The Prime Meridian

The Royal Observatory, otherwise known as The Time Factory.

The Royal Observatory, otherwise known as The Time Factory.

It was a bit embarrassing when faced with only a few more days in a city like London I had to look for something to do. Oh, sure, there’s always something to do, but I mean something I’d kick myself for if I got back to the States and realized I’d simply missed it. Filling my days with Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, Britain’s Museum of Popular Music, and a few nights at the Warwick Arms Public House down the street (well, one or two. Or three or four), I regularly checked things off my mental England To-Do List I’d started years ago. Saw the Clock Tower? Check. Saw a three hundred fifty-one-year-old stuffed dodo? Check. Ate fish and chips? Check. Sat in the same booth at an obscure pub a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus once sat in? Check. I had to add more Englandy goodness, and fast.

Siting at the Warwick Arms (I said it was right down the street), putting down £3.10 pints of Fuller’s London Pride like I’d never have one again until I returned to the U.K. (the closest tavern to my house that sells London Pride is 309.9 miles away at Maggie Miley’s Irish Pub in Normal, Illinois, so my statement’s petty accurate), I realized where I needed to go. The place where the days begin; the Flamsteed House at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

The observatory, founded in 1675 by Charles II, is seriously where every day starts. By international decree, each day around the entire globe begins at this one spot right here in London, as does every new year, and every new millennium. Take that in for a second. According to our system of measuring something as obscure as time, every single second starts at this one building in London. I had to take a field trip to the Time Factory.

The Greenwich observatory is home to the Prime Meridian. A meridian is a longitudinal line someone, back when arguing about such things was important, placed at 0 degrees, splitting the Earth in a north/south line into the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Although there is only one 180th Meridian (the Equator, which splits the world into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres), there are plenty of north/south meridians around the world. Cartographer Gerardus Mercator, born 1512 in what would today be Belgium, placed the first meridian through a spot in the Canary Islands. Others were placed through Paris, the Bering Strait, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Brussels, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Warsaw, Jerusalem, Mecca, and the Great Pyramid of Giza. The major problem with all of the sites is that not one of them is in England.

Drawn right before he got his way.

Drawn right before he got his way. Stop pouting dude. Seriously.

While the Reverend Dr. Nevil Maskelyne served as English Astronomer Royal (1765 to 1811), he based his meridian math on where he worked, at the Royal Observatory. Given the fact that at the time the British Empire controlled one quarter of the entire world, twenty-two countries voted to place the Prime Meridian of the world at the Greenwich observatory during the International Meridian Conference in 1884 because if they didn’t want Britain to devour them. This put that whole “not being in England” thing to rest, except with the French. The French continued to use the Paris Meridian until 1911 because, well, they’re French.

At that point, the Meridian Conference agreed Greenwich was the starting point for time. Pretty cool, huh?

My class boarded the Tube at Gloucester Road station to arrive at the Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich station. Tube stations are seldom empty places. Three and a half million people (half the population of London) travel the Tube each day, going to and from work, to and from lunch, and to and from a shopping district/the off-license/their mum’s. That’s a lot of to and from. Despite the great number of people going through the 270 Tube stations in the city, I walked into the small corner shop at the entrance of the station, bought a cup of coffee and a bottle of water with no trouble, walked along the orderly queue, and stepped aboard a car with no pushing, elbowing, or noise. I was going to miss all this polite orderliness once I got home where a drive to the post office makes a normal American want to pull a baseball bat out of the trunk and … well, you get the picture.

The train pulled up and the five of us stepped on; we knew we were on the right car because, unlike the randomness of the streets above us (some of which are laid atop Roman roads), directions on the Tube are easier to follow than a Candy Land game board. Our trip on the District Line took us past the familiar Westminster, Embankment, and Monument stations that would deposit us at Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and the Monument, and to the DLR Line where we left the District Line behind and ventured into places we’d never seen.

Strange Tube stop names rolled by. Canary Wharf, Southharbour, West India Quay (pronounced Key), Heron Quays (pronounced Keys), and South Quay (still pronounced Key) follow the Thames, which makes sense because (I only know this because I looked it up) like wharf and harour, a quay is a where ships load and unload cargo.

