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.


Unforgettable Dublin

Dublin’s tourist allure is infectious. People make you welcome, the vibe is relaxed, when it rains there’s always a  warm pub a few steps away. There’s plenty to see and a hop-on-hop-off bus links the most popular tourist sites. In principle you get off where you choose, explore, and then hop on the next bus.But chances are you’ll find the-board commentator so entertaining you might just stay on.

I visited the city for the first time decades ago and, in a sense, never did hop off. Dublin is home now. Visitors ask me what to see, and I’ve drawn up a list (given below). But I still recommend the bus tour. It’s the best way to get an overview and decide what to visit later.  I’ve known people to be in despair because they failed to visit Dublin Castle which, as it happens, isn’t on my list at all.

Here are the things that are on my list:

 Grafton Street — particularly on a sunny Saturday when buskers dot the busy thoroughfare. The street music can range from a string quartet to a tin whistle. I wouldn’t bother with the shops, though — they’re mostly branches of British stores. You might make an exception for Brown Thomas with its famous doorman.

Archbishop Marsh’s Library near St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a perfectly preserved scholars’ library established in 1701. Its most important manuscript — Lives of the Irish Saints -written in Latin, dates from 1400. Marsh’s is closed on Tuesdays and Sundays, and times of opening on other days require forward planning. But it most emphatically repays the effort.

Dublin Writer’s Museum on Parnell Square is a shrine to the writers who have made Dublin famous and is well worth the pilgrimage. Plenty of books, letters, portraits and personal items. There’s a bookshop and a pleasant coffee shop, too, all housed in a magnificent 18th century mansion.

The GPO on O’Connell Street was the main stronghold of the Irish Volunteers during the Easter Rising of 1916. You can still spot the bullet holes on the pillars outside. And inside, plaques capture the significance of this historical focal point.

The Trinity College quadrangle is a popular tourist attraction where time stands still in the centre of the capital city. Join the queue to see the 9th century Book of Kells now enshrined in an orientation centre on the Trinity campus.

Call in at the Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephen’s Green for afternoon tea in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge.  Afterwards, wander into the Shelbourne’s Museum, a little treasury of artefacts from the hotel’s long history. White cotton gloves are provided for you  to wear when turning the fragile pages of the old guest books.

Dublin Writer’s Museum on Parnell Square is a shrine to the writers who have made Dublin famous.

The cobbled precincts of Temple Bar are also a must. Wander, check out the shops but keep an eye out for Merchant’s Arch. Pass under it and you’re at the famous Ha’penny Bridge, one of the dearest relics of Dublin’s long history.

The Georgian House, “Number 29” at Merrion Square, offers a wonderful insight into the domestic world of the well-off middle classes who lived in the elegant buildings which line so many Dublin

The Little Museum of Dublin, just a minute’s walk from Grafton Street, is in a beautiful Georgian townhouse at 15 St. Stephen’s Green.A sort of ‘people’s museum’ of 20th century Dublin, every item has been donated by a member of the public.  Look in for a glimpse of the interior plus memorabilia of U2, James Joyce, JFK. There’s a flight of steps up to the  front door . Wheelchair users are invited to telephone  661 1000 in advance for assistance.Open seven days a week from 11 am to 8 pm.

The Chester Beatty Museum, behind Dublin castle, is an 18th century clock tower with modern extensions. It contains a unique legacy — thousands of priceless manuscripts and precious items amassed by Ireland’s first honorary citizen, the New York-born Chester Beatty. He left it all to the Irish people on his death in 1968. The Islamic Collection is world-famous.

 But let’s say you see none of the above and you also miss the Tara Brooch, the Ardagh Chalice, plus the finest horde of prehistoric gold in Europe, all at the National Museum, as well as the dazzling Millennium Wing at the National Gallery and Christ Church cathedral with its hallowed remains.

And let’s say you do spend your day wandering aimlessly, enjoying the streetscapes, perhaps browsing for antiques or second-hand books. And in the evening, venture into a shabby-looking pub where there’s Irish music going hammer and tongs and you order a pint and let the evening slip by as you talk to the locals or let them talk to you. Because if you do, chances are you’ll come away feeling you know Dublin well. And no one would argue with you, least of all me.

The Best of Irish Dublin

Little by little, Dublin has evolved into a European city. Where once it was difficult to discover the Irishness of Dublin beneath its colonial legacy, it’s now a challenge to discern it under its European one. But there it surely still remains.

Where to stay: I like the Clarence at 6/8 Wellington Quay. On the edge of Temple Bar, on the banks of the River Liffey. It’s an authentic “arts and crafts” building, restored to the height of quiet sophistication by the Dublin rock group U2.

Where to eat: European restaurants abound, but for a taste of traditional Irish dishes, it’s the Old Dublin on Francis Street or the Boxty House in Temple Bar.

Shopping: For superb contemporary Irish design and craftsmanship in jewellery, textiles and turned wood, visit the gift shop at the National Museum, Kildare Street. For Irish woolens with flair, including things for children, Avoca Handweavers on Suffolk Street. At the end of Johnson’s Court — off Grafton Street — you’ll find the Powerscourt Townhouse, a shopping centre devised from Lord Powerscourt’s 18th century mansion. On the top floor, the Design Studio is a showcase for Irish-label high-fashion. The antiques gallery on the first floor is a good place to hunt for Irish silver. On the north bank of the river, at 5 Lower Ormond Quay, the Irish Historical Picture Company stocks hundreds of old postcards and photos of Ireland, organised by place name.

