In Search of John Harrison (part 2) – Greenwich

The final day of my search for London connections with the life of John Harrison, had to be a visit to Greenwich, to look round the Greenwich Observatory and to walk the Greenwich Meridian.

The journey started with a walk to the station, continued on a train to London Waterloo and then catching the No. 53 bus.  This bus passes through the Elephant & Castle and then joins the Old Kent Road (formerly known as the Dover Road) through New Cross and Deptford to Blackheath which is at the top of Greenwich Park.  The bus stops right at the park gates – very convenient.

From the gates there is a wide, straight avenue leading across level ground to the observatory.  Beyond the observatory, the land falls away quite steeply right down to the imposing buildings of the Old Royal Naval College, part of the National Maritime Museum, and the River Thames.  You can see why, in 1675, it was chosen as the site for this major observatory.

The museum is located in Flamsteed House built for and named after the first Astronomer Royal.  You progress through a number of rooms of exhibits, go upstairs and downstairs until arriving in the room dedicated to the works of John Harrison.  And there they are, the most famous Marine Chronometers, H1, H2, H3 and H4 in a row of individual cases.  It is a heart-stopping moment.  H1, H2 and H3 are very large clocks with many exposed parts.  Amazingly, they are still in full working order and ticking away as though they were just built yesterday.  H4, the chronometer that actually won the Longitude Prize, is a totally different beast.  Unlike the other devices with their workings on view, H4 looks like an over-sized pocket watch with a solid silver case and glass front revealing a finely decorated clock-face.  Sadly it was the only one not to be working.

I asked one of the museum staff why H4 was silent.  She explained that unlike the other clocks that had friction-free movements and needed no oil, H4 was so miniaturised that Harrison had to employ many jewels for bearings and the movements had to be oiled.  She assured me that H4 was in perfect working order but the museum wanted to preserve it, as it was of the greatest importance.  It is run on special occasions but unfortunately,  today was not one of those.

My time in the museum was interrupted by a call to announce that 1pm was approaching, and we should go outside to see the Greenwich time signal in action.  To quote from the Greenwich website :-

The Greenwich Time Ball has been a popular attraction for visitors to Greenwich Park and the Royal Observatory since its construction in 1833. It was built to broadcast a daily one o’clock time signal to mariners on the river and in the docks so that they could check the rate of their chronometers before heading out to sea.

 The signal takes the form of a large red sphere with a shaft running through the middle and mounted vertically on the roof of Flamsteed House.  As 1pm approaches, the red sphere is wound slowly up the shaft where it is easily visible from the Thames, as I discovered later.  On the dot of 1 o’clock the sphere drops – a very clear signal to any watching mariners.  In honour of Harrison, I reset my watch.

Then it was back into the museum to take a last look at Harrison’s crowning glory and its three worthy predecessors.  Should you be inspired to visit them, do read the Longitude book first as it is then much easier to appreciate Harrison’s groundbreaking ingenuity in devising all four masterpieces.   As you leave the room you are taken past a series of wall plaques recording the naval tragedy of 1707 that became the trigger for the establishment of the Board of Longitude.  The plaques record the names of the 2,000 sailors that were drowned when the Association, Eagle and Romney hit the rocks of the Scilly Islands and sank.  This was all due to a miscalculation of the fleet’s longitude.  A fitting reminder of the benefits to everyone of Harrison’s work.

The route to the exit goes via a room full of modern electronic and atomic clocks.  They show how far forward the measuring of time has progressed since Harrison’s days.  There are some fascinating devices but none has the elegance of H4 or the visible engineering prowess of H1, H2 and H3. Meanwhile, in the background you can hear the famous “pips” announcing the time with great accuracy.  For me, however, none has the wonderful simplicity, visible to all, of the big, red Greenwich Time Ball.

In the courtyard of Flamsteed House is a long metallic strip marking the line of the Greenwich Meridian.  Visitors have great fun standing with one foot in the Western Hemisphere and the other in the Eastern Hemisphere.  Looking along the line in a northerly direction takes you across the Thames and directly to the site of the 2012 Olympic Games.

My final goal was to walk a short stretch of the meridian.  The river, the old docks and modern building make it impossible to actually walk the line but help was at hand in the form of the Greenwich Meridian Trail.  This is a route that follows the meridian across England from its “landing point” at Peacehaven in East Sussex to its “exit point” at Sand le Mere in East Yorkshire, a distance of 273 miles.  My aim today was to walk a more modest 5 miles or so.

