London 2016 diary: Day 1

This was a business trip I made back in September 2016 – just getting to writing it up and adding photos now!

Monday, 26 September, 2016. 20:45

I have arrived in London after a 24 hour flight from Sydney, leaving at 16:00 on Sunday, and arriving here at 07:00 on Monday.

The flight was fairly eventless, helped by having a half empty plane on each leg, from Sydney to Dubai, and also Dubai to London. The exit row aisle seat next to me was empty on both flights, so I moved over to leave an empty middle seat between me and the guy in the window seat. He was named Steve and returning home to Plymouth after six weeks touring Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji.

I didn’t really sleep at all, but since I arrived in the morning, I wanted to stay awake all day until bed time. I checked into the Clayton Hotel Chiswick just before 09:00, after a three train journey from Heathrow to Gunnersbury, changing at Acton Town and then at Turnham Green. Work booked last night for me as well so I could check in early, and the rate includes breakfast, so the woman at reception told me I could go grab breakfast in the hotel restaurant right away!

Clayton Hotel Chiswick view
View from my hotel room window, Clayton Hotel Chiswick

But first I dropped my bags and had a shower, then went down to have some muesli and yoghurt, followed by a pain au chocolat. Tomorrow I’ll try a bigger breakfast, with eggs and sausage and so on! Then after a quick Facetime chat with M., I went out to catch a train to Cutty Sark, where I was meeting Frederic for an afternoon of hanging out and sightseeing.

Checking with the Tube’s “plan your trip” web site said that I should change at Westminster and catch a Jubilee line train to Canary Wharf and then hop on the Docklands Light Rail there to go to Cutty Sark. The Canary Wharf station was confusing for a first time visitor, as I ended up tapping out of the station with my Oyster card, and then had to tap back in and then out again to find the right exit near the light rail station. Then I walked over to Heron Quays light rail station and caught a train to Cutty Sark.

Monkey riding the Tube
Monkey riding the London Tube

This turned out to be a tiny station, with a platform so short that only the middle doors of the train opened to let people out. There was only one exit to the street, leading to a small alley running between a curved row of shops, which was where Frederic said to meet. He turned out to be about 15 minutes late, so I used the time to look around a little, browsing briefly in a souvenir shop, and getting some cash from an ATM.

Once he arrived, we walked through the nearby Greenwich Market to get a bite to eat for me. They were just setting up many of the market stalls, but there were some food stalls open. I grabbed a beef and olive empanada from one of them, which was good, though a little small for the £2.50 cost. And the woman in the stall gave me change from a £20 note entirely in one pound coins plus a 50p!

Old Royal Naval College
Old Royal Naval College / University of Greenwich

We walked over to take a look at the Cutty Sark, but it began raining soon after we arrived, so we ducked into the Old Royal Naval College museum. This was a single large room containing various displays of maritime history, including some interesting old wooden sculptures titled “Gin” and “Beer”, of men drinking the titular beverages.

The rain eased off slightly and we took the opportunity to walk over to the adjacent buildings, now part of the University of Greenwich, where we entered the Royal Navy College Chapel to have a look at the architecture and decoration in there. It was an old chapel, but had been restored in the 1950s and looked very crisp and clean. Apparently there was also a “painted room” somewhere in the complex which was touted on various signs, but it appeared to be in a closed section, so we didn’t get to see that.

Old Royal Naval College Chapel
Old Royal Naval College chapel

When we left, the rain had stopped, and we walked south through the park and up the hill to Greenwich Observatory. The walk up the hill gave a good view north over the naval college and the Thames. Along the way I spotted an interesting black and white bird with a blue tail. I asked Frederic what sort of bird it was, but he wasn’t sure, thinking it might be a magpie. There were also squirrels in the park, bounding across the grass.

Royal Greenwich Observatory
Greenwich Observatory

At the observatory, we paid £9.50 for admission, and I used this as a chance to unload the pocketful of pound coins that I had. For this, we got to wander around inside the observatory grounds, which had several ornate sundials, including one with two large bronze dolphins, whose tails almost joined at the pointed tips. The tiny gap between the tails indicated the time by casting a shadow in an engraved plate, where it traced a path across a curved set of lines to indicate the time. Frederic pointed out that for daylight saving they replace the plate with a different one calibrated for the time difference.

From the garden we moved inside the Flamsteed House, where the resident astronomer used to live, and obviously named after the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed himself. The house was compact, but had several rooms filled with displays about astronomy and timekeeping. The highlight of this was a room containing the four marine clocks built by John Harrison in his quest to win the Longitude Prize. The first three were large brass constructions, about the size of a microwave oven standing on its end. The fourth and most famous of all was much smaller, a cylindrical shape about the size of a small hamburger. The top floor of the house was a large octagonal room, which had been used for observations with wooden tubed telescopes.

