About Time!


During our recent short break in London, we checked in our hotel around midday on the Saturday , left our bags and headed down to the pier by the Tower of London where we caught a boat which took us along the Thames to Greenwich. Our main objective was the Royal Observatory, on top of the hill in Greenwich Park.

It seemed that for most visitors the main reason for paying the entrance fee was so they could have their photograph taken while standing astride the Prime Meridian and were quite happy to queue up for 40 minutes or so to do this. I couldn’t see the attraction myself. After all the meridian goes right round the globe and there are plenty of places where you can stand with the right leg on one side and the left leg on the other.


As for us, we were more interested in looking round the original Observatory building – Flamsteed House which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 -  and the Time Galleries exhibition.

Flamsteed House is quite small and as it was a working building has been altered many times over the years. The most interesting, and best preserved, part was the Octagon Room, which seems to very much as designed by Wren.

Unfortunately it was difficult to take photographs due to the number of people milling around



According to the Museum website, the Octagon Room

was designed to observe celestial events including eclipses, comets and planetary movements. However, the positioning of Flamsteed House meant that the original purpose of the Observatory could not be fulfilled from the Octagon Room. With big windows, the room was perfect for watching the sky, but not ideal for positional observations, because none of the walls were aligned with a meridian. Most important positional observations were actually made in a small ‘shed’ in the Observatory gardens

Another case of “men in sheds”!

The Time Galleries contain an exhibition about the need for accurate timekeeping and the role it plays in our everyday lives. The highlight were the three timepieces made by John Harrison.

Quite a few years ago I read “Longitude” by Dava Sobel. A best seller, it told the story of how Harrison, set out to solve the problem of how to determine longitude when out at sea. Failure to do this accurately had cost many lives and in 1714, the British Government offered a prize of £20,000 for a solution which could provide longitude to within half-a-degree. That’s a lot of money now and an absolute fortune at the beginning of the 18th Century.

John Harrison, an ordinary carpenter from Lincolnshire with little formal education and an interest in clockmaking set out to solve the problem by constructing an accurate timepiece. Not so easy when iit would be located on a ship out at sea tossed by stormy seas and in an aggressive salt laden atmosphere. Sobel’s book tells the story of how, after several attempts, he finally succeeded in constructing a practical, accurate timepiece, the first marine chronometer. Being an ordinary bloke, the Establishment made things difficult for him, but finally, grudgingly, the “Board of Longitude” awarded him the prize.

The Observatory has all of Harrison’s original prototypes on display.

This is “H1”, his first attempt. The moving parts are controlled and counterbalanced by springs so that, unlike a pendulum clock, they work independent of orientation.

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Amazingly precise for it’s time, but Harrison knew it could be improved. He managed to get some money from the Board of Longitude to refine the design which resulted in H2


However, he realised the design was flawed as the bar balances did not always counter the motion of a ship. So he convinced the Board to let him have some more money and came up with H3.


It incorporated two developments – a bimetallic strip, to compensate the balance spring for the effects of changes in temperature and a caged roller bearing. However, it didn’t probe accurate enough in tests. He realised he’d reached a bit of a dead end with this approach and so went back to the drawing board.

He finally came up with H4, a completely different design. Essentially a large pocket watch, 13 cm in diameter and weighing 1.45 kg. A much more practical design for taking to sea and it worked.


The story isn’t over yet. It took another 9 years before Harrison got his prize. the whole venture had taken 43 years from start to finish.

There’s a good summary of the saga on the Museum’s website, here.

“The finest dining hall in Europe”


After we’d finished our tour of the Cutty Sark, we wandered along the Thames the short distance to the watergate at the front of the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich. Originally the buildings housed the Royal Hospital for Seamen which was established  in 1694 "for the relief and support of seamen and their dependants”. The Hospital closed in 1869 and in 1873 was taken over by the Royal Navy as a training college. The College closed in 1998 an today the site is largely occupied by the University of Greenwich.

The buildings were designed in English Baroque style by some of England’s greatest architects from the late 17th and early 18th Centuries – including Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor, John Vanbrugh and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. The foundation stone was laid on 30th June 1696 and construction completed in 1751, although the first residents moved in to what was still a building site in 1705.

The dominant features  are the two domes, designed by Wren and which look like miniature versions of the great Dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.  The left hand dome (when viewed from the river) has a clock while the other has a clock like face that indicates the wind direction.


While we were wandering around the site I noticed that people were going in and out of doors just below the domes, so we thought we’d investigate.  Walking up the steps and through the door under the right hand dome revealed an unexpected sight – a large hall with the walls and ceiling completely covered with murals. This was “The Painted Hall”.

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The term “breathtaking” is a much overused cliché, but it’s the best way to describe the impact the room had on me when I walked through the door.

The wall and ceiling decorations, which are intended to pay tribute to British maritime power, cover 2612 square metres and were painted by an artist I’d never heard of before, James Thornhill . The hall was originally designed as the dining room for the Hospital’s residents, but very quickly it was decided it was “too good” for these retired seamen and became an early tourist attraction with visitors charged to enter and look at the murals.

As is often the case photographs don’t really do justice to the room and the sense of being immersed inside one giant painting.

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The art isn’t really to my taste, but I had to admire the grandeur of the work and it certainly made an impact.


So afterwards what next? Well the obvious thing to do was to cross the courtyard and take a look at what was under the other dome.

After walking through a relatively plain entrance hall we were greeted by another sumptuously decorated hall, in this case the St Peter and St Paul Chapel.




According to the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) website the Chapel

was constructed by Thomas Ripley to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren, was the last major part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen to be built. Following a disastrous fire in 1779, it was redecorated by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart in the Greek revival style,

The Chapel ceiling was designed by the master plasterer John Papworth in a neo-classical design of squares and octagons. The intricate central ornaments were carved, rather than cast in moulds. It is plastered in light blue and cream following a Wedgewood-inspired colour scheme.

In the entrance hall there’s a memorial to the men and officers of the Franklin exhibition of 1845 who lost their lives searching for the “North West passage” through the ice of the Arctic.


Guides to the Painted Hall and the Chapel can be downloaded from the ORNC website.