London is one of our favorite destinations in the world to visit. One of the reasons is that there are so many hidden sights in London that we’ve never heard of before. But with each visit there’s less and less new, or in London’s case, old, to explore. That’s why I was so intrigued with a new book by David Fathers called London’s Hidden Rivers: A Walker’s Guide to the Subterranean Waterways of London. It’s that last part that intrigued me. Sure, we all know about the strolling along the River Thames through the heart of London, but there are also underground waterways? This was worth checking out.

The book highlights 12 ancient rivers that helped form the city into its current layout. In medieval times these waterways were used for drinking, cleaning, powering industry, and sewage disposal. Due to this latter use, they were not pretty. In fact, as Fathers points out, by the 17th century the water wasn’t even drinkable.

London's hidden Rivers book review

 

As the rivers became literally toxic, they city started to bury them. An 1849 cholera outbreak that cost 49,000 lives also led to the creation of a city water works to provide clean water to Londoners. Over time the buried rivers were largely forgotten, but much of the path of development in the city can be traced to their prior uses. In fact, many of the city’s borough borders were defined by the rivers. These days, that’s more often a road that rides over the covered stream below.

Book Review London's Hidden Rivers Wilkinson Sword Company

The book features 75 miles of walks along 12 of these former rivers. The illustrations that accompany the maps of these walks were also drawn by the multi-talented Fathers. I particularly enjoyed learning about little anecdotes like walking along the track that Sir Roger Bannister used while training to be the first human to run the mile in under four minutes.

London’s Hidden Rivers is a great book for anyone who thinks they know London and is looking for something else to explore. Despite its compact size, it also makes for good reading about the history and development of London.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Note: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites like in the book review above. We earn a very small commission on these sales and it does not affect your price for the item. These commissions are one very small way we can continue this blog and provide readers like you with valuable travel advice for free.

London is one of the most expensive cities in the world to visit, with some museums costing over $20 for a ticket. But with a little planning the tourist can find plenty of free things in London that are still outstanding.

1)      Westminster Abbey

What’s this doing on a list of free things in London? We approached Westminster Abbey and were shocked to find an admission price of 16 pounds, about $26. For a family of four it would cost over $100 to go to church, granted it’s a famous church, but still. . .

But you can visit Westminster Abbey for free. Five nights a week Evensong services are offered at 5pm (3pm most weekends). This service isn’t highly publicized. To attend the service, walk over to the iron gate by the main entrance to the Abbey, not the side entrance used for paid admissions. Guides wearing bright scarlet capes and stern expressions stand blocking the gate. Tell them you’re there for Evensong and they step aside while cheerfully welcoming you.

The 45-minute service is beautifully rendered by the Abbey choir. There is not much time for strolling about the Abbey after the service but you do get to see enough. In many ways, Evensong is preferable to walking around the Church with hundreds of other visitors during the day. The visitor gets to experience Westminster Abbey for what it was originally designed, worship and prayer.

Click the link for more information and current service times: Westminster Abbey Evensong services.

2)      The Wallace Collection

Free things in London Wallace Collection London

We love museums that can be visited in about an hour or so; with many interesting items on display but whose size isn’t so daunting that we feel like we’re missing most of it. The Wallace Collection, housed in a historic London mansion, is one of those museums. It was owned by five generations of collectors, including a few Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, before becoming a public collection.

The collection has a little something for everyone: 18th-century French masterpieces and furniture, Galleries of Old Master paintings including Rembrandt, medieval religious manuscripts and a sterling collection of swords and armor.  The museum surround an open-air courtyard restaurant for snacks and afternoon tea.

Website: www.WallaceCollection.org

3)      Royal Air Force Museum

Free things in London RAF Museum

The RAF museum is about a 30-minute Tube ride from central London. It has an incredible amount of planes and helicopters on display in four large hangars. As airplane geeks we’ve been to many aviation museums and this may be the largest. One building is devoted to RAF’s derring do in the World War II Battle of Britain. Antique plane enthusiasts will enjoy the collection of pioneering airplanes in the 1917 Grahame-White Hangar, the UK’s first aircraft factory. If you are traveling with young kids there is LOTS of room to run around and burn off some energy.

