Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Marking the meridian - October 2004

The Prime Meridian is 120 years old today. That's the imaginary north-south line through Greenwich which divides the world into western and eastern hemispheres, and from which longitude and universal time are measured. It passes less than a kilometre from my house. And we'd be lost without it.

Noon was once simply the time when the sun was directly overhead. The advent of rail travel in the 19th century forced many countries to standardise time based on a national meridian. The UK adopted Greenwich Mean Time in 1880, while the French preferred their own meridien through Paris instead. A global standard was clearly required, so in 1884 US President Chester Arthur invited delegates from around the world to Washington to attend the first (and last) International Meridian Conference.

There were an infinite number of possible meridians, each stretching from the North to the South Pole, and any one of these could have been chosen. However, the Greenwich Meridian was pre-eminent because it had already been adopted by the UK and USA and was therefore being used by 72% of the world's shipping. The French backed down, but only in return for the rest of the world agreeing to think about adopting their system of metric measures. The crucial conference vote was taken on 13 October, with France and Brazil abstaining and only San Domingo in opposition. And so time began at Greenwich (latitude 51°28'38"N, longitude 0°).
"That the Conference proposes to the Governments here represented the adoption of the meridian passing through the centre of the transit instrument at the Observatory of Greenwich as the initial meridian for longitude."
Ayes 22; noes 1; abstaining 2. (13 October 1884)

To celebrate today's anniversary I'm taking you on a journey up the zero degree line of longitude from Greenwich to the M25, stopping off at all the places where the meridian has been marked in some way. There are plaques and monuments, sundials and statues, and an awful lot of random everyday objects that just happen to lie on this most special of lines. Plus it's a great excuse for a walk through East London. Do join me.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory

Millions of tourists have stood precisely here, in the courtyard at the Royal Greenwich Observatory astride the famous brass meridian line. Cameras at the ready, left leg in the western hemisphere, right leg in the eastern hemisphere, click. The meridian passes directly through the observatory, and is precisely defined by the centre of the crosshairs of George Airy's 1851 transit telescope. Above the telescope on the outside of the building there's a clock counting the days since the Millennium, a silver plaque and a tiny hole out of which a green laser shines along the meridian after dark, visible for many miles to the north. The red line down the face of the building marks the precise longitude at which time begins. But it's not the original Greenwich Meridian.

Flamsteed House was built in 1675 on the highest ground within Greenwich Park, the perfect location for an observatory with unobstructed views of the sky over London. Unfortunately the windows of Christopher Wren's magnificent Octagon Room were found to be pointing slightly off the north-south axis, and so the first Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed made all his observations from a shed at the bottom of the garden instead. It was the telescope in this shed that established the first of four Greenwich meridians, each defined by a different telescope and each now marked by a silver plaque on the observatory wall.

Meridian 1: based on John Flamsteed's telescope, 1685
Meridian 2: based on Edmund Halley's telescope, 1725 (185cm east of Flamsteed's meridian) Established when Flamsteed's original telescope began to subside into the ground.
Meridian 3: based on James Bradley's telescope, 1750 (11m east of Halley's meridian). Still used by the Ordnance Survey for map-making purposes.
Meridian 4: based on George Airy's telescope, 1851 (5.79m east of Bradley's meridian). Selected as the Prime Meridian of the world exactly 120 years ago today.

With the advent of global positioning technology in the 1990s, a new virtual meridian has been introduced. It lies 102½ metres further east than the official Greenwich meridian and is the line used for all air and sea navigation. That's why when you stand in the courtyard at Greenwich wielding a handheld GPS device it doesn't show a longitude of precisely 0°0'0". However, for the last 120 years it's been Airy's Prime Meridian that is more properly recognised here at Greenwich and, quite literally, all around the world.


Greenwich Observatory
i) A brass line stretches across the courtyard, marked with the names, latitudes and longitudes of various world cities.
ii) There's a big silvery sculpture at the northern end of the brass line, consisting of a pole inclined at 23½ degrees to the vertical, an equatorial ring and two segmented sails (pictured above left).
iii) A tall stone plaque (with a vertical black meridian line) is set into the wall immediately beneath the observatory courtyard. A short brass line continues across the higher of the two footpaths.

Greenwich Park
iv) At the foot of Greenwich Park is a banana-shaped boating lake. The zero degree line cuts straight across the middle, making this your big chance to pedalo along the meridian. On the northern bank lies a raised circular platform supporting a big triangular sundial (shown in the photo above, at noon Greenwich Mean Time with the sun's shadow pointing due north). This is the Millennium Sundial and, like a certain other local millennial project I could mention, it's fatally flawed. The architect was given the wrong information and the sundial ended up being built 2 metres off the meridian, so it runs 8 minutes adrift. They should have built it dome-shaped.

