Tuesday, September 20, 2016

England, 2016, Part 16: Greenwich

Back when I laid out this trip I put GLASTONBURY first to get us out of London during the weekend. The 4 weekdays back in the Capitol city were unassigned and on the wish list I think I just copy-and-pasted BRITISH MUSEUM into each day, so I could go gaze in rapture at the Rosetta Stone again and again. (Just kidding, kinda.)

I chose our hotel to be near a major Tube station AND the Thames, because rivers are cool. Admiral Karen seized upon this latter idea and proposed a trip downriver to see the National Maritime Museum.

So on Tuesday, after another multi-culti-OMG-what-time-is-it-in-YOUR-head
Our river transport sidles over.
Hotel breakfast with the Recent Arrivals, we trooped up Kennington Road, look RIGHT at the intersection and when you are on the island in the middle look LEFT for traffic, take the special locals-only walking tunnel UNDER Waterloo station (“I love the smell of spray paint in the morning”), and emerge under the watchful gaze of the London Eye at rivers edge.

BOAT RIDE!!

The HMS Belfast, with a visiting Japanese ship
and "The Shard" projecting in the rear.
And thats where our good luck ran aground. My mistake was in printing our boat ride tickets out on paper, and apparently this “just isn’t DONE”. My printout had a scannable bar code, the same thing we use to get into concerts, stage shows and baseball games back home, but no no, that “Just won’t DO”. 

So the ticket booth chap hands us off to the agent on the dock, who runs off to check with his Superior, and then sends us off on the boat with promises that we will exit the craft at some point and have our ticket scanned by someone downriver who has the equipment for such a procedure. It sounded rather wimbley-wobbley to us. 
Tower Bridge (not pictured: Hordes of Tourists)

But the Thames was lovely, not as wide as you’d think for such a major and historic thoroughfare, and dotted mostly with other tourist boats all pointing out the same features riverside. We quickly realized that THIS was the way to see the Rick Steve’s list:

We serenely floated by Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge, The National Theatre, Kings College, The Savoy, Blackfriars Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern, all stuffed full of tourists, cars, kids and general frantic exhaustion. Me, I put my feet up and shared my biscuits and crisps with Karen as we floated downstream.

The Tower of London
But we still hadn’t technically been ticketed for this attraction, so we dutifully exited the boat at the biggest tourist trap of all: The Tower of London. Oh…..SOD. 

The stevedore sent us to the agent who sent us to the ticket agent who sent us to the concierge who sent us to the bloke in the BLUE jacket who sent us to the chap in the YELLOW jacket who pointed us to an intersection and told us to find the fellow in the RED jacket. And voila! He had a bar code scanner! I hope it doesn’t break on him, because it is the only one in England. 

We run, run, run away from the seething, teething hordes of humanity all mindlessly waving their Rick Steves books and retreat back to the deserted dock. Ah, our boat has left, so, darn, we have to sit, and wait - a half hour to ourselves on the quiet shore of the Thames River, gazing up at Tower Bridge. Shame, really.
History and typical English weather - delightful!

Our new boat had a different crew with a different agenda, so as we resumed our narrated tour of the river sights the emphasis became less about big buildings “St. Pauls is back there somewhere….” and more about dockside small buildings: “Hey, the last Christmas party for the boatworkers Union was at that pub!”

On our right Cher and Ian McKellan both lived near to this awesome pub, and I suppose that they would have some friends in common. Meanwhile, forgotten on our left was the dockyard that Dickens used for the setting of "Oliver Twist". 

View of the Museum from the top of the hill.
Soon we were disembarking at our destination, Karen’s choice, the National Maritime Museum, because I married a Viking.

NATIONAL MARITIME PLAYLAND

Question: How many boats and ships are at this Museum? I mean, England is an ISLAND for Nelson’s sake, and the Royal Navy has kept the peace with (pronounced “Invaded”) almost every country on earth. So how many boats are on display? Its such a silly question that I didn’t even look it up when I laid out all the details back home. 

Rigging on the Cutty Sark
I don’t know what I was expecting, something less than an Armada I guess, but it turns out that the number of boats and ships on display here is two: One of each. A kingly barge inside, and the Cutty Sark clipper ship outside (separate admission).