Website: www.RAFMuseum.org

4)      Museum of the City of London

Free things in London Museum of London

Photo courtesy www.TravelCultureMag.com

Long before the kings, queens and Big Ben, London was a prehistoric settlement and then a Roman outpost. This museum takes the visitor on a time travel tour from the city’s distant past up to the present day. A combination of displays and interactive exhibits hold the attention of all ages. Feel the heat of the Great Fire of 1666, attend an 18th-century garden party and stroll through Victorian streets before going to the movies in the Roaring Twenties and hanging out with Mick Jagger and Twiggy in the 1960’s. The museum’s location gets visitors in the mood: a starkly modern structure built along the remains of ancient Roman Walls.

Website: www.museumoflondon.org.uk

5)  Victoria and Albert Museum

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhoto courtesy of Walter Lim, Flickr

If decorative arts is your thing, the “V&A” is the place to go. This mammoth museum, located in swanky South Kensington, has some of the world’s largest collections of fashion, textiles, ceramics, jewellery (the “Veddy British” spelling), furniture and glass. Channel your inner designer by viewing the stunning collection of drawings, many of which provide insight on the design process. If you still have the energy, they have wonderful paintings as well.

Note: Although admission is free, the V&A can be a little overwhelming. If you’re pressed for time, or simply prefer to have someone point out the best things to see, we recommend booking this V&A Highlights tour from Viator.

Like it? Share it . . .Pin it!London  red double-decker bus with black and white background

A few other free things in London:

6)  British Museum – Massive collection of over 8 million objects. www.BritishMuseum.org

7)  National Maritime Museum – The largest maritime museum in the world with pride of place going to Admiral Nelson, including the bloody uniform he was wearing when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar. www.rmg.co.uk

8) National Army Museum — Great Britain has a pretty long military history so the Army Museum is a sprawling complex detailing battles going back centuries. I did find one glaring gap though. Their army didn’t seem to be involved in any activity between the War of Spanish Succession that ended in 1714 and the Napoleonic Wars that started in 1795. It seems a little skirmish that occurred in the American colonies has been forgotten.
Web Site: http://www.nam.ac.uk/

[Note: The National Army Museum is temporarily closed until spring 2017 due to a major retrofit.]

9)  The Wellcome Collection – The ghoulish may be interested in this medical collection which includes various body parts and antique medical devices. www.WellcomeCollection.org

10) Tate Modern – We’re not that into modern art, a pile of bricks that looked like they were left by a worker was one of the displays. But if you’re into that sort of thing this is the place to see them. Here’s information on visiting the Tate Modern.

Bonus Pick:

11) Abbey Road – Don’t forget to be a Beatle for a day and cross Abbey Road. It’s free and a lot of fun. Here’s information on how to cross Abbey Road.

This list highlighted 11 free things to do in London. Here’s a list of the 25 best things to do in London.

Sign up for Airbnb through our referral link and you'll get at $35 on your first stay (& so will we :)

Here are the top books about traveling to London.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

London is a fascinating city filled with history. From its official naming in the Roman era to its bustling streets today, the city has always been important to England..

We’ve already written about free things to do in London, and are now revealing many unusual attractions and historical sites that you can visit there. (Many of which are also free.) These are hidden sights in London, the ones that many visitors, and even locals, never see. Here are seven interesting and sometimes bizarre things that you can find in the capital that you won’t want to miss.

Hidden sights in London

The Eisenhower Centre

During World War II, several protective deep level air shelters were built. With kitchen and medical facilities, they were able to hold 8,000 people. The reason that this particular shelter on Chenies Street in Bloomsbury (near the Goodge Street Station) is so famous is because it also doubled as a signals and command facility for General Eisenhower’s during the war. It’s now leased as storage space, but the exterior is a must-visit for military history buffs.

Click here for info, tours and tickets to more World War II sights.

Burlington Arcade Beadles

Burlington Arcade beadles

Burlington Arcade can be found just off Piccadilly and has had its own legal jurisdiction since 1818. It’s like walking into a slice of Edwardian England, with Beadles walking around instead of security guards. If you run, whistle, hum, open an umbrella or do anything that might show a jovial nature, these guards in Edwardian dress will politely ask you to leave. It’s all part of the fun in this odd corner of London.

Ferryman’s Seat

On the South Side of the Thames, near to the Globe is an inconspicuous stone chair that is carved into a wall. This is what could be described as a Middle Ages taxi service where people would wait for the waterman so that they could get a ride through the city and to the other side of the river. A quirky scene, it’s a good site to visit.