Harrison clock 4
Harrison chronometer number 4

From the house, we emerged into the courtyard, which contains the famous Greenwich Meridian line marked in brass across the stone paving. As it turns out, it wasn’t always in exactly that position. Other plaques marked the position of earlier definitions of the meridian, all separated by a few metres. Notably, they all lined up with the different slits in the roof of the adjacent observatory building, where different instruments had been positioned over the years. As each new Astronomer Royal took office, they proceeded to build a bigger and better telescope, a few metres over from the previous one, and then redefined the meridian to run through the middle of their new instrument. Apparently that was one of the perks of being the Astronomer Royal – redefining the meridian just because you could!

Octagonal room
The octagonal room, with telescope

Inside the observatory building we got to see the various instruments, beginning with a relatively crude sighting quadrant, proceeding to a transit telescope, and ultimately to a bigger transit telescope, which had been commissioned by Airy, and was the site of the current meridian. Upstairs at one end of the observatory building was another display of historical clocks, running right through to modern atomic clocks, and devices with GPS such as an iPhone.

Outside, the prime meridian line was marked boldly by a copper rail flanked by steel. Dozens of visitors were doing the obvious thing, getting photos with one foot on either side of the line, thus splitting their bodies into the western and eastern hemispheres of Earth. Of course I had to do the tourist thing as well.

Meridian Monkey
Monkey on the prime meridian line

Leaving the observatory, we walked back through the park to Cutty Sark, where we walked around the ship to get a good look at it and take some photos. Nearby is a small domed structure, which is the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel, a tunnel under the Thames, connecting Greenwich to the Canary Wharf area. The tunnel was constructed from 1899 to 1902, and has been open ever since. We walked through this, admiring the old tunnel construction. It looked like something that would make a fantastic set for filming an episode of Doctor Who.

Greenwich foot tunnel
Greenwich foot tunnel

Once in Canary Wharf, we discussed where to go next, deciding to take a light rail train to Bank station, and then walk to the Tower Bridge and across it, since I hadn’t done this before on my previous visit to London. Frederic also recommended walking along the southern bank of the Thames, as it was an area he knew well and had some interesting sights. But to get to Tower Bridge from Bank we first had to walk through the financial district, which was a concrete valley amidst characterless stone buildings. We passed the monument for the Great Fire of 1666, and Frederic showed me the sign on Pudding Lane which commemorated the location where it started.

Monkey at the Tower
Monkey at the Tower of London

We also had to walk along the shore to the east a bit, passing the Tower of London along the way. I took the opportunity to get some shots of Monkey doing some sightseeing at the Tower. Then we headed towards the bridge so we could cross back to the southern bank of the Thames.

On the Tower Bridge
Crossing the Tower Bridge

The Tower Bridge was fairly interesting to walk across, being picturesque and having interesting architecture. While walking across the sun came out, which was a nice improvement since the rain earlier, but it was still mostly overcast. On the southern bank we walked along the river to the west, passing various shops and food places and things.

At one point we had to divert inland a bit because the riverside path was interrupted by a building and private property. We passed the Borough Market near London Bridge, and then reached Southwark Cathedral, which a sign proclaimed as having been a place of worship since the year 400 or so, although the building itself dated more to around 1500, with some pieces of Norman building from the 12th century incorporated into the structure. Entry was free, but to take photos one had to purchase a guide map for £1. I did so, and the guide revealed some interesting features of the cathedral, including stained glass windows dedicated to Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, apparently both of whom were associated with the cathedral.

Statues in Southwark Cathedral

There were various tombs of old bishops and stuff, and there was a beautiful large wooden chest called the “Nonesuch Chest”, which had been donated to the cathedral by woodworkers from Germany. At the rear of the building were some very modern stained glass windows, having been installed just in the last decade or two, and designed in abstract styles. Our last stop here was a small section showing an archaeological cross section of part of the building, including the underlying Roman road, bits of Norman construction, and then the later 16th century building.

Near the cathedral was a small section of riverbank walk where Frederic pointed out a carved inscription quoting from Sir Walter Raleigh, about the beauty of the Thames River. From here we continued walking west until we reached the Tate Modern art museum, housed in an old power station. The building is huge, and I can only imagine how much exhibit space is housed inside.

White Tower
White Tower of the Tower of London, seen from the southern bank of the Thames

By now I was starting to flag, tired from the flights and the day spent walking, and suggested we head to a pub for a sit down and a drink before dinner. Frederic suggested a place he knew, back near Borough. Rather than walk all the way back, we crossed the nearby Blackfriars Bridge and hopped on a train.

At Borough station, we walked a few minutes south to a pub called The Ship. I noticed they had a big stack of boxed board games piled by the front door, presumably for patrons to grab and play at a table. Here I got a cider while Frederic got a soft drink, and we chatted until we were hungry enough for dinner. I ordered a pork and mash pie, which came with more mash and beans and carrots and gravy. It was hearty and filling, and reasonably good.

Pub Grub
Pork pie dinner at The Ship pub

After eating, we walked back to Borough station, where Frederic left me, as he was heading home another way. I caught the train back to Gunnersbury and came back to the hotel. Too tired for a shower, I wrote some of this diary until 21:00 and then climbed into bed to try and get a good night’s sleep.

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