But first it was time for lunch and the Kings Arms in King William Walk looked good from the outside.  It did not disappoint inside.  Greene King IPA is a nice light daytime beer and this was well complemented with the best “cheese toastie” I have ever had.  The ham was thick and lean, the cheese was Gruyere and there was a layer of thinly sliced Paris Brown mushrooms.  This was toasted in a fat ciabatta that was nicely crisp on the outside and soft on the inside and served with a side dressing of Tiptree Honey and Beer Mustard.  Absolutely delicious.

After lunch it was time to join the trail northwards.  This section starts at the entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel under the Thames.  I took the staircase as opposed to the lift and counted exactly 100 steps.  The tunnel is 50 feet below the surface and approximately 1,200 feet long not far short of a ¼ mile.  It’s wide enough for four people to walk side by side and dips down towards the centre so the second half is a bit of a slog uphill.  I decided to take the lift on the way up and what a surprise.  It was very capacious – it would probably hold 30 people – has a high ceiling, wooden panelled walls and floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors.  Over all, the tunnel is a bit shabby for a place that has had a £11m refurbishment in the last few years.  It definitely needs a bit of TLC – especially on the staircases – and brighter lights.  Anyway it got me across the river on foot which was great.

The northern side of the tunnel is on the Isle of Dogs, one of the old shipbuilding and docks area of East London.  Today nearly all of the old buildings have been replaced with modern flats and there are pedestrian promenades along the river.  The view back towards Greenwich is worth a few minutes break.  You get a great panorama of the buildings of Greenwich including the observatory on top of the hill and the big red Greenwich Time Ball is clearly visible.

Turning along the riverside, heading upstream towards Central London on the Thames Path, the first row of housing is called Livingstone Place, very appropriate for a journey of exploration.  The first place of interest along the path is Burrell’s Wharf.  This was once a shipbuilding yard but in the mid 19th century was converted to a paint making factory and moved on to specialise in the manufacturing of colour dyes.  This business continued until 1986 when it closed down and the building of expensive flats started.

Walking on, my eye was drawn to the river and the sight of three square rigged sailing ships sailing down the river with sails set but the tell-tale throb of engines clearly audible.  These are the kind of ships that would have plied their trades here in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Very appropriate.   A fine contrast was made by the high-powered Thames Clipper catamarans racing by.  They offer a regular passenger service from Putney upstream to Greenwich downstream with many stops along the way and are used by commuters and trippers.

Then there was a large open space with a substantial area covered in heavy wooden planks.   It reminded me of the working dockyards on the Clyde in Glasgow when I was young.  A notice informs the passerby that this was where the Great Eastern was built and launched – at the 13th attempt – in 1858.  The ship was designed by Brunel and was the largest iron ship ever built at the time.  It had four engines driving giant paddles and a fifth driving a rear propeller.  Unfortunately it was not a successful ship being relatively slow and unable to compete on the North Atlantic run.  It gained a little prestige after being converted to a cable-laying vessel and had the honour of laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable.  But even this didn’t rescue the ship from the ignominy of being sold for scrap in 1888 at only 30 years old – not a long life for such a large liner.

Due to building work there were a couple of diversions off the Thames Path until it arrived at the original Canary Wharf right below the skyscrapers of the eponymous new financial district.  Yet another big housing development was going on here.  Looking to the left there was a great view of the original centre of the financial world.  The brand new Shard was on the south bank of the river whilst on the north bank, amongst others, were the Gherkin, the Natwest Tower and the still-under-construction Walkie Talkie building.

The path, still following as close as practical to the Greenwich Meridian, skirted another ancient but still existing wharf, Dunbar Wharf and then entered a public park called Ropemaker’s Fields.  This led to the Limehouse Cut, a canal that links the River Lee to the Thames.   Time was running short so instead of following the Cut towards Stratford, I turned to walk alongside Limehouse Basin to Limehouse Station on the DLR (Docklands Light Railway).

A train arrived almost immediately apparently driven by two young teenagers.  In fact, this is a driverless train and anyone can sit in the front seats.  The train proceeded almost silently to Bank Station deep under the core of the City of London.  A walk through the tunnels took me to the terminus of the Waterloo and City Line, affectionately known as “The Drain”.  This is a non-stop line connecting the financial markets with Waterloo Station, exactly where I wanted to be.  It was then on a fast train back to Richmond and home.

For me, this has been an extraordinary journey of cartographical adventure.  Starting with the discovery of the origins of the Ordnance Survey by Major-General William Roy near my home in Richmond then progressing to learning more about John Harrison and the measuring of Longitude has been a real education.  A month ago I was a life-long lover of maps.  Now I understand much more about their origins and orientation.  If I could, I would put these two great innovators, Roy and Harrison, on pedestals in public view.


About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement based in Richmond, London. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels in North America, Europe and Turkey plus other places as yet unknown.
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