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Time Marches On

Time Marches On

Time marches on through Greenwich, the home of the Greenwich Meridian and the depository of artifacts of England's maritime history. Here, about four miles from downtown London, lies the line on which standard time is based throughout most of the world, the zero point used in the reckoning of terrestrial longitudes since 1884. But Greenwich, named by the Danish for "green place on the bay," is also home of the Old Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum, and the Old Royal Naval College. It's a great place to base yourself on an impromptu trip to London, so why not find a last-minute holiday deal now.

While you can get to Greenwich in a number of ways, the most romantic is by motor launch on the Thames River. Henry VIII preferred this method when going on his hunting expeditions — sans motor, of course. In summer, launches depart about every half hour from the piers at Charing Cross, Tower Bridge, or Westminster.

Once you arrive, you'll want to head straight for the Discover Greenwich Visitor Center. Here, you'll learn about the city's history as a royal residence and maritime center, view exhibits about Maritime Greenwich and displays about the history of the Old Royal Naval College. While you're there, purchase a "Passport Ticket" covering admission to the National Maritime Museum, the Old Royal Observatory, The Queen's House, and the Cutty Sark.

After you get an overview, head to the Old Royal Observatory. Architect Sir Christopher Wren designed it. In fact, astronomy was an interest of his even before he became famous for designing St. Paul's Cathedral. The observatory overlooks Greenwich and the British Maritime Museum from a park laid out to the design of Le Notre, the French landscaper. Here you can stand at 0º longitude, as the Greenwich Meridian, or prime meridian, marks the first of the globe's north-south divisions. See also the big red time-ball used in early days by ships' captains to set the correct time as they sailed down the river from London. the museum, itself, contains a fascinating array of astronomical-and-navigational instruments.

The most popular site in Greenwich, besides the Meridian, is the Cutty Sark, the last of the great clipper ships. The ship lies in dry dock on the spot where the 19th-century Ship Inn — popular with Victorians for whitebait dinners — once stood. Captain Jock Willis, known as "Old White Hat," ordered the ship built and launched her in 1869 to sail the China tea-trade route. He named her after the witch Nannie in Robert Burns's "Tam o' Shanter." But as more efficient steamers appeared on the seas, the Cutty Sark's owners converted her into a wool-carrying clipper, plying the route between England and Australia.

But the Cutty Sark is only one part of England's naval history. To understand the full breadth of it, you must visit the National Maritime Museum. Built around Inigo Jones's 17th-century Palladian Queen's House, originally an orphanage school called the Royal Naval Asylum in King George III's day, this museum portrays the country's maritime heritage. You'll see displays of actual craft, marine paintings, ship models, and scientific instruments, and other artifacts, including the uniform coat that Lord Nelson wore at the Battle of Trafalgar. Other treasures include the chronometer used by Captain Cook when he made his Pacific explorations in the 1770s.

To round out your day in Greenwich, you should stop at the Old Royal Naval College. This college grew up on the site of the Placentia Palace, the birthplace of many a Tudor, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Henry also married Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves here. William and Mary commissioned Christopher Wren to design the present buildings in 1695 to house naval pensioners, and these became the Royal Naval College in 1873 and remained a place for military education until 1998. The buildings are baroque masterpieces, in which the former college dining room, the Painted Hall, painted by James Thornhill from 1708 to 1727, and the Chapel of St. Peter and Paul, designed by James Stuart, are outstanding.

One of Greenwich's newest structures is the O2, formerly the Millennium Dome, built on part of the site of the East Greenwich Gas Works. Nearby stands the Greenwich Millennium Village, a urban redevelopment project.

You'll find weekends a good time to visit Greenwich since there are often arts and crafts and antiques markets held then. A regular market, first chartered in 1700, operates in town on Wednesdays and Saturdays.