Sewer Lamp

We’ve toured the sewers of Paris, but didn’t realize London had an “effluential” attraction too. Just off The Strand stands the Sewer Lamp. It’s long been rumored that the lamp runs on methane produced by the guests at the Savoy Hotel next door. There were actually lamps like these in England to help remove the methane from sewers, but sadly the original lamp was destroyed in a traffic accident. While this one is a replica, it is still an interesting and little known London fact.

York Watergate

Hidden sights in London York Watergate

Before the Victorian Embankment in the 1800s, the houses on the Strand had pride of place with beautiful gardens that fronted the Thames. The home of the first Duke of Buckingham, York House, was one of these and was built in 1237. The gate is all that remains after the house was razed during the 1600s. Here’s more about the tangled history of York Watergate.

Kensington Roof Gardens

The roof garden sits atop the former Derry & Toms department store above busy Kensington high street and consists of 1.5 acres of absolute beauty. With rose bushes and fruit trees sprawling across the grounds, it is also home to wandering flamingos and a stream filled with dazzling fish. It truly is like stepping through a portal to a completely different world.

Skeleton of Jeremy Bentham

In the south cloister of University College London, you can see the remains of the renowned philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham. A respected man, he requested that his body be mummified and displayed after his death, which it was. Unfortunately, it’s decayed so only his bones remain. The head is made from wax but actually contains his skull. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Hopefully you will pay these hidden sights in London a visit. With so many attractions hidden from the public eye and missed out in guidebooks, London offers much for the curious visitor to explore.

Interested in exploring some of these and other unique sights in more detail? Check out this great list of London Walking Tours from Viator!

Like it? Share it . . .Pin it!Quirky sights in London|Unusual sights in London

We’re global nomads who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

We were staying for two weeks in the bucolic Devon countryside, nestled in a remote cottage perched on the edge of Dartmoor. This legendary, perhaps haunted, bog was made famous in works such as The Hound of the Baskervilles. Our visions of long walks down sun-dappled country lanes were washed out by two weeks of rain during the wettest spring on record; which, for England, is saying something. Determined to “keep calm and carry on,” we donned our raincoats and stiff upper lips, and explored the soggy countryside. What we didn’t know was that we were about to encounter killer cows in England.

The moors of Devonshire, home of the "Killer Cows"

Maps in England highlight public rights-of-way where anyone can take a stroll. We brought along such a map and assumed that with it we wouldn’t get lost. That was our first mistake.

Larissa killer cow in England

Larissa rethinks her choice of jacket color when trying not to be noticed by a bull in England.

After an hour we found ourselves somehow in a farmer’s pasture sinking ankle-deep in mud (and whatever other mud-like substance might be deposited in a cow pasture). We stared up a rise at a herd of longhorn bulls none too happy about our presence. That’s when we realized we were on the wrong side of the fence and the only way out was through an electrified gate. Oh, and there was a bull with horns six feet long (okay, maybe three feet long) blocking it and staring at us ominously, as bulls so often do.

A "Killer Cow" blocks the gate in England

Like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the bulls started pawing the ground and glaring at us. We froze, not wanting to antagonize our new friends. After 20 minutes of playing statue in the drenching rain and sinking deeper into the muck  (Michael sank quicker, weighed down by his discovery, earlier in the week, of donuts pumped full with Devonshire cream), he heroically told Larissa to run for it while he distracted the bulls with his umbrella. (Hey, it’s all he had.)

England electric fence for "Killer Cows"

Larissa thwacked across the muddy field in her hiking sandals while Michael charged up the hill, his souvenir umbrella from the Louvre in Paris leading the way. Unfortunately it didn’t open since he had forgotten to undo the strap. Once that was all sorted out he charged again, counting on the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa to frighten the bulls.

 Our only protection from the "Killer Cows" of EnglandSomehow the bulls weren’t scared of this choice of weapon.

While Michael held the confused bulls at bay, Larissa employed the dexterity of a bomb squad engineer to unhook the electric fence from the car battery that powered it. We scrambled over the fence, proud that just one of us tore their pants, only to run into the neighboring farm’s tenacious sheep dogs who promptly started biting Michael in the ankle.

If this is a bucolic walk in the English countryside you can keep it.

We’re global nomads who have been traveling the world since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

We love finding secret spots in a big, touristy city like London. Not far from the murky River Thames lies the burial location of Benedict Arnold; the most notorious traitor of the American Revolution. The American general plotted a handover of the fort at West Point to the British for a tidy sum of money, making his name synonymous with treachery.

