of funds.

“This,” said the cashier, looking across at the theater’s idle marquee, “is what annoys people.”


Meanwhile, those yellow needles at the Millennium Dome bristle just downriver. When you draw close, you see that each needle is a 100-meter-high steel mast, designed to stabilize the tent-like structure. The 20-acre interior will include 14 exhibition zones, including a central arena with an audience capacity of 10,000. The dome’s main 30-minute show, to be staged three times daily, is being designed by collaborators including pop musician Peter Gabriel, and will include live music, multimedia displays, trapezes and acrobats. Government officials hope to attract 30,000 visitors per day during the year of the dome.

To help bring those visitors in, a new North Greenwich subway station is due to open next year. Boats will depart every 30 minutes, it is promised, on the 45-minute route between Central London and the Dome. A 150-bed hotel is among the neighboring facilities under consideration--which makes sense, because the only lodgings of more than 10 rooms in central Greenwich are the Mitre Hotel and the Ibis Hotel.

The trendiest restaurant in the old village area (with goldfish circling in the water-filled chandeliers) is a nouveau pub called the North Pole, which stands on Greenwich High Road but is several blocks removed from the rest of the neighborhood’s commercial core. Failing to find it, I found myself standing less than a mile from the Greenwich meridian line, asking a stranger for directions to the North Pole. (He was, fortunately, not a comedian.) And after all that, the service was quirky, my meal good but not great.

As you climb the grassy hill from the river’s edge to the Old Royal Observatory, science begins to overshadow history. Following the footpath through the park, you soon approach a noble set of buildings, designed by Christopher Wren in the 17th century, on the highest ridge. That’s the Old Royal Observatory, now a subsidiary of the National Maritime Museum but still headquarters of Greenwich Mean Time, the chronological touchstone for the planet.


In 1675, under direction of King Charles II, Wren built this first royal observatory for John Flamsteed, the empire’s first Astronomer Royal, whose work was expected to ease the tribulations of mariners finding their ways around the world. Over the years, the observatory became ground zero in the empire’s timekeeping. Under an international pact drawn up in 1884--when the sun never set on the globe-encircling British Empire--fellow nations accepted the Greenwich meridian line as the world’s reference point for measurements of longitude.

The meridian line, which runs through the observatory and is marked on walls and floors, signals zero degrees longitude. Straddling the line--as thousands of visitors do every weekend--means you have one foot in the Eastern Hemisphere and one in the West.

Inside the observatory, exhibits describe advances in astronomy over the generations (Edmond Halley, of comet fame, served as an 18th century Astronomer Royal), but the most remarkable tale told is how an obscure English clockmaker named John Harrison changed navigation history.

Harrison spent four decades, beginning in 1730, developing the breakthrough design for a timekeeping machine that could withstand the heaving waves and changes in temperature and humidity of a long sea voyage. Until Harrison’s innovations, sea explorers were unable to compare the time at their home port with time at their present location, forcing them to guess at how far to the east or west they had advanced. It was longitudinal confusion that put Columbus ashore in the Caribbean instead of India in 1492 and caused centuries of shipwrecks.


Leading scientists, including Sir Isaac Newton, expected an astronomer, not a lowly watchmaker, to solve the navigators’ frequently fatal problem. And when Harrison did emerge with his breakthrough to claim the 20,000-pound prize offered by the king, the scientific establishment that controlled the prize resisted. Harrison ultimately built four longitude clocks, refining his technique, and all four are displayed in the observatory. The first three timekeepers each stand about a yard high, brass-enclosed wonders that look impossibly intricate. The last timekeeper, white-faced with a silver exterior, is the size of a ham sandwich. If Harrison’s story sounds familiar, the reason is probably “Longitude,” a slender 1995 nonfiction volume by Dava Sobel that spent weeks on the U.S. best-seller lists.

Be warned, however, that standing in the footsteps of stellar scientists won’t necessarily do anything for your own powers of empirical observation. On that first day in town, in the market with Doug and Claire, I saw a table spread with orange and yellow and red and green chunks, lovingly displayed and apparently fresh from the dairy. These mottled treasures, which looked like mishandled moon rocks, were being patiently explained, then painstakingly sliced, weighed and dispensed by a merchant who presided with that serious look that so many high-end wine and cheese people have.

“I’m sorry,” I told Claire, eyeing the table. “I just can’t imagine eating that.”

“That’s just as well,” said the merchant. “It’s soap.”




Time After Time

Getting there: Nonstop flights from L.A. to London on British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand, United and American. Round trips start at $480. From London’s Paddington Station to Greenwich is a $30, 20-minute taxi ride. Or it’s a 15-minute train ride from Charing Cross Station to the Greenwich stop, $6 round trip.


Where to stay: The Mitre Hotel, 291 Greenwich High Road, London SE10 8NA; telephone 011-44-181-355-6760. Double rooms about $120 nightly. Continental breakfast included. Hotel Ibis Greenwich, 30 Stockwell St., London SE10 9JN; tel. 011-44-181-305-1177. Doubles about $80.

Where to eat: Spread Eagle Restaurant, 2 Stockwell St.; tel. 011-44-181-853-2333. French cuisine. Main courses $17-$25. The North Pole, 131 Greenwich High Road; tel. 011-44-181-853-3020. Old pub converted into mod eatery. Entrees $13-$20.

For more information: Greenwich Tourist Information Centre, 46 Greenwich Church St., London SE10 9BL; tel. 011- 44-181-858-6376. British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10176; tel. (800) GO 2 BRITAIN, Internet https://