Most of the rest of the National Maritime Museum is a giant screaming playground for kids. Admiral Karen and I stepped warily into the museum and were knee-deep in ankle biters as far as the eye could see. We ducked into the first exhibit on the first (ground) floor which was about the battle of Jutland in 1916.

This made no sense thematically - this is the first thing you want people to see? - but the recreation of the biggest clash of battleships ever was serene and calm compared to the kiddie chaos outside.

Figureheads - some of 'em even bigger than mine!
We saw a great display of figureheads and the little barge for the king, and then the spazzy freak out of the children drove us through the next door we could find, which was an exhibition about a painting. Hmmmm. Okay. It was nice, and it did have ships in it. And it was quiet in there. But we were clearly missing the Big Stuff in this museum.

We waded back through the curtain climbers to the information desk and got a map. Ah, the cool stuff is on the second floor. Got it. We saw a surprisingly interesting exhibit about cargo - the vast array of goods, how much could be crammed into a single ship, and the incredible distances these ‘ocean greyhounds’ could travel. Impressive, even today.
Swordery!

And to the Brits credit they did not shy away from the fact that some of the cargo that Her Majesty’s ships were transporting were in chains.

The most impressive exhibit was about Admiral Horatio Nelson, of course

  • Not the greatest tactician: “What’s your battle plan?” “Just get in REAL CLOSE.” 
  • Frankly embarrassing at times: Leaving your post to chase your pregnant Italian mistress around Europe just isn’t DONE. 
  • And rather cavalier with his sailors: Some of whom became casualties from hand to hand combat from porthole to porthole (He wasn’t kidding about the REAL CLOSE part.)
That little white mark on the left
shoulder? Thats it.
But Horatio had dash and daring for days. I was very moved by the display of Nelson’s coat, which looks fine except for the tattered epaulet and a small hole up in the left shoulder. But every military person will tell you that it isn’t the entry wound that kills ‘em…..

In the next room, dark and quiet, were his boots, still splashed with the blood from his Secretary, John Scott, who was de-articulated by a cannon ball while standing right next to Horatio. And there was Nelson’s undershirt and drawers, with the coarse cuts in them from where the surgeon had cut them off of him. Whoa. Now that is some serious History. 

And, as always, from suits of armor, to the catacombs of the Long Barrow, to the bathroom ceiling at the Covenstead - people long ago were so tiny!
Moon and stars clock

Touring the gift shop I could find neither a flogger (for your crew), leg irons (for your cargo) or an opium pipe (for your trading ‘partners').

There was more to the National Maritime Museum, but I was eager to see a small building up on a hill directly behind the museum.

OBSERVING THE OBSERVATORY

The hordes lining up for the line
(View from a window INSIDE) 
Because our pub crawl of a riverboat had dropped us off at a dock named Greenwich. And that small hilltop building was the observatory that divides the world time zones and creates the Mean Time that pretty much created the modern world we now live in. 

The observatory looks like a big roll-on deodorant, but by astronomical standards its so tiny. Much larger than the building is its courtyard, where once upon a time horses and buggies would arrive and turn around.

Here's all you need to
change the world: Chair,
Telescope, Clock.
Now there was no room to turn around, because the whole courtyard was filled with tourists in a long, slow snaking line. Were they lined up to see John Harrison’s Longitude clocks? The 400 year old telescope that measured the heavens and the earth? Naaaah. What everyone wanted was to take a picture next to the Prime Meridian line that exits the building and continues on across the courtyard.

A couple of the worlds greatest scientific and engineering achievements was just inside, but the sheeple were all about the photo op. 

Admiral Karen on the Prime Meridian
We bypassed the long line that led to the really long line and entered the observatory. We looked at a lot of clocks and telescopes and other cool 18th century tech and then Admiral Karen got a weird look on her face: “I’ll bet that meridian line continues….inside.”

Through a window we lined up where the tourists were patiently aimed at, and then opened the appropriate door and sure enough we were in the room with the roll-on deodorant ceiling. And sure enough, there was the Prime Meridian line. It lead to a simple chair which leaned back so the astronomer could use the telescope to measure the angle of the moon against another celestial object - the lunar method.
H1 - 5 years in the making.

and then he would set the grandfather clock on his right - THE CLOCK. The clock that made our planet into a comprehensible, navigable globe.

