On Monday November 28, 2016 I took a rather chilly afternoon stroll to Greenwich. My oyster card had gone missing the past Saturday evening and it felt like the universe was telling me to get out and go walk. I had planned to check out the park and the observatory… and to possibly purchase some Christmas presents while I was at it. Greenwich had been on my list of things to see for quite some time, so I figured a 1.2 mile walk from New Cross would be worth the fresh air and the history I would find.
I began down New Cross Road and took a left onto Greenwich High Road, passing at first pretty run-down shops and buildings and then suddenly entered quite an interesting area filled with posh boutiques, antique stores, and public houses. Even on a Monday the whole area was busy. I took a right onto Crooms Hill and less than a block away was an entrance to Greenwich Park. Walking in, I realized why Charles Dickens called public parks “the lungs of London” (1836). Stretched out before me was a huge grassy lawn strewn with brittle trees, interrupted only by an avenue in the center leading up a hill. A parade passed by me composed of sportily dressed women walking little dogs and runners exhaling clouds of vapor in the still air. It seemed like everyone was enjoying the rare sunlight and the crisp autumn turning winter…and I felt I the urge to do the same.
Meandering through the park, I turned up The Avenue and climbed a hill towards the Observatory. Then, looking behind me, I was gifted a stunning view of the Thames past the Queen’s House below with the skyline of London shining beyond. I learned in my later research that Greenwich Park and the buildings within it have quite a long history (the land itself dates all the way back the Danes in the 11th century) and it is easy to see why such an area has been kept green since Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, inherited it in 1433. The Tudors and the Stuarts each had manors on the land, and the wife of James I commissioned the Queens house in 1616 (which Charles I gave to his wife upon its completion in 1635).
view from the top of the hill near the observatory
However, it was the Observatory really caught my attention. It was stunning. An impressive brick structure, it was designed in the classical style by Christopher Wren during the mid-17th century under the observation of Charles II. It originally housed the Astronomers Royal, and through its lifetime saw the development of longitudinal mapping and the global standardization of time, itself. The Greenwich tourism website proudly proclaims: Everywhere on Earth is measured from here. With the advent of rail networks and communication technologies in the mid 19th century, a global accurate measurement of time was necessary. In 1884, the Royal Observatory was named latitude 0.0, and sits at the divide between the eastern and western hemispheres. Earths 360 degree circumference, divided by every 15 degrees in longitude, equals 24 hours in a day.
the Shepherd Gate Clock at the Royal Observatory displaying Greenwich Mean Time
Although Greenwich Park was a historical site for science, it was also a historical site for fun & recreation. A three-day event starting Easter Monday, the Greenwich Fair occupied an entire chapter in Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz from 1836. It was described by Dickens as “a periodical breaking out…a fever which cools the blood for six months afterwards” (113). From his descriptions, the fair seemed like a sight to behold. There were food vendors, merchants, old folks, young people, plenty of beer and plenty of shenanigans. Dickens humorously describes that after a morning spent at the public houses, the “chief place of resort is the park, in which the principal amusement is to drag young ladies up the steep hill which leads to the Observatory and then drag them down again” (115). It was interesting to think that I had stood at the top of the very same hill, and amusing to imagine drunken Victorians tumbling down it.
Two walkers, two eras, same hill. Tumbling down the terraced hill at the Greenwich Fair in 1804 (courtesy of the National Maritime Museum) and the same hill in 2016.
But what I find to be most important is the way the fair made people come alive in the springtime. It allowed them an escape from the rigorous monotony of industrial work (as Dickens called ‘plodding industry’) and a much needed vacation from both responsibility and sobriety (113). It provided relaxation and ridiculousness for an urban population that spent the majority of their days indoors. Dickens writes wistfully of “the humblest mechanic” whose feet rest softly on the grass of the park rather than beating “the same dull round from week to week in the paved streets of London” (116). The laborer was able to rest, to feel proud of and part of something. It seems the entire community was brought together on the green grass of Greenwich Park.
In many ways an urban park is an escape from the city within the city, a break from oppressive towering buildings and the demands of industrial labor. It is interesting that Greenwich allowed people to engage both with the natural sciences and with the nature of humanity. The historical scientific developments that were made in the Observatory allowed people to see and to realize the wonders of the planet, while the fair allowed them to embrace the wonders of simply being human and simply being themselves.
I left the park feeling a lot less stressed than I had upon entering. Like Dickens, I felt that the the grass and trees had somehow given me the oxygen I had been lacking. Granted, I did not drink gallons of alcohol for three days, but I was rejuvenated all the same.
Dickens, Charles. “Chaprer VII: The Greenwich Fair” in Sketches by Boz. 1836. John Macrone, London: St James Square. Electronically published in 2007 by Penn State University Press. http://engl387-buscemi.wikispaces.umb.edu/file/view/Sketches+by+Boz+PDF.pdf