A day in Greenwich: Exploring the Old Royal Naval College, Queen’s House, Meridian Line and the Cutty Sark
Living in south-west London, a huge city that can require a bit of an odyssey to cross, means I don’t often head to East London. Bizarrely, I’ve spent more days this year flying abroad to explore other cities than I have actually explored my own city. Recently I’ve made more of an effort to play the tourist in my own city, visiting Ham House, Kew Gardens, Little Venice and the Royal Academy’s famous Summer Exhibition (for the first time in 6 years of living here!) and last weekend had the opportunity to explore Greenwich, in south-east London. Greenwich is a village with royal origins immediately south of the River Thames, south of Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs and it’s known for its own special atmosphere and community, far from the busy crowds of central London.
I started my day at Greenwich Market, then wandered around the Old Royal Naval College and the Queen’s House, before heading up the hill in Greenwich Park to the Royal Observatory and Meridian Line. Finally, a friend and I boarded the Cutty Sark, an old tea clipper which was once the fastest ship in the world. I was invited to explore Greenwich for the day by Hotels.com, who offer a selection of hotels near Greenwich in case you’re visiting from outside London and wanted to use the area as your base.
In the village itself is a quaint old covered market that will be my new go-to for original, handmade presents – I could have bought something from literally every stall! Alongside stalls selling art, photography, crafts and pieces you can commission, are a handful of food stalls selling everything from oysters to cheese, from macaroons to churros. A good option if there’s a rain spell and you’re looking for more bespoke souvenirs from London.
The Old Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum
Greenwich has strong links to the navy and the sea, with both the Old Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum based here. This huge symmetrical complex of neoclassical buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren over 300 years ago, leading down to the water’s edge, is quite the place to get your bearings. Much of it is now occupied by a music academy and a university, but it originally trained sailors in the Royal Navy, as well as providing a place for naval pensioners to convalesce when injured or in old age. Nowadays you can marvel at the exteriors and explore the Painted Hall (£10 for a guided tour) which was used as a dining room for sailors, and the Naval College Chapel (free). The National Maritime Museum is also a must-see (free), with a fantastic world map on the floor of the cafe, and some great exhibitions on Britain’s history as a sea power.
The Queen’s House
Neatly aligned with the Royal Naval College is the Queen’s House, built as a royal residence that for a time became the centre of court, far more popular than Whitehall and Buckingham Palace. It’s been through several different guises since then and now houses a great exhibition of maritime art – I highly recommend a look in here.
Greenwich Park, the Royal Observatory and Meridian Line
Continue south into pretty Greenwich Park and walk 5 minutes up the hill for two things: firstly to look back down over the park, Queen’s House, Royal Naval College and Canary Wharf across the Thames. You can even see as far as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Shard to the west. It’s one of the best views in all of London, if not my favourite! And secondly you can visit the Royal Observatory and stand on the Meridian line – the line that divides the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, and the line from which all longitudes are calculated. It’s also where the name of the UK’s timezone GMT originated (which stands for ‘Greenwich Mean Time’). London’s only planetarium is here, another good option for a rainy day.
The Cutty Sark
Sitting right on the waterfront is the Cutty Sark, a wooden sailing ship that in the 1700s and 1800s transported vast quantities of tea, cotton and other items across the world, manned by a crew of just 26. You can explore two layers below deck and up on deck admire the huge masts and sails that powered the ship, as well as step inside the cramped living quarters and cabins of the officers and sailors.
I grew up on the south coast of England and visited lots of the historic ships in Southampton and Portsmouth as a child, but it had been a long time since I’d last visited a tall ship, so the Cutty Sark didn’t fail to impress! The most unusual part to visit though is below the hull of the ship – by an amazing feat of engineering they’ve elevated the ship so that you walk below the hull (which amazingly didn’t have a keel) and even take afternoon tea there!
We finished off the day with a relaxed drink in a sunny pub garden nearby and happily felt a million miles away from the rest of London. Granted, it did take a long time to get there and back, but it was honestly as good for soothing my travel bug as flying abroad, so I highly recommend a visit!
Have you visited Greenwich and what did you like best? Which other lesser-known areas of London would you recommend I visit next?
The spending money for our day in Greenwich was gifted by Hotels.com, but all views are my own.