He moved to London after the war to evade capture; bringing along his young wife Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia judge and granddaughter of the founder of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.

The Arnolds lie buried in the crypt below St. Mary’s of Battersea, a Georgian-era stone church overlooking the Thames. Visitors can call the church to gain special access to the tomb.

Benedict Arnold buried in London crypt (1024x781)

Sunny, the parish administrator, led us into the lower recesses of the church. The word “crypt” conjured up images of a gloomy spider-web infested cave. What we saw surprised us. The space bears the low vaulted stone ceilings one would expect, but the brightly-lit walls are painted a vivid white.

burial location of benedict arnold

Colorful accents are provided by a tropical fish tank and children’s artwork adorning the walls. The Arnolds’ burial tomb is now located in St. Mary’s kindergarten. In fact, the plaque adorning their grave is almost obscured by the aquarium, giving new meaning to the term “swim with the fishes.”

benedict arnold buried in london

Arnold’s headstone is telling of his convoluted life. It states, “Benedict Arnold, 1741-1801, Sometime general in the army of George Washington. The two nations whom he served in turn in the years of their enmity have united in enduring friendship.” The plaque is a recent addition, donated in 2004 by an American who felt Arnold’s accomplishments as a hero of the Revolution, before he became a turncoat, have been overlooked.

Upstairs in the church sanctuary an ornate stained glass window is also dedicated to Arnold. British Union Jacks and American Stars-and-Stripes are crisscrossed in friendship. It was donated by yet another American during the Bicentennial in 1976. Benedict Arnold, who died a traitor to the Americans and in obscurity by the British, managed to garner a following some 200 years after his death.

benedict arnold buried in london battersea church

 

⇒Book this tour to see more Secret Spots in London



Visitor information:

Call ahead to visit Benedict Arnold’s tomb at St. Mary’s of Battersea.

For more American Revolution history in England read about the Benjamin Franklin house in London.

Like it? Share it . . . Pin it!American traitor or British hero? The tomb of Benedict Arnold lies in an unlikely spot in a London church.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

In 1757, Benjamin Franklin left his hometown of Philadelphia for a move to England, where he represented the diplomatic interests of the American colonies. His stay turned into a nearly 16 year London sojourn as he mediated disputes between Parliament and the increasingly restless colonies.

Franklin rented a single room in a circa Read more

We sought a break from the bustle of London at a remote cottage perched on the edge of Dartmoor; the legendary, perhaps haunted, bog in southwest England that achieved fame in novels such as The Hound of the Baskervilles. Our visions of long walks across the sun-dappled moor were washed out by two weeks of rain following the wettest spring on record; which, for England, is saying something. (It wasn’t until the end of our stay that we learned at a local tavern that Dartmoor is one of the soggiest places in the entire country.)

Determined to “keep calm and carry on” in the finest British tradition, we donned our raincoats and stiff upper lips, and explored the soggy countryside. The visitor’s center at Dartmoor National Park optimistically posted the weather forecast as “brightening;” which basically means “less clouds,” as good as it gets around here.

Dartmoor clouds black and white lomo (700x522) (575x429)

Perhaps the forecast was really more of a wish, as we hiked along a narrow country path the fog enveloped us like a damp cotton comforter and reduced visibility to arm’s length. Forget pea soup, this fog was more opaque than the can it came in. In the murky atmosphere we tried to erase from our minds the legend of the hairy beast that haunts the moors, carrying off wandering travelers.

After a mile or so a Gothic moss-covered stone building loomed out of the mist. We could just make out the letters “Dartmoor Prison” and, somewhat incongruously, a “Welcome visitors” sign. We had stumbled upon the only prison museum in England that is still attached to a working prison. We didn’t realize that it also contained a little known fact related to American military history.

Dartmoor prison entrance (549x625) copy

As we entered the museum, curator Brian Dingle recognized our accents and said, “I bet you didn’t know American prisoners of war were held here.” We immediately thought back to World War II, and wondered why American soldiers would be imprisoned by the British; but we were thinking of the wrong century, and the wrong war.

