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The Royal Observatory

UK: Greenwich, London – Royal Observatory

Greenwich is a vibrant community worth a visit in its own right. There are plenty of interesting shops, traditional British pubs and restaurants to enjoy. 

Getting to Greenwich is easy, either by car or using public transport. If the weather is good, as it was when we visited, then the most pleasant way of getting there is by boat. As Greenwich has a strong link to British Naval history then this is almost certainly the most fitting way to arrive. 

We took a sightseeing boat by Thames River Sightseeing from Westminster pier, close to the Houses of Parliament. This way you’ll get to see many of the historic sights of London along the way and get a commentary to boot. The journey takes about 45-minutes.

You can literally make a whole day out visiting Greenwich, as there are plenty of other sites to see – associated with Greenwich’s rich maritime history including:

The historical importance of these sights has resulted in them being entered into the registry of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The Royal Observatory.

From the pier on the River Thames in Greenwich, we walked to the Royal Observatory, which took us about 15 minutes. We winded our way through the streets of Greenwich to Greenwich Park and then climbed the steep hill up to the Royal Observatory complex. From the top of this hill, you get an amazing view of the Queen’s House, the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and London beyond.

The view of Greenwich Park from the hill of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, United Kingdom

The history of the Royal Observatory

In 1675 King Charles II commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to build the Royal Observatory on the site of Duke Humphrey’s medieval watchtower. It was named Flamsteed House in about 1720, after John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal.

Flamsteed was appointed to make a map of the heavens. It was hoped that this would solve the ‘longitude problem’ that bedevilled early navigation.

The red time ball on the eastern turret was installed in 1833 and is dropped daily at 1pm as a signal of the time to boats on the Thames. Tompion’s tall pendulum clocks and the chronometers devised by John Harrison can also be seen here.

In the garden next to the house is Flamsteed’s well. The Astronomer used to lie on a mattress at the bottom of its 100-foot drop to make observations through a glass.

In 1893, a 28-inch refracting telescope was designed to keep the Royal Observatory at the forefront of contemporary astronomy and still remains the largest in the UK and one of the largest in the world.

The Royal Observatory
The Royal Observatory

Flamsteed House

We decided to start our visit with the Flamsteed House. As you enter there are a couple of old telescopes on display at the entrance.

The first areas of the house are the apartments used by the Astronomers Royal.

One of the astronomical instruments at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London, United Kingdom
One of the astronomical instruments at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Until the move to Herstmonceux in the 1940s, Flamsteed House was used as the dwelling house of the successive Astronomers Royal. It is named after its first occupant John Flamsteed. The others who subsequently lived there were Edmond Halley, James Bradley, Nathaniel Bliss, Nevil Maskelyne, John Pond, George Airy, William Christie, Frank Dyson and Harold Spencer Jones, most of whom made significant alterations. Today, the apartments are set out with pictures, artefacts and displays that record the lives of these Astronomers Royal and their families.

Moving from the apartments we climbed to the first floor, where the Octagon Room is located.

The Octagon Room is the oldest part of the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

It was commissioned by King Charles II, designed by famed architect Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1676.

The room’s eight-sided shape, high windows and lofty position were all designed to provide astronomers with an uninterrupted view of the night sky. The high ceilings also allowed the Observatory to install some of the most advanced clocks of the age.

Whilst the Octagon Room is beautiful it was not practical for the astronomers to use. They used the positioning of the stars in the relation to the meridians for their calculations. In the Octagon Room, however, none of the walls aligns with a meridian. Flamsteed in fact made many of his observations from a small brick shed in the garden outside the main Royal Observatory building. 

The Octagon Room, Flamsteed House, Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London, United Kingdom
The Octagon Room

From the Octagon Room, we climbed down to the basement of the building, which houses the ‘Time and Longitude’ galleries. Great Britain has always been a sea-faring nation and being able to accurately navigate at sea has been critical to achieving success. These galleries tell the story of how astronomers developed solutions from sea clocks to GPS to aid navigation at sea. One of our favourite parts of this gallery was the display of the clocks made by John Harrison to use at sea to accurately find a ship’s position relative to the Greenwich meridian.

The Meridian Lines

Since 1884, the Prime Meridian has served as the reference point for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). The line runs across the courtyard of the Royal Observatory and was adopted by international agreement to the irritation of the French who continued to use the Paris meridian.

We of course had to do the obligatory photographs of us straddling the Prime Meridian – one foot in the east and one in the west.

As well as the Prime Meridian, there are several other meridian lines that were explored by Astronomer’s Royal, including Edmund Halley, of Halley’s comet fame.

The Halley's Meridian line at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London
The Halley's Meridian Line
Standing on the Prime Meridian Line - One foot in the east hemisphere and one foot in the west - The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London, United Kingdom
Standing on the Prime Meridian Line - One foot in the east hemisphere and one foot in the west

The Meridian Building

From the courtyard, we went into the Meridian Building, a series of linked rooms and spaces on the south side of the Observatory Courtyard. It contains the rooms in which the majority of the Observatory’s most important telescopes (the meridian instruments). These instruments are very large, filling whole rooms!

