Venturing Further Out into London
London Rain, Royal Gardens, Longitude, and Tennis
There are two Londons. Well, a case could be made that there are many more than that, but for the purposes of our traveling family there are two. The first is the City of London, a relatively small town that's essentially the (really) tiny hole to Greater London's donut.
As mentioned previously, we spent a full 18 days in London, due in large part to the generosity of my brother who let us share his (surprisingly large) Westminster-adjacent flat (I'm still a little fuzzy on the geography of the city's neighborhoods).
London, in addition to being one of the oldest cities in the world, was the most expensive one we'd visited on our year-long trip. But having a no-cost home base allowed us to explore a good swath of the city and live like locals for a little longer than we would have been able to otherwise. Most of the time, we stayed within the general confines of the City of London, but a few times we roamed further afield, usually for some adventure or another.
Our friends Sam and Fran live in London, but when they lived in Los Angeles, their son went to daycare with Frankie. They invited us out to Kew, near Heathrow Airport, for a picnic lunch at Kew Gardens, a Unesco World Heritage Site that's home to the world's largest collection of living plants (something like 40,000 species). It had been about nine years since we'd seen them, and we were very much looking forward to meeting up with them.
On the day of the picnic, we woke to the traditional sound of a good English rain. Until that point, the weather in London had been quite sunny and warm, but we weren't about to let a little rain slow us down. So we dialed up an Uber (back when we still used Uber) and took a rider over to Kew Gardens. Our driver was an affable gent with a thick cockney accent, and he, like most other Uber drivers we met in London, had nothing but disdain for "The Knowledge," the test one must pass in order to pilot one of the city's iconic black cabs.
Our driver dropped us off at the gate to Kew Gardens where we met Sam and Fran and their son. It was a great reunion, and we were determined to make the best of it despite the rain. Sam and Fran, being proper Londoners, had plenty of umbrellas to go around, so we found a mostly dry spot and started setting up for a soggy picnic. Luck was on our side that day, though. Soon after we spread the blanket on the ground and started setting out the food, the rain stopped and the sun even peeked out from behind the clouds.
After we ate lunch, we strolled around the various pathways of the 326 acres that make up the gardens, eventually ending up at the Treetop Walkway. This roughly circular steel bridge stands about 18 meters (around 60 feet) off the ground. Designed by the same firm that is responsible for the London Eye (they like to make things that get people high up, apparently), the structure offer great views of Kew Gardens and even the sprawl of Grater London. It reminded us a lot of the similarly named Tree Top Walkway we explored in King's Park in Perth, Australia.
There are a lot of historic buildings inside Kew Gardens, but Palm House is probably the recognizable of them.
It was built way back in 1844 of glass and wrought iron. It was built to hold exotic plants from tropical climates, and it's quite warm and humid inside—not unlike walking in a rainforest. This must have been a pretty strange place to walk through back in Victorian times.
George III's Summer House
They say this is the oldest building in Kew Gardens, dating back to 1631, and it's where King George III (the gent who was in charge when the American colonies decided to fight for independence) spent his summers and battled through bouts of his now-infamous madness. We didn't go inside, but it's definitely a striking building.
After that, we bought the kids some ice cream, then retreated to a local pub, The Cricketers, for a little relaxation and refreshment. We even had the chance to take in enjoy an amateur cricket on the green adjacent to the pub. It was all very civilized.
We'd crossed numerous lines of longitude during our adventures, so we were very keen on visiting Greenwich, a district in Greater London that's home to the Prime Meridian—that imaginary line on the Earth's surface which has the distinction of being 0° longitude and stands as the demarcation point between the western and eastern hemispheres.
One day we took the train out to Greenwich and walked toward the Royal Observatory, a site selected by Sir Christopher Wren (the architect who designed, among other things, St. Paul's Cathedral) in 1674. Along the way, we couldn't help but notice a giant ship in a bottle, placed high on a pillar, in front of at the National Maritime Museum.