Built in 1806, Dartmoor Prison housed prisoners of war who had formerly been held on disease-ridden prison ships just off the coast. Among them were captured American soldiers and sailors from the War of 1812, alongside French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars. Though there was one stark difference between the two groups; since the former colonists were considered traitors to the British Crown, they were treated worse than the French.

dartmoor prison

The Americans started arriving in 1813, leading to severe overcrowding; the cold, damp conditions became breeding grounds for disease. One American prisoner of war described the setting as, “An incredibly bleak place. It is either rainy, snowy or foggy the entire year round.”

The exhibits convey the history of the prison, alongside a gallery devoted to prisoner’s works of art. A section in the darker recesses displays contraband confiscated from the prisoners; including an escape rope assembled from bed sheets tied together to a grappling hook that was found quite recently. Given the dreary climate, it’s understandable why a prisoner’s thoughts would turn to escape.

On our way out of the museum the obliging Mr. Dingle popped up again and declared, “You must see the church up the road, after all, your people helped build it.” Another secret of the fog-shrouded moor was about to be revealed.

st michaels church dartmoor

If “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” the prisoners were put to use in a somewhat more pious endeavor. The Americans and French worked side-by-side building the Church of St. Michael and All Angels. Built from locally quarried granite, it sits atop one of the highest elevations of any church in the country; and bears the weatherworn marks of its windswept setting to prove it.

When we approached the churchyard it was so encased in fog that only the barest outlines of the chapel and surrounding cemetery were visible. We felt as if we had stumbled into a horror movie set. The appearance of each row of crumbling headstones, rising out of the haze like ranks of soldiers on parade, acted as spectral signposts pointing the way to the narthex. The chills set off as we walked through the cemetery were alleviated a bit inside.

st michaels church dartmoor war of 1812

At the only church in England built by American prisoners, amends have been made in the shape of the stained-glass East Window, a tribute to the American prisoners of war who died in captivity at Dartmoor Prison. Depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ, it was donated a century ago by the “National Society of United States Daughters of 1812,” a group dedicated to preserving the memory of those who fought in the war. In the chilly sanctuary, we lit votive candles and prayed for the 271 American soldiers who are buried nearby, some in the church cemetery and others behind the prison.

We walked out of the church and, as if on cue, the fog had lifted and the sun made a glorious appearance.  After a few days of doom and gloom, it took our eyes some time to adjust to the blinding bright sunshine. The church basked in the warm glow, grateful for a chance to dry out and put on a better appearance. Although its origins were grim, it has risen above its past to provide a place of solace and respite for those in need of it; and a refuge from the storm for travelers. Today it stands as a fitting memorial to the captured soldiers, many never to return home, who built it.

Dartmoor St Michaels Church (575x427)

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 26th as a Memorial Day tribute.

Further information for visitors:

Dartmoor Prison Museum: www.dartmoor-prison.co.uk

Church of St. Michael and All Angels: www.visitchurches.org.uk

Two of the most iconic pop culture sites in the world are the Rocky steps in Philadelphia and Abbey Road in London. Tourists run up the Rocky steps in a practically 24/7 rotation while fans emulating the Beatles are constantly holding up traffic on Abbey Road.

One of the reasons they’re so popular is they took someplace ordinary and made it extraordinary. Movie fans thrilled when Rocky sprinted up the steps, he was finally ready for his match with Apollo Creed. For Beatles fans, the Abbey Road album cover created a spot where they could literally walk in their heroes’ footsteps.

Rocky steps Philadelphia Core Fitness

The ladies of Core Fitness celebrate with Little Rocky after running up the steps.

What also makes these two places unique is that you can actually do something there. Even mere mortals can take part in the event: crossing a street or running up a set of steps becomes something special. The activity can even translate to other places.

We were walking through the ruins of Pompeii when we spotted four teenagers replicating the album cover. Due to the Beatles, four people can have their picture taken crossing any street in the world and onlookers will know what they’re doing. Rocky gave any set of stairs the potential to be the Rocky steps. When I was in high school we’d run bleachers for track practice and hum the Rocky theme.

Abbey Road in London

Who knew the Beatles were popular in ancient Pompeii?

The universality of Rocky became clear to us in Malaysia. It was another oppressively hot, sticky day in Kuala Lumpur. The heat and the humidity were locked in mortal combat to see which could reach 100 first. We had just climbed the legendary 272 steps to reach the summit at Batu Caves, a Hindu holy site. This feat was so arduous it was a task in The Amazing Race where the competitors had to tell the person at the top the correct number of steps or start over.  We lost track after about a dozen so fortunately no one was waiting for us to deliver this information.

