A Walk Through English Maritime History


One of the most remarkable journeys you can make from London takes less than a half hour from the city centre and only 12 minutes from Canary Wharf. In that time you can travel by express ferry down the Thames to Greenwich to explore a world that has more in common with the 17th than with the 21st century.

 England’s maritime history seems to have come to rest in this green village on the water’s edge. From the Cutty Sark, the last and fastest tea clipper; to the Royal Observatory marking Prime Meridian it’s all here. . an overview of England’s maritime history that’s as enjoyable as a walk in a park. The park in question, Greenwich Park, dating from 1427, is the oldest enclosed Royal Park in the country. The buildings that tell the story are all within it, in easy walking distance of each other…the Queen’s House, the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory.

The village of Greenwich is worth exploring too. Laid out in 1820, it has kept its old-fashioned atmosphere with meandering narrow streets, quirky shops, and the old covered market that comes alive with craft and collectibles stalls Thursday through Sunday.  There are pubs and restaurants including a famous tavern on the water’s edge, the Trafalgar.

Arriving by boat, you’ll see the masts, spars and rigging of the renowned tea clipper, the Cutty Sark, forming a tracery across the sky. Closed in 2007 after a disasterous fire, she has been restored and sits snug in her dry-dock again.  In 1885, the Cutty Sark set the record for a wind-powered voyage from Australia to England, 72 days via Cape Horn, just as the opening of the Suez Canal made her redundant.  Go aboard to see a collection of figureheads and learn something of life at sea in the late 1800s. Open every day (except Dec 24,25,26) from 10 am, last admission 16:30.

The Old Royal Naval College was installed infour symmetrical Baroque buildings designed by Christopher Wren on the bank of the Thames.

It’s at the heart of the most dramatic complex of architecture and landscaping in the British Isles, recognized by UNESCO as the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site.  Visit the chapel in the East Wing with its exquisite pastel plasterwork and the Painted Hall in the West Wing. It took 19 years to complete the allegorical paintings that cover its wall and ceilings. A plaque on the floor commemorates Admiral Nelson’s lying in state in this hall in 1806. The uniform jacket worn by Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, with the fateful bullet hole clearly visible. is displayed in the nearby National Maritime Museum.  This is the biggest maritime museum in the world with three floors of absorbing displays covering a range of themes from explorers of the past to biodiversity. The museum takes full advantage of cutting-edge presentation to bring the story of the sea to life. You may get seasick but you won’t get bored.

 The exquisite ‘Queen’s House’, the first truly classical building in England, is set back from the river and enjoys a glorious view over the park. Designed by Inigo Jones in 1616 for Queen Anne, it was finished after her death by Charles 1st for his French wife, Henrietta Maria, who made it her home.  The Great Hall retains its original painted woodwork and the 1630 marble floor. The beautiful ‘tulip staircase’ was the first cantilevered staircase in Britain. Now part of the National Maritime Museum, the Queen’s House is used to display a selection of the maritime-related paintings and drawings belonging to the museum.

At the top of the hill, and at the top of the ‘must see’ list for Greenwich, stands the Royal Observatory, the home of the Prime Meridian of the World and of Greenwich Mean Time. The walk up the hill to the observatory offers marvelous panoramas but becomes very steep towards the end. An alternative approach is to take the little train that departs for the Observatory from in front of the Maritime Museum on the half hour.

If you have any interest in astronomy, navigation or in under-sung heroes, this is the place to come. The four great timepieces by John Harrison are here. It was Harrison who worked doggedly for 27 years to devise a timepiece accurate enough to determine longitude at sea.  There is also a fascinating collection of original telescopes and regulators in their original settings plus a selection of the museum’s 7,000 scientific instruments. You can visit the octagonal room designed by Christopher Wren in 1675 “for the observer’s habitation and a little for pompe’.

The first Astronomer Royal. Flamsteed worked not here, but in a shed in the garden from which he got a better view of the skies. . His job was to draw a map of the heavens sufficiently accurate for astronomical navigation and he worked at this task nightly for 47 years. This small building became the heart of the expanded observatory. A brass strip on the floor marks the first important Greenwich meridian where Flamsteed set his first astronomical quadrant. There are three later meridian lines, those of Halley, Bradley and Airy- the last was recognized in 1884 as the prime meridian of the world. Straddle it, and you have one foot in the western hemisphere and the other in eastern hemisphere.

A bright red ball on the northeastern turret of Flamsteed house climbs a mast at 12:58 and drops at 13:00 Greenwich Mean Time. So that ships on the River Thames could calibrate their chronometers by its fall, the ball was added to the turret in 1833.

NOTE: The museums are normally open daily from 10:00 with last admission at 18:30, but schedule sometimes varies.  Check with the official site:  for current information. 

GETTING TO GREENWICH: By far the most evocative way is to come downstream on the Thames Clipper Riverline. You can board near the Tower of London, or at later stops along the route such as Canary Wharf. Alternatively, Docklands Light Railway stops at ‘Cutty Sark’ for maritime Greenwich.

STAYING THERE: A modern 151-room hotel within an easy walk of all the sights of Greenwich is the London Greenwich Novotel.