Bradley’s 8-foot Transit Instrument (1750) - Meridian Building, Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London
Bradley’s 8-foot Transit Instrument (1750)

The Great Equatorial Telescope

Before leaving the Royal Observatory we climbed into the observatory dome where the Great Equatorial Telescope lives. This 28-inch refracting telescope is the largest of its kind in the UK. Built by the Grubb Telescope Company in Dublin and installed in 1893, the telescope was originally designed to be used for astrophotography. 

The Peter Harrison Planetarium

We didn’t get time to do this but there is a planetarium on the grounds of the Royal Observatory that has daily shows.

Planning your visit to Greenwich

GETTING THERE

By boat
Why not get into the maritime spirit and take a boat trip down the River Thames to Greenwich Pier?

The pier is situated right next to Cutty Sark and is a five-minute walk from the National Maritime Museum and Queen’s House and a short walk up the hill to the Royal Observatory.

Uber Boat by Thames Clippers is the fastest and most frequent river transport service, Uber Boat by Thames Clippers departs from all major London piers every 20 minutes. Your journey time is 45 minutes from London Eye Pier, 25 minutes from London Bridge Pier or 20 minutes from Tower Pier.

City Cruises offer sightseeing cruises which enable you to explore the many sights of the River Thames. They depart to and from Greenwich every 40 minutes, every day of the week, all year round from piers near popular attractions including Westminster, the London Eye and the Tower of London.

Thames River Sightseeing operates sightseeing trips from Westminster, St Katharine’s and Greenwich all year round. Enjoy live audio commentary and beautiful views of London while travelling to Greenwich.

Trains and Underground services to Greenwich
The nearest rail stations are Greenwich and Maze Hill. Direct trains run to these stations from London Cannon Street and London Bridge.

If you are using the London Underground, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) will take you straight to Cutty Sark station. The DLR connects with other Underground lines at Bank, Tower Gateway and Stratford stations.

Bus services to Greenwich
The following buses stop near the National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s House: 129, 177, 180, 188, 286, 386 and N1.

The following buses stop near Cutty Sark: 129, 177, 180, 188, 199 and 386.

The following buses stop near the Royal Observatory Greenwich and Peter Harrison Planetarium: 53, 54, 202 and 380.

By car:
A secure car park at the National Maritime Museum is open to visitors during weekends, bank holidays and school holidays. Limited spaces may also be available Monday-Friday. Check availability when booking online.

  • Opening hours: weekends, bank holidays and school holidays from 10 am-5 pm. Limited availability during the working week
  • Charge: £10 for the day
  • Location: The car park is located on Park Row (postcode SE10 9NG).

TICKETS

Royal Museums Greenwich is made up of four sites: the National Maritime Museum, the historic ship Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory Greenwich and the Queen’s House. You can get tickets for the individual attractions or get combo tickets.

To avoid queuing, especially during the summer and holidays, we recommend booking tickets online wherever possible to guarantee entry.

Address:Blackheath Ave, London SE10 8XJ,
Website:https://www.rmg.co.uk/royal-observatory
Telephone:T: +44 20 8312 6608
Hours:

Open daily: 10 am – 5 pm

Fees:

Adults: £25:00, Young Persons (16-24) & Students: £16:00, Child (4-15): £12:50, Under 4: Free

Best time to visit London

The best time to visit London is March through May when the temperatures are mild and the city’s parks are green and blooming. However, late spring – along with summer – is also prime tourist season, and hotel and flight prices reflect the surge.

Other places to visit while in London

1. TOWER OF LONDON

Tower of London, byname the Tower, royal fortress and London landmark. Its buildings and grounds served historically as a royal palace, a political prison, a place of execution, an arsenal, a royal mint, a menagerie, and a public records office. It is located on the north bank of the River Thames.

2. WESTMINSTER ABBEY

Westminster Abbey, London

Westminster Abbey has been the site of coronation for all British monarchs since 1066 and is home to the ancient Coronation Chair, which is found in St George’s Chapel.

It is also the final resting place of 30 kings and queens with memorials to Edward the Confessor, Richard II, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and more royal tombs found within the abbey.

3. PALACE OF WESTMINSTER

The Palace of Westminster is a Victorian Gothic masterpiece designed by Sir Charles Barry and A.W. Pugin to replace the medieval parliament buildings, which burnt to the ground in 1834. The result of their work is one of the great buildings of the Victorian era and acts as home to the Houses of Parliament

4. MARITIME GREENWICH

The ensemble of buildings at Greenwich, an outlying district of London, and the park in which they are set, symbolize English artistic and scientific endeavour in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Queen’s House (by Inigo Jones) was the first Palladian building in England, while the complex that was until recently the Royal Naval College was designed by Christopher Wren. The park, laid out on the basis of an original design by André Le Nôtre, contains the Old Royal Observatory, the work of Wren and the scientist Robert Hooke.

5. LONDON EYE

At 135m, The London Eye is the world’s largest cantilevered observation wheel. It was conceived and designed by Marks Barfield Architects and was launched in 2000.

6. TOWER BRIDGE

An iconic London landmark and one of Britain’s best loved historic sites, Tower Bridge is open to the public 363 days a year. Within the Bridge’s iconic structure and magnificent Victorian Engine rooms, the Tower Bridge Exhibition is the best way of exploring the most famous bridge in the world!

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