As we stopped to catch our breath and impress each other with our fitness level we heard the unmistakable sound of a young man blaring out the Rocky theme. Fortunately we had our Little Rocky statue with us. Patrick was the ringleader of a group of four friends from Brazil who had just climbed the steps. He said the theme song just came to him while he was climbing. We took a few photos of Patrick and his entourage with Little Rocky. Who thought that in southeast Asia we’d hear the Rocky theme?

Batu caves

Patrick and a group from Brazil after climbing to Batu Caves.

In a perfect world, the Beatles would have run up the Rocky steps. Since that’s not possible we decided to have Rocky cross Abbey Road. In a strange mish-mash of cultural icons, we met a group of students from Indiana who were also remembering the Beatles. One of them, the musically named Dylan, is such a huge Rocky fan that his dog is named Rocky Balboa. He’s the kid in the black shirt in the video below.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxmK1WjAQIg[/youtube]

 

Abbey road in London

Something about the neighborhood must attract rock royalty.

How to visit Abbey Road

Take the Jubilee Line on the London Underground to the St. John’s Wood stop. It’s about a 10-minute walk from there. At the entrance to the station is the “Beatles Coffee Shop” which sells snacks and Beatles merchandise. (Extra points to anyone who knows which Rolling Stones song mentions St. John’s Wood.) NOTE: There is another Underground stop called Abbey Road but that is a different Abbey Road and is way across town from where you want to go.

If you’re having a slow day there is even a web cam to watch people dodging cars and crossing Abbey Road.

Click the link to read more about the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia.

Can you name some other pop culture icons to visit?

For geography geeks a visit to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich is a must. Located just down the Thames from central London, it’s the home of both the Prime Meridian (zero degrees longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time; the time upon which all others are based. A popular activity for visitors is standing with one foot on either side of the Prime Meridian so they are in both the Western and Eastern Hemispheres.  But there’s more: London’s only planetarium, a free astronomy museum and the adjacent National Maritime Museum that’s also free.

Royal Observatory Astronomy centre

At the Astronomy Centre you can touch a prehistoric meteorite from Namibia.

With a web site named “Changes In Longitude” naturally we had to visit the Prime Meridian. While some of the sites at the Royal Observatory are free, entrance to the Prime Meridian costs 7 pounds ($11). For this fee the visitor can also enter Flamsteed House to see where the Astronomers Royal lived and worked along with the Octagon Room, a wonderfully decorated observatory where some of the telescopes can still be used.

Royal Observatory Octagon room

The Octagon Room is a one of the few surviving interiors designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

The room, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was supposed to be used to calculate the earth’s position but since none of the windows lined up with a meridian, ironic given its location, measurements had to be taken from a small shed on the grounds. No one dared bring this little problem up with King Charles II who funded the Observatory.

One of the most popular exhibits is the bronze line embedded in the courtyard that signifies the Prime Meridian of the world: Longitude 0˚ 0’ 0’’. Visitors line up to have their picture taken as they straddle the line and proclaim themselves “king of the world.” Names of major cities around the globe are carved in stone to show their relative longitudes.

Royal Observatory Greenwich Prime Meridian Line Visit

Straddling the world at longitude zero.

The museum’s exhibits highlight the discovery of longitude by a self-taught inventor named John Harrison in the 18th century. Before he came along, ships could view the stars to calculate their latitude, but had no reliable means of gauging their longitude. This lack of knowledge about their relative position led to ships crashing onto the rocks of western England as they returned home.

Harrison’s invention was an ingenious clock that could accurately keep time at sea, a requirement for calculating longitude. His actual clocks are on display in the museum and highlight the thought process leading up to the breakthrough H4, a timepiece that was every bit as revolutionary in its day as an iPad is today.

Royal Observatory Greenwich Harrison H4 timepiece

This unassuming device solved the problem of longitude and saved thousands of lives.

For even more about the discovery of longitude, read the captivating book: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel.

A visit to Royal Observatory Greenwich is a highlight for travelers interested in many subjects from geography to seafaring to outer space. But just wait until the Olympics are over, it’s closed until August 4th because equestrian events are taking place on the grounds.

Visitor’s Information

For visitor’s information click the Royal Observatory web site.

Click the link to Amazon to learn more about the book Longitude.

Prime Meridian line Greenwich

Even Little Rocky couldn't resist hamming it up at the Prime Meridian.