Seeing how things are a bit slow here in Melbourne for yours truly, maybe it is a good time to revisit London.

Allowing enough time to see Greenwich is trickier than it might seem. The scale of the place is deceptive, and you can eat up a fair amount of time just getting from one place to another. My first visit took place late one afternoon. I headed straight for the observatory to see the clocks. Anyone who has read “Longitude,” by Dava Sobel, will know what I am talking about. When ships from maritime nations first started sailing off the edge of the earth they had one big problem, how to figure out where they were. As long as they could see the sun and stars they could calculate their degree of latitude with a fair amount of accuracy. Longitude was the big problem. Getting a celestial fix is possible, but difficult, requiring careful astronomical calculations and advanced mathematics. Astronomers were working on accurate star charts, but they were still a long way off.

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The other solution was so preposterous that no one really thought it possible. Build a timepiece that would be unaffected temperature, moisture, the movement of the ship, maintaining near perfect time for thousands of miles from the point of origin to the final destination. This challenge was considered so intractable that the British Parliament offered a prize of £20,000 (comparable to £2.87 million in modern currency) for the solution. If such a clock were set at noon in London at the start of a voyage, you could see from the clock how far you were from London by taking a reading at the Sun’s highest point. For instance, if the clock said midnight at the noon hour, then you would be half way round the world, (e.g. 180 degrees of longitude) from London.

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John Harrison was a self-educated English carpenter who had already turned to clockmaking when he became aware of the great prize. He went to work on the intractable problem and he refused to give up, dedicating most of his working life to building a clock that would win his fortune. He made four clocks over a period of thirty years, finally constructing something resembling a a marine chronometer that kept nearly perfect time over long voyages at sea.

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On its trial run, when HMS Deptford finally reached Jamaica, the watch was 5 seconds slow, corresponding to an error in longitude of 1.25 minutes, or approximately one nautical mile. Even though Harrison’s persistent tinkering solved the problem, the Board refused to award him the full prize, an injustice that was finally rectified by an exasperated King George III and an Act of Parliament. I was fortunate enough to tag along with an extremely knowledgeable guide or docent, who was holding forth about Harrison. I was mesmerised for the rest of the afternoon.

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The town of Greenwich was named by Danish settlers, meaning the green place on the bay near the mouth of a river. The town is built on a broad platform to the south of a broad bend in the River Thames, with a safe, deep water anchorage. To the south, the land rises steeply, 100 feet (30 m) through Greenwich Park to the town of Blackheath.
The Roman road from London to Dover, Watling Street crossed the high ground to the south of Greenwich through Blackheath. This followed the line of an earlier Celtic route from Canterbury to St Albans.

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During the reign of Aethelred the Unready, the Danish fleet anchored in the River Thames off Greenwich for over three years, with the army camped on the hill above. From here they attacked Kent and, in the year 1012, took the city of Canterbury, making Archbishop Alphege their prisoner for seven months. When he refused to allow himself to be ransomed for 3,000 pieces of silver, they stoned him to death. It was only when a stick that had been immersed in his blood bloomed, that they decided to release his body to the Christians. Alphege achieved sainthood in the 12th century.

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The town of Greenwich is notable for its maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time. The town became the site of the Palace of Placentia from the 15th century, and was the birthplace of many in the House of Tudor, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The palace fell into disrepair during the English Civil War and was rebuilt as the Royal Naval Hospital for Sailors by Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant. These buildings became the Royal Naval College in 1873, and they remained an establishment for military education until 1998 when they passed into the hands of the Greenwich Foundation.

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The Cutty Sark has been preserved and restored in an amazing installation by the river. The clipper ship spent only a few years in the tea trade before turning to the trade in wool from Australia, where she held the record time to Britain for ten years. Near the Cutty Sark site, a circular building contains the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel, opened on 4 August 1902. This connects Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs on the northern side of the River Thames. The north exit of the tunnel is at Island Gardens, from where the famous view of Greenwich Hospital painted by Canaletto can be seen. It is a bit spooky walking under the river, but well worth doing for the wonderful view.

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