Wednesday, August 19, 2015

An American Family in Europe: Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey

(Previously: Day 16, the Tube goes on strike)

Today we headed to Greenwich. Our bus from Blackheath didn't go into the town, but it got us close to the corner of Greenwich Park and we walked from there.

We entered Greenwich Park through a gate and found a vast, attractive green space, crisscrossed with paths and dotted with trees and shrubs. We walked through the park on our way to the Royal Observatory, where we hoped to, um, stand on a line.

Not just any line, mind you. The Royal Observatory is where the Prime Meridian -- 0 degrees longitude -- was established in 1884.

The Prime Meridian runs from pole to pole, so there are lots of places where you could stand on it -- it runs through England, France, Spain, Algeria, Mali and Ghana. But people seem to think that the Royal Observatory is the place for your Prime Meridian Photo Op. And we weren't about to be left out, dammit.

You have to pay to get into the Royal Observatory and get your picture taken with a fancy Prime Meridian marker. Plenty of people were doing that when we arrived. But on an outside wall, and totally free, is an old, rusty Prime Meridian marker that a lot of people miss. We took our photos there.

I learned later that the joke is on all of us. New GPS measurements have shown that the Prime Meridian isn't in either of these spots, but about 100 meters away. Oops.

Still, the Royal Observatory is in a lovely spot, high on hill overlooking the town of Greenwich and the River Thames, with the buildings of central London in the distance. We took some photos, then headed down the hill toward the river.

Greenwich looks like a lovely place to spend the day -- it has a few museums and the Cutty Sark sailing ship,and even a public drinking fountain (not a common sight in England) -- but we didn't stick around. After a lunch of chicken wings, and a short stop at the decent Greenwich Visitor Center, we got on a tour boat for a scenic trip along the Thames. For some reason it was half-price -- I didn't question it -- so it cost just 21 pounds for all four of us.

The Thames Barrier
The boat took us first down river to "The Barrier" -- the flood control gates that are marked by the distinctive giant silver hoods in the river.

The boat then turned and headed upriver, past Greenwich, into Central London and to Westminister. The narration was good on the first and last thirds, but in the middle, oddly, it was in French and Dutch (they had a "private group" on board, they said).

Still, a Thames boat ride is a good way to get the lay of the land in London and to see many sights without getting out of your seat. It took about two hours, and we got off near Big Ben.

We had been considering touring Westminster Abbey, the famous cathedral, afterwards, but arrived too late for tours. (This didn't bother me that much. I had been ambivalent about visiting the cathedral anyways. It is quite expensive -- 18 pounds per adult -- plus there's often a line and you're not allowed to take pictures.)

So we launched Plan B: Go to Evensong at Westminster Abbey. Evensong is a music program that the cathedral hosts most days at 5 p.m. From all I had heard, it seemed like a great way to see Westminster in use and enjoy some good music, too. And, best of all, it was free!

We waited in a line, but not for very long before we were ushered into the cathedral. The interior is very striking, with a great open space rising upward and various memorials and grave markers along the walls and floors. It may not be quite as big as Notre Dame in Paris, but was still impressive.

We were directed to seats near the altar. The atmosphere was deadly still as we waited for everyone to take their places and events to begin. Everyone seemed to have utmost respect for the sacred location and kept quiet. I was afraid to breathe.

I was expecting simply a music program, but this turned out to be a full-fledged religious service, with prayers, biblical readings and holy songs. At least they didn't pass the donation plate.

The harmonic voices of the choir resonated deeply through the hallowed halls, while the religious trappings of the setting accentuated the weight of centuries of church power. You had to give respect. It was a long 45 minutes.

Afterwards, we walked to Buckingham Palace just for a look. There were lots of tourists there, many just hanging out.  We took some pictures, walked to Victoria Station and caught a train for home.

 Next: Day 18, the Tower of London

The full trip, by day: 

Days 1 and 2, Los Angeles to Paris

Day 3, Paris

Day 4, the Palace of Versailles

Day 5, the Eiffel Tower

Day 6, Goodbye France, hello England

Day 7, Windsor Castle & Stonehenge

Day 8, Bath

Day 9, Doctor Who and Swansea's LC

Day 10, the waterfalls of Wales

Day 11, Blists Hill and Ironbridge

Day 12, Warwick Castle

Day 13, Oxford and Harry Potter Studio Tour

Day 14, this is London

Day 15, British Museum and British Library

Day 16, the Tube goes on strike

Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey

Day 18, the Tower of London

Day 19, heading home  


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