Maritime Greenwich
v) On the first road north of the park, a plaque built into the wall of The Chantry reads 'Prime Meridian, zero degrees longitude'. A downward-pointing arrow divides East from West.
vi) North from the plaque there's a row of ten raised studs following the meridian across the road (pictured above right) before disappearing into the front room of number 2 Feathers Place.
vii) Old Woolwich Road School lies bang on the line, and so has been renamed Meridian Primary.
viii) The meridian crosses the grounds of Trinity Hospital, a retirement home for 21 local gentlemen and the oldest building in Greenwich.
ix) The green meridian laser passes directly between the four tall brick chimneys of Greenwich Power Station. This coal-fired station was built by London County Council in 1906 to generate power for local trams. More recently it was used by London Underground as a peak-time back-up station, before finally being mothballed last year (just in time for a serious power cut).
x) The meridian enters the Thames totally unmarked at Crowley's Wharf, a few metres west of the nasty modern development at Anchor Iron Wharf. Steps lead down to the beach (yes, the Thames has beaches) from which the meridian heads off north across the river, just missing the giant derelict coal jetty sticking out from the power station behind.

North Greenwich

xi) After nearly a mile adrift in the Thames, the meridian comes ashore to clip the western edge of the North Greenwich peninsula. This is a grim industrial wasteland, still scarred with the remains of wharves and old factories. Even when the rest of the peninsula is reborn as a modern yuppie playground, this western sliver will be left unloved and underdeveloped. Except for the top bit.

The Dome
xii) When Michael Heseltine was looking for somewhere to dump his great Millennium attraction, it was the meridian that swung his decision in favour of Greenwich. This was otherwise a rotten location, an inaccessible brownfield site heavily contaminated by what had been the largest gasworks in Europe. Still, it was better than Birmingham. The chequered history of the resulting Dome is well documented. However, the Dome wasn't actually built on the meridian itself, which passes one radius away on the western side. And here it is...

     The Prime Meridian of the world, from which all time is measured, cuts the north-western edge of the Dome site. Marked with red light, it slips into the River Thames and emerges to cross the wildlife jetty. The area around the Line is raised and separated by a strip of water from the rest of Meridian Quarter. This is a space from which to look out beyond the Dome and Greenwich to other places touched by the Line and to the perspectives, experiences and cultures of the people of the world.
     A large mirror on the Living Wall takes the Meridian Line southward into infinity. This is a photograph opportunity as we catch ourselves standing either side of the Line and across time zones. On the mirror is a map showing the eight countries which the Line crosses: the UK, France, Spain, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo and Ghana. Large granite disks on the ground either side of the Line are engraved with poems from each of the countries.
(Official Guide to the Millennium Experience, 2000)
It doesn't feel quite so inspirational alongside the Dome today, four years after the Millennium. The Meridian Quarter has been barricaded behind a tall blue wire fence, the red light has long been turned off and the Living Wall is more of a dead pile of concrete blocks. The meridian line enters this deserted site through a grimy mirror (right of photo), then passes yellow Kodak photo point number 18 and a small pavillion full of old Dome exhibits. It's impossible to read any of the poems along the line from the perimeter footpath, not that you'd ever have been interested in the first place. There's no perspective, experience or culture here today, just a bleak, lonely and forsaken location. If any section of the meridian properly defines zero, this is it. (take a walk here)

xiii) The tall black totem pole you can see to the right of this photo is a Millennium Milepost, placed Dome-side on the Thames Path by Sustrans the transport charity. There are 1000 such mileposts on cycle routes across the country, each featuring a lettered metal disc which is a clue in a long-forgotten national treasure hunt. I could tell you what the letter is on this particular meridian-sited milepost but that might ruin the fun for all you cycle-clipped puzzlers out there. I can tell you that the sign has been placed two metres too far east.

xiv) Ordnance Jetty juts out into the Thames on the north-western side of the Dome, straddling the meridian. It's a T-shaped pier, once used for unloading ammunition but recently topped off with grass as a safe haven for plants and birdlife. A low metal gutter sticks out from the shoreline pointed towards two white posts on the jetty, along which that red light from the Dome's Meridian Quarter used to be channelled. No longer. The gutter now contains nothing but one uniquely positioned weed.