Tours: Choose between literary pub crawls, a musical pub crawl, a 1916 Rebellion walking tour and a number of other historical walking tours. Commentary is authoritative, amusing or both. In addition to the hop-on-hop-off bus, there’s a manic outing in an amphibious craft which rumbles around Dublin for 55 minutes, than splashes into the Grand Canal harbour for another 20, weather permitting. The Viking Splash Tour encourages passengers to wear Viking headgear and roar at pedestrians. More fun than I’m prepared to admit.


Day out: If you have time for only one excursion, make it Glendalough, the ruins of a monastic settlement south of Dublin set in the misty hills of Wicklow. Its stone-roofed chapel, round tower, high crosses and ancient cemetery lie wrapped in the solemn atmosphere of 6th century Ireland. It’s even more beautiful in the rain. 

For details of locations, opening hours, and tours, visit the Dublin Tourism Centre, Suffolk Street, which is also just off Grafton Street.


Unmissable London

Even if you’ve never been in London before, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey will look familiar to you. This iconic cluster of spires and towers spells “London” to people the world over. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and London’s number one tourist attraction.Ancient as it appears, however, the splendid Gothic Revival building in which the Houses of Parliament hold their sessions is surprisingly new; it replaced the Palace of Westminster destroyed by fire in 1834.

 Big Ben, the 13-ton bell in the clock tower, first rang out its variation on a theme from Handel’s Messiah in 1859. Westminster Abbey, on the other hand, is authentically, awesomely, old. British Monarchs have been crowned here since 1066. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the soaring vaulted ceiling, the stained glass, the monuments and memorials, which range from effigies of Elizabeth I and her half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots to statues of 10 contemporary martyrs, including Martin Luther King Jr.

Find your way through the cloisters to the Abbey Museum. This modest room houses the oldest known panel painting in England. A 13th century retable, it was taken down from the High Altar in the
16th century and by the 18th it was being used as the lid of a chest. It was sent for restoration in 1998 and returned to the Abbey in 2005. And if you’ll settle for paste gems instead of the real thing you can save yourself a trip to the Tower of London to see the Crown jewels. Replicas of the Coronation Regalia, used for rehearsals of the ceremony, are displayed here. (The museum is “usually” open every day but only from 10.30 to 16.00 on Sundays.)

The Abbey’s College Garden is another hidden treasure. This leafy space is open throughout the year but is especially beautiful in the spring when its apple and cherry trees are in bloom. In the summer, lunchtime band concerts are sometimes held. (Garden is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; in winter from 10.00 to 16.00, in summer from 10.00 to 18.00.)

The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre across Broad Sanctuary from the Abbey was finished in 1986; it included a bug-proof room on the fourth floor for Prime Minister Thatcher’s top-level meetings.

Visit Big Ben, Parliament and Westminster Abbey

 Only UK residents may climb the clock tower’s 335 stairs to see Big Ben (to be rechristened Elizabeth Tower.. Big Beth?), but all are welcome to visit the Houses of Parliament (for details, see To tour Westminster Abbey, simply pick up an audio guide, free with your ticket. If you prefer to wander on you own, your queries will be answered by one of the colourfully gowned Abbey staff members. (The Abbey is closed to tourists Saturday afternoon and Sunday; otherwise, last entrance at 15.30 or 18.00 on Wednesday.) Experience the Abbey as a living church by attending evensong, sung by the Westminster Abbey Choir. (Evensong sung at 15.00 Saturday and Sunday, and at 17.00 on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. On Wednesday, the service is spoken.)

For sidelights on London, stroll down Parliament Street…

From Broad Sanctuary and Parliament Street to Trafalgar Square is less than a mile – but it’s a mile packed with insights into London history.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom occupies the restored art deco building at the corner. Visitors are welcome to drop in on court hearings and watch bewigged barristers at work. The atrium coffee shop is open to the public.

The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms are tunnelled under Government Buildings (detour down King Charles Street). This is the secret bunker from which Winston Churchill directed World War II. The warren of 27 rooms includes all the necessary offices, plus Mrs Churchill’s bedroom with chintz covered arm chair. (Open daily, last admission 17.00.)

Downing Street leads off Parliament Street but iron gates block access. Join the sightseers on the left for the best view of the Prime Minister’s home at Number 10.

Where Parliament Street becomes Whitehall, mounted cavalrymen stand guard under twin arches. Since 1750, this has been the Household Cavalry’s headquarters; here it prepares for ceremonial work such as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Walk under the arch to the Household Cavalry Museum. Inside, through a glass partition, you can glimpse the day’s work being carried out in the stables. (Open daily until 17.00.)

Directly across Parliament Street, visit the Banqueting House designed by Indigo Jones for King James in 1622; its crowning glory is an astonishing ceiling by Rubens. The Banqueting House was designed as the setting for royal masqued balls, but is best remembered as the site of King Charles’s execution in 1649. (Open 10.00 to 17.00. Closed Sunday and for private functions.)

In Trafalgar Square – the geographical centre of London – a statue of Lord Nelson surveys the traffic from his plinth. Behind him, the huge National Gallery houses one of Europe’s major collection’s of European paintings. (Open until 18.00 but on Friday until 21.00.)

Around the corner from the gallery is the porticoed entrance to St Martin-in-the-Fields. Don’t fail to experience the sublime interior of this 18th century church. It features an intriguing East Window, designed by an Iranian-born artist. The church holds free concerts, usually at 13.00 and 19.45. The popular “Cafe in the Crypt” is downstairs.

Something to read:

If the War Rooms under Whitehall kindle your imagination, you’ll love Double Cross: the True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre.

The five key D-Day spies were one of the oddest military units ever assembled: a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian seducer, a wildly imaginative Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming, and a hysterical Frenchwoman whose obsessive love for her pet dog very nearly wrecked the entire deception. Read it and wonder how they kept it all straight.. and made a massive contribution to winning the war.