Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Tall Ship And A Star To Steer Her By

"I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by..." -- John Masefield - Sea Fever

Greenwich. Just down the river Thames from London, this is the home of the National Maritime Museum, The Royal Observatory, the Millennium (now O2) Dome and a lot of history. Since I was griping about bad architecture the other day and made the comment that the Blade Runner building was just awaiting the arrival of the Mother Ship, it's only fair to show you that ship. Yup, it's already on earth "hiding" in Greenwich (see left). Now called the O2, this building hosts concerts (Tina Turner is going to be there soon) and exhibits (King Tut is there now).

But I didn't come to Greenwich for the Mother Ship, but for the National Maritime Museum. I wandered around in there for about an hour and found the information I wanted on the Prison Hulks in, of all places, the E-Library. Off a site I'd visited before. Sigh. Up until the war with the Colonies, Britain used to send its criminals to America. Once we became independent, they hunted around for some place else to dump those who violated the law. Australia was the next stop. You could be "transported" for pretty minor offenses. In the end 160,000 criminals were shipped to Australia.

To deal with their overcrowded prisons at home and for a place to warehouse those who were destined to be transported, the Prison Hulks were used. These were old ships moored in the Thames that served as prisons. Conditions were beyond horrific. Death rates were high, sanitation nil, food substandard. Many of the inmates begged to go to Newgate Prison (certainly not a luxury spot) rather than be stuck on one of these floating hell holes.

The museum also had an video/electronic recreation of the Battle of Trafalgar during which Admiral Nelson took one for the team. Nelson is a full fledged British hero (he's the guy perched at the top of his very own column in Trafalgar Square). I'd like to do more research into the battle as I got the impression the French (and Spanish) just said "to hell with it" and surrendered. Nelson died from a bullet wound to his left shoulder that shattered his spine. Instead of a traditional burial at sea he was toted home in a wine barrel filled with brandy to preserve the body. Hummm...

After my trek through the museum I headed up the hill to the Royal Observatory. The weather was unsettled, to put it mildly. Windy, occasional splatters of rain, threatening clouds. Which delivered the following shot looking back toward the museum (which is off to the left of the picture). In the distance is Canary Wharf's massive skyscrapers.

I'm a time junkie (obviously) and so finding that there were all sorts of antique clocks displayed at the Royal Observatory just made my day. I took the obligatory picture of the Prime Meridian and noted that in 1884 an international assembly decided to divide the world into 24 different time zones starting with zero at Greenwich. The Observatory was founded in 1675. It is now located at Cambridge and the original Observatory is part of the Maritime Museum complex.

I am amazed at the work that was completed at the Observatory using pretty primitive telescopes. Flamstead, the first Royal Astronomer, was poorly paid and had to take on pupils to pay for his daily needs. Like now, the really important tasks are underpaid. He'd spend hours each night in the cold air making note of what he saw in the heavens. Quite amazing.

Tomorrow I'm off to a hotel near Gatwick Airport so I can fly home on Sat. I've learned it's best to settle somewhere near the airport the night before so if the trains have problems during rush hour you still make your flight. But before I zip down to the airport, I'm going to see if Sherlock Holmes will receive me. I've heard he's quite the character.


steve said...

Fascinating post. You might want to look in at Julie's Virtual Voyage blog--a lot of high-quality photos of British historical sites:

Jana Oliver said...

Thanks, Steve! I'll check it out. I love photographs, old and new. Capturing a moment of time for prosperity.