And on his left was a string. The string lead to a bright red ball on the roof. Each night the astronomer would take his readings and then set The Clock. And just before 1pm each afternoon he would consult the clock and then pull the string. When the red ball on the roof hit the bottom of its pole it was precisely 1pm.

And all of the ships that were lined up down on the river would see the red ball stop, and they would set their ships Longitude chronometers, set sail and head out to the Atlantic, sometimes not returning for 3 years.
H2 - another 5 years

Which is where we get the phrase “Keep your eye on the ball.”

And this small room, this simple scientific laboratory that launched 1,000 ships a year, was empty except for the Admiral and I. Did I take a picture of her straddling the hemispheres? Well, we WERE tourists. And if you can’t join ‘em - beat ‘em!

But that wasn’t the cool thing! I mean it was cool, and made even more cool because we were the ones who figured out that lines run both ways, but that was the not THE cool thing.

The thing, well 4 things really, were the prototype chronometers made by John Harrison, copies of which were in every single ship that waited for the ball to drop.

John’s H4 clock was rugged enough to function in a hurricane, and so precise that Sea Captains could calculate their Longitude easily and hence know (within about 10 miles) where they were, anywhere on the face of the earth.

H3 - 17 years on this one.
Things that unlocked other things. These clocks and the Rosetta Stone.

Bonus, the three big clocks were running! And H4 is breathtakingly beautiful. 

SHIP AND BOAT AND POTATO CHIPS

And now, it was high time that we saw conclude our visit to the world of ships by seeing, ya know, a ship.

Luckily the Brits have anticipated this need and have provided the Cutty Sark for one to run around on. I say run, because the last tourist barge was leaving Greenwich dock in half an hour - go!

Luckily Admiral Karen and I are veterans of the Balclutha in San Francisco Harbor, so we were familiar with the basics of 19th century cargo sailing ships. 1st and foremost rule - duck! There is no room for headroom on a vessel that wants as much weight as possible as low as possible, and also, people were smaller in the 1880’s.

My Norska is quite at home
and, H4 - the breakthrough.
I was surprised that of all the things the ship hauled (tea, wool, ass) the Cutty Sark never carried bargain basement, decent-for-a-mixer Whisky.

Topside was glorious, and the view our across the Thames spectacular, and made even more so because the ship sits up quite high in its permanent dry dock. Why is it so tall? We went down the companionway ladders to belowdecks to investigate.

Turns out the reason the Cutty Sark sits so high is that the entire ship is suspended 3 meters in the air, leaving plenty of room for the prerequisite gift and tea shoppe. Walking around under the hull of a 1,000 ton clipper ship was totally cool.

Well, running around. Back to the dock!
The hull of the Cutty Sark

We sat inside for our journey back up river. The narration this time was garbled and inaudible, which suited us just fine. I had a packet of potato chips (Crisps!) and um, woke up just in time to disembark at Waterloo.

We staggered back to our hotel, ordered room service and while we waited for our dinner we decided to try out the "telly" by turning on the "Beeb". The first thing we saw was a documentary series about a jolly guy who travels to different countries and rides their trains. On this episode our host, Michael Portillo, was riding the rails around Pennsylvania, and making fun of Americans. He donned football gear and made fun of our version of rugby, and he tried to ridicule the breakfast menu at a diner, but he was wolfing down his peanut butter and jelly waffles too fast to make any jokes.

Boat ride back: The Shard, Tower and the Gherkin
Well hello, Mr. Brit! Welcome to the wonderful world of yumminess. Something sorely missing from English food for the past, oh, forever?

Indeed the entire history of British Maritime Activity, the exploration and innovation, the ship building, invading, trade, and commerce - the thrust of all of this frenzied activity over many centuries was all due to the fact that English food is so damned boring. Yeah, they were after gold, and slaves and timber, but the real coin of the realm was sugar, and even more precious, SPICE.

H4 - the interior clockworks.
The completely forgettable meal on our motel bed was mute, bland evidence of a country full of Taste and yet devoid of Flavor. 

The next show on the BBC was a documentary about how English potato chips are made. We rested our case and at 8:30pm, Greenwich Mean Time, passed out.

Next up, we visit Vicky and Al's PLACE.

Angus McMahan
angusmcmahan@gmail.com
@AngusMcMahan

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