Victory in a Bottle
This is a scale replica of Lord Nelson's ship Victory, and it's a creation of artist Yinka Shonibare. It was first unveiled in 2010 as a temporary display in Trafalgar Square, but proved to be so popular it was relocated to its current location in 2012.
We continued on, making our way up the hill from the National Maritime Museum to the Royal Observatory, another Unesco World Heritage Site. In addition to being the location of 0° longitude, the Royal Observatory was, for centuries, the place people—particularly mariners at the nearby port—looked when they needed to set their clocks to Greenwich Mean Time. Every day, a giant red "time ball" drops at 1:00 p.m. (that's 13:00 for most of the world). This method of establishing accurate time started in 1833 and has happened nearly every day since.
The ball works in conjunction with the Shepherd Gate Clock, a giant 24-hour electric timepiece mounted in the brick facade of the (you guessed it) Shepherd Gate (named for engineer and clockmaker Charles Shepherd) outside the Royal Observatory. It was installed in 1852 and is likely the first timepiece to display Greenwich Mean Time in a public location. It's still ticking along today, The dial was replaced after it was damaged in World War II, but the internal mechanism is the same.
The Prime Meridian
So of course the big draw is the Prime Meridian. We learned a lot about how this imaginary line was established and the different iterations it went through. But today, there's a stainless steel line embedded in the ground outside the Observatory so you can literally stand with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one foot in the western hemisphere. The line to enjoy this experience was long, but we waited anyway. It was a strangely satisfying moment.
Naturally, being a bit of a geo-location nut myself, I had to take a reading as I straddled the Prime Meridian. I couldn't dial in to exactly 0° (and there's a plaque nearby explaining why), but I got pretty close.
There's also a green laser that shoots out from the Observatory along the Prime Meridian. It's sort of hard to see during the day (and difficult to photograph), but at it can be seen for miles at night.
As you probably know, the Earth is crossed by a series of imaginary lines. Latitude lines run east to west and longitude lines run north to south. Any point on the earth is located at the intersection of two of these lines. This was important to early maritime navigation. Latitude is reasonably easy to determine using the stars, but finding an accurate longitude reading proved to be a bit trickier. Basically, if you know what time it is at a fixed point (say, Greenwich, London), a navigator can determine longitude. But the clocks of the day couldn't keep accurate time at sea due to a variety of factors (variations in humidity, temperature, and atmospheric pressure, mainly).
Enter John Harrison, the English clockmaker who finally solved this problem by making a clock both reliable enough and accurate enough to keep Greenwich Time on ocean-going ships. harrison designed a number of iterations of this clock, and finally got it right on the fifth try. The watch, known as the H5, keeps time accurate to within one-third of one second. All five sea watches are on display at an exhibit inside the Observatory.
If you're as fascinated as I am by the search for a solution to the longitude problem, the whole story is recounted in Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel.
We happened to bu lucky enough to be visiting London when the annual The Championships, Wimbledon tennis extravaganza was happening. And we happened to be lucky enough to score a few tickets to check it out.
So, once again, we hopped on the Undergound and headed out to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club to take in some tennis. While our experience at Roland Garros (the French Open) was a bit disappointing, Wimbledon was quite the opposite. We had a great time.
One of the nice things about Wimbledon was how close the seats were to the action on the courts. In many cases, as long as a there was open space on a bench, any visitor can get a front-row seat to almost any match. We watched quite a few matches this way and even got to see Luxembourg's Gilles Müller play in a doubles match alongside Aisam -ul-Haq Qureshi from Pakistan. They lost, but it was a hard-fought match.
Some people asked us if strawberries & cream is a real thing that goes on at Wimbledon. And I can assure you ... it is. I can also assure you that quite a large number of Pimm's Cups are consumed at Wimbledon each year. We (the adults, anyway) may have even consumed a few ourselves.
And with that, our 18 continuous days in London came to an end. The next morning it was off to Heathrow where we'd retrieve our car and head north to the small town of Olney.
This report comprises days 312 to 316.