The farther we got outside central London the less busy the Tube stations were, but I couldn’t notice from the noise, or lack of. London is the most quite place I’ve ever been to, except for a national park on an off day, in the rain. It’s that far removed from human noise. Stepping out of the station and down a paved street, a Subway Restaurant awkwardly sitting between the Gate Clock Bar & Food and graham webb international academy of hair (it was all in lower case on the sign. I promise), we walked toward the grounds of Greenwich Park, home to the University of Greenwich, and the Royal Observatory, and went right into the shadow of a three-masted clipper ship – the Cutty Sark. Guess I should have expected that, given the name of the Tube station.

Cutty Sark is a Scotch whiskey made by Edrinton Group of distillers in Glasgow, Scotland.

Not an accurate depiction of the ship.

Not an accurate depiction of the ship.

Okay, that’s not the imposing wooden figure we filed by, but a Scotch neat would be nice about now. Built in 1869, the Cutty Sark, Scottish for “short dress,” was one of the fastest clippers in the British shipping fleet, holding the record time of 73 days for travel between Australia and England. The record lasted until steamships replaced the clipper. Retired from its last duty as a training vessel in 1954, the ship is 212 feet long and 36 feet wide with a third of an acre of sails laced with 11 miles of rigging. The ship sits in dry dock at the National Maritime Museum, and after a £50 million restoration between 2007 and 2012, it looked glorious. We didn’t go on board. Tickets were £20. Twenty pounds? I could buy a plate of eel (hopefully cooked) and at least four pints of Guinness at the Richard the First Public House for £20. Besides, we weren’t there for British nautical history; we were there for the Prime Meridian.

Walking through Greenwich Park, much like our trek through Hyde Park, Regents Park, and Waterlow Park, I couldn’t help but feel this is exactly how parks should be. A breeze danced gently through the leaves of the deciduous trees dotting the pavement, and the thirteen acres of tall, thick, grassland that make up the lawn. Every park I’d seen here has tall grass, interspersed with shortly cut grass where people can walk, picnic, or quite possibly make out. American parks are filled with brightly colored playground equipment and screaming children. The 183-acre Greenwich Park, the oldest of England’s eight enclosed Royal Parks, dates to 1427 and is home to red and fallow deer, bats, and foxes. And hills. Steep hills.

See, everything's green. I think that's why it's called Greenwich.

See, everything’s green. I think that’s why it’s called Greenwich.

“Not another hill,” one of my students, Olivia, moaned as we elected to take the steep pavement with a group of German college students instead of the easier handicap access route. Yes, another hill. Since coming to London, we’ve walked most places we’ve been, and the direction always seems to be up. We hurried; we didn’t want to lose our place in some queue to the Germans.

The Flamsteed House at the Royal Observatory is an unassuming brick building that sits at the top of the hill surrounded by a brick patio and pavement enclosed by a black iron gate put there to keep out people who didn’t want to pay to see the Prime Meridian line. Like us.

A wrought-iron gate stood near the final steps that would take us to the Flamsteed House; beyond it was a piece of the Prime Meridian Line. But the gate opened the wrong way. “Hey, guys,” I said. “We might be able to get through here.” But they were already gone.

The Flamsteed House is topped by a red ball on a pole, and the pole is topped by a weather vane. The ball, installed in 1833, is one of the world’s first public time signals. The ball drops at 1 p.m. and is used to tell ships on the Thames that, well, it’s 1 p.m. The observatory is also home to London’s only planetarium, a museum, and the United Kingdom’s largest refracting telescope.

Standing in two hemispheres at once? Yeah, I totally did that.

Standing in two hemispheres at once? Yeah, I totally did that.

“The Prime Meridian Line cost £7,” Alex said, walking back to us from the entryway of the house.

“I’m not paying £7 to stand in two hemispheres. Pfft,” Lucas huffed. Although he was mostly kidding, we all had to save as much money as possible. We had two days left in London and we still had to eat.

Not a problem. We snuck through the gate on the steps when a nice Japanese family made the mistake of opening it while we were close by. And we all straddled the line. Yep, I’ve stood in two hemispheres at the same time. This line literally (well, not literally, literally. Simply figuratively) split it the world in two. Funny, I didn’t feel any different.


About sjasonoffutt

Jason Offutt is a syndicated columnist, author, and college journalism instructor. His books are available at Jason is available for interviews, speaking engagements and beer festivals. E-mail all serious inquiries to:
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