Tower Hamlets

xv) On leaving the Dome, the meridian takes a quick trip through the Blackwall tunnel (northbound southern tunnel opened 1897, southbound northern tunnel opened 1967).

xvi) The meridian hits the north bank of the Thames at a brand new Barratt housing development in Blackwall. They've been good and not built a stack of one-bedroom shoeboxes on the line itself, but have instead planted a cobbled avenue of trees with yet another brass line down the middle. By the river there's a circle of concentric cobbles with a compass at the centre, pointing north. This is Virginia Quay, and a memorial a few yards to the east commemorates the departure point of the first permanent settlers to sail from England to the New World. King James I came down to Blackwall Steps to wave the settlers off, unaware of the dangers they would face across the Atlantic from malnutrition, Indian chiefs and being turned into Disney cartoon characters. The First Settlers' Monument, which was unveiled by the US Ambassador in 1928, reminds us just how successful their journey of colonisation turned out to be.
From near this spot 19 December 1606 sailed with 105 adventurers the 'Susan Constant', Capt Christopher Newport in supreme command. Landed at Cape Henry, Virginia, April 26 1607. Arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, May 13 1607 where the adventurers founded the first permanent English colony in America under the leadership of the intrepid Capt John Smith. (Erected by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities)
xvii) The meridian crosses the Docklands Light Railway at (or more precisely fractionally to the east of) East India station. There used to be a red line on the track marking zero degrees but it's no longer visible.
xviii) Next heading northwards: a security man sitting at a small barrier on Saffron Avenue, the A13, a downcast council estate at South Bromley (the last houses on the meridian for the next two miles), Poplar gasworks, Bow Creek.


The meridian now follows the Lea Valley, which means a mile and a half of inaccessible industrial warehouse-y marshland kind of stuff. Including the following...

xix) The original Big Brother House: OK, if I'm honest the meridian doesn't quite pass through the site of Nasty Nick's series 1 downfall, but the zero degree line does pass through the Bow field in which they built the house and within 100 metres of the original Diary Room. I've written about this now-empty field before of course - try here.
xx) Abbey Mills Pumping Station: It's probably inadvisable to cut straight through the middle of East London's Sewage Cathedral... unless you're an imaginary line of longitude, that is. I've written about this place before too - try here.
xxi) See also: Cody Road Industrial Estate, the District Line (between Bromley-by-Bow and West Ham), Bow Back Rivers, the Northern Outfall Sewer (now the Greenway), the Gala Bingo Hall on Stratford High Street, the Jubilee Line (by the footbridge just south of Stratford station), the car park round the back of Bridge House (home to Newham Council's Housing Department) and Stratford Box (contract 230 of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link).

xxii) This is Time Spiral, a six metre high twisty-turny clock erected in the pedestrian forecourt of Stratford station to mark the meridian. According to the artist, Malcolm Robertson, this is a piece wherein "curved walls sweep in towards a central point from all directions and amalgamate to form a unified spiral structure that acts as a beacon to continuously draw the spectator's attention upwards and outwards. The beacons draw their energy from the surrounding area and combine forces to produce a strong visual landmark of dynamic unity." If this is indeed the case, and somehow I doubt it, then the people of Stratford don't seem to have noticed.

xxiii) The people of Stratford haven't noticed the meridian either, despite the local council naming the large public plaza outside the station Meridian Square. They don't realise when they're lurking around the public conveniences at the southern end of the bus station that the meridian passes immediately through the cubicles. They don't realise when they draw up beside the 108 bus stop in their Ford Focus to drop their mates off that they're parking precisely on the meridian as well as illegally on a red route. They don't realise when they use the pelican on the ring road to cross from the bus station to the nasty cheap shopping centre opposite that they're actually crossing from the western to the eastern hemisphere. And they don't realise when they're standing at the eastern end of platform 10 waiting to escape Stratford by train that there's one additional line here that's invisible to the naked eye. People of Stratford, your knowledge is less than zero.

Waltham Forest

Three cheers for the London Borough of Waltham Forest, whose marking of the meridian is nothing short of superb. You can't see the meridian in Stratford but, once you cross the border into Leyton, it's everywhere. Back in the year 2000 the council decided to mark the millennium across their borough in a most original way. They ordered some menial operative to paint a big blue and yellow circle on the pavement of streets in Waltham Forest that crossed the meridian. And there are tons of them. As a result it's possible to walk all the way up the zero degree line to Walthamstow without the need for a map. So I gave it a try.

xxiv-xxx) I found my first meridian circle (pictured left) outside a house in Crownfield Road. I got my first funny look too as soon as I started taking photographs of the pavement. The next street north was Drapers Road and yes, another pavement, another circle, but then I spent five minutes wandering up and down Stewart Road looking in vain for a circle that turned out not to be there. Better luck in Downsell Road, except that