Friday, November 07, 2014

Where Time Begins

In the whirlwind surrounding my immanent transfer, I didn't get around to writing about the Saturday I spent with Sr Mary Lou, an American Daughter of St Paul stationed in the UK for 30 years. One of the items on my "little" English bucket list was to see the motherhouse of Greenwich Mean Time. I had no idea where exactly Greenwich is, but it couldn't be that far from London, right? Turns out, it practically IS in London, easily and quickly accessed through the public transit system. My "Oyster" card (prepaid transit fare) was all I needed.

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Greenwich is, for all practical purposes, the historic Annapolis of England: an old-school Navy Town. Even Greenwich Mean Time has its origin in the need for ships at sea (at least those within sight of the coast) to set their clocks as an essential aid to navigation. A bright red ball is positioned on a pole on the top of the observatory building at the highest point in the area (we climbed it). At noon on the dot, the ball would descend, communicating to all with eyes to see that it was now 12:00 Greenwich Time. Since we visited while it was still Daylight Savings Time (British Summer Time, they call it here), that took place at 1:00, just minutes after we reached the gate at the top of the hill!

 Only after the hour was marked did we pay our fare (a visit to the Naval museum was included in the price) did we actually go through the gate to take a look at the Prime Meridian: longitude 0ยบ. Behind it, the massive telescopes that had played a part in winning for Greenwich the distinction of being the place where time begins.

In the plaza, a man in 17th century costume explained the various puzzles that the Royal Observatory and its Royal Astronomers dealt with in the nearby Flamsteed House--designed by Christopher Wren as part residence, part observatory with its large Octagon Room to accommodate telescopes and a variety of clocks (including a "sidereal clock" which keeps time based on the stars, rather than the sun).

The hill also offers some incredible views of greater London. That, combined with the comfortable coastal location, led to Greenwich being a favorite royal getaway. We didn't have that much time, so rather than traipse around to all the royal haunts and chapels, we limited ourselves to seeing the Queen's House, the Queen in question being Henrietta Maria (I had never heard of her), wife of Charles I. The most noteworthy aspect of this rather plain building is the spiral staircase. Sister Mary Lou is a photographer; the staircase got a lot of attention from her. Me? I just snapped a few pictures with my phone. (As for the phone...another story, but it is no longer at my service.)

The Royal Maritime Museum had an interesting exhibit on the quest for Longitude 0, as well as the historical clocks that were part of the whole pursuit of trustworthy marine navigation. The clocks were not just intricate (and massive), they were spectacularly beautiful. Beyond the special exhibit hall (and the gift shop) were the permanent exhibits, which I did not have the energy to pursue. It was time for Sr Mary Lou to head back to the Langley community to accompany some of the senior sisters to the Vigil Mass, so we walked back toward the station. I was ready to leave, too--until I spotted the bustling market. Saying "good bye" to my faithful companion, I turned to at least walk through, see the food stalls and the crafts, and what exactly was on the other side of the market area--before pulling out my own Oyster card for the trip back to Kensington for the rest of the weekend. Time in England was running short, but at least my bucket list was, too!

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