In an earlier post, I wrote that I have a love of history stemming from my studies in literature and music and the history surrounding the arts. The arts have certainly influenced me, but long before I went to college, my father, Daniel Barton, was my first influence. He loves a good story, and historical adventures. He is a treasure trove of British and American naval history and raised my sister and I on sailboats. Understanding the history of Great Britain, particularly England, means understanding naval history. The British have always been a nation of sailors. It is their skill in sailing and naval warfare that propelled them to the position of being a world power with Elizabeth I’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The British went on to colonize and influence much of the world. Tea, spices and textiles, were much sought after as luxury goods. Natural resources such as lumber provided a means of continuing Britain’s shipbuilding industry. Britain’s colonial history is complicated, messy, and controversial, especially in places such as India and Africa. Not all those who were colonized wanted or needed to be colonized, and colonization has had long lasting implications. When I visited India and London, I observed a very complicated relationship between modern Indians and the English. The Indian people saw the English colonization through the East Indian Tea Company as an affront to their ancient culture and traditions. Still, I noticed in India that the English tradition of tea time in the mornings and afternoons is observed, only with chai tea and English shortbread cookies. In London, Indian restaurants are bountiful and Indian spices are frequently used. It makes me wonder, who influenced who?
Aside from colonial controversy, I inherited an appreciation of all things related to boats from my father. I simply had to go to either Greenwich or Portsmouth when Jim and I visited London. Dad voted for Portsmouth, but Greenwich is just a short boat ride down the Thames from London. Jim and I took the Underground from our hotel in South Kensington, not far from Buckingham Palace and Harrods’s, to Westminster Pier. We boarded a boat from the pier and enjoyed views of London from the water while listening to a tour guide’s description of how the Thames has played a part in London shipping and trading as well as stories about the buildings we passed.
Once we got to Greenwich, it was a short walk to the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. The National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory lie at opposite ends of a large park. The end of the park that houses the Royal Observatory is on a hill overlooking the town of Greenwich. In dry dock by the National Maritime Museum is the most fascinating attraction for those who love ships, the Cutty Sark, the famous clipper ship whose likeness decorates bottles of Cutty Sark Scotch. The Cutty Sark was part of the tea trade, and later, the Australian wool trade. She is the last surviving clipper ship of England’s glory days in the tea trade. She was built in 1869, and spent a few years sailing trade routes before she and her sister clipper ships were superseded by steam ships that could use the Suez canal for a shorter route East. Like other clipper ships, she was built with taller masts, a slimmer hull and a whole lot of sail in order to sail faster. She was the racer of her day, and the pinnacle of clipper design. Today, she is preserved in dry dock, masts standing tall and proud, with docents ready to tell stories of her adventures of sailing to Asia and back again. Boxes of tea are aboard with placards to explain how the tea trade worked. The Cutty Sark is raised, and there is a cafe below her, so you can see her gleaming hull. Fascinating!
We went on to the National Maritime Museum near Cutty Sark’s dry dock which included much of Great Britain’s proud naval history. An entire room was dedicated to Lord Nelson’s death aboard the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. It also included a barge from the reign of the Hanover Kings. As a music scholar, I remember the stories about George I and his court composer George Frederick Handel floating down the Thames on barges while Handel’s orchestra performed his famous composition, Water Music. The barge in the museum had been preserved much as it would have been in 1717 when Water Music first debuted.
After the National Maritime Museum, we walked out through the park to the village of Greenwich. The section of Greenwich near the park looks exactly like what I pictured an old English town to look like with quaint old storefronts and pubs, so Jim and I stopped at an old pub for a pint and a plate of meats, cheeses and bread.
After our break, we went back to the park and hiked the hill to the Royal Observatory. If you have ever been a sailor, or been aboard a ship, you may have heard the term, Greenwich Mean Time. If you have, that means that Greenwich keeps time for the world. It is 0 time. If you have ever heard of the Primer Meridian, it is here. We get our time standards from Greenwich. The astronomers who were appointed by the reigning monarch stayed here with their families and not only studied the stars, but explored new ways to aid navigation.
During our time in Greenwich, I wished my father was with us. As an old salt with time in the United States Coast Guard, time as First mate aboard the Halve Maen, the replica of Henry Hudson’s ship that explored the Hudson River in 1609, and many, many days of sailing our own family sloops ranging from 12 to 40 feet, he understands navigation far better than I do, or ever will. I love to write and I love history and music, but math was always my nemesis. I won’t attempt any more than the most elementary explanation of navigation and what we saw at the royal Observatory here. Suffice it to say that in order to figure out where they were with more precision, mariners needed to time how far they were from Greenwich. Every hour they sailed away from Greenwich equaled 15 degrees longitude on the charts. This is modern longitude. Problem was, not only only did they need clocks which were precise, but which could also withstand the motion of the ships and ocean. A prize was offered for the invention of a maritime clock that could keep accurate time even aboard a rocking (and sometimes rolling) wooden ship. Trust me. I’ve been aboard the Haeve Maen. Those wooden ships do rock and roll. John Harrison puzzled over 5 variations of his maritime chronometer until one worked. He finally was awarded some prize money from George III before his death in 1776. You can still see his chronometers, or maritime clocks, when you visit the Royal Observatory. They are exquisite time pieces, beautifully fashioned unlike anything clock makers produce today. There are placards and docents available to explain navigation and the part that the clock played as navigation aids.
After we spent the day between the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, we decided to head back to London. My advice is to get right back on the boat to Westminster Pier. Yes, you can take the Underground, but we couldn’t find a station nearby and ended up walking for the better part of an hour through places that were not as pretty as the park or the section where we had lunch to finally get to one. The boat is a far easier and more pleasant option, even if it is a little more expensive.
For the mariners in your life, Greenwich is a must. Visiting the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum, and the Royal Observatory sheds light on Britain’s proud maritime tradition.