Maritime Greenwich is a World Heritage Site in its own right. Its cluster of architecturally spectacular museums are bound up in the tales of England’s rise to supremacy as a naval power, the heroic Admiral Nelson and the legendary speed of the tea clipper Cutty Sark.
Overlooking it all is the Royal Observatory, where the science of navigation was developed by observing the stars, and perfected to give English ships the edge over rival powers. Altogether, it makes for a pretty action-packed day, rich in the atmosphere of British naval history and the raw power of the sea.
After £50 million of restoration work, Cutty Sark is open to visitors once more. For those unfamiliar with the ship, it was once a legendary clipper — a type of ship designed to be sleek and fast — built in the last years before sail gave way to steam power. It spent much of its life shipping tea to England from China at record speeds and today it’s still looking spectacular. You can now walk right underneath the ship, admire its shapely keel and see all the way up to its masts, before stepping aboard and walking its decks like the crew once did.
Step into the hold, which has been made to look (and smell) like the chests of aromatic tea it would have carried, and take a look at some of the artefacts left behind by its former occupants. These include a bicycle that one Captain Woodget learned to ride on board! Out on deck, there are fantastic views over the Thames and Greenwich. This ship has sailed tens of thousands of miles, and it’s quite an experience to stand on deck and imagine the sea rolling beneath you.
National Maritime Museum
All the tales of Britain’s naval past are told in the National Maritime Museum, from pirate attacks to great sea battles and Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar. You can even see the uniform he was wearing at the time.
One recent exhibition, Royal River, told the tale of the River Thames and how it has been used by monarchs for centuries as a grand highway of pageantry and pomp. Gilded barges and watermen’s racing uniforms together with spectacular paintings by Canaletto and others reveal the river’s grandeur throughout history. That grandeur returned to the river once more in 2012 for the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant — the grandest of its kind for 350 years.
Greenwich Park, photo by VisitGreenwich
The oldest enclosed Royal Park, Greenwich Park reaches high above the gleaming white walls of historic Greenwich to give incredible views over London and the River Thames. Leafy and full of wildlife — it has its own deer enclosure — it’s one of London’s best loved parks. This summer, it’ll also be the arena for the Olympic equestrian events.
The Royal Observatory, photo by bagelmouse
The Royal Observatory
Founded by Charles II in 1675, the Royal Observatory overlooks Greenwich Park and has for centuries been a centre of scientific study. Research here and advances in navigation helped to make England a naval force to be reckoned with. Today it features excellent exhibits on the history of astronomy, the ingenuous devices built to tackle the problem of longitude and of course, its remarkable planetarium.
Old Royal Naval College, photo by BillHunt
Old Royal Naval College
It’s hard to miss the enormous, grand buildings of The Old Royal Naval College. They’re more fine examples of Christopher Wren’s handiwork, and today two of the buildings are kept as they once were and are free to visit. Originally built as Greenwich Hospital in 1712, it was used as a training academy for the navy during the 19th century. Of its four buildings, one is a beautiful chapel and the other is the overwhelming Painted Hall, which as you can imagine, is lavishly decorated and features enormous paintings on its ceiling and rear wall. The remaining buildings are used by Trinity College of Music and Greenwich University.
The Queen’s House
Set a little further back from the river, behind the Old Royal Naval College is the Queen’s House. It was built by famous architect Inigo Jones for Anne of Denmark in the 17th century, and was the first entirely classical-style building in Britain. Today it’s where the National Maritime Museum showcases its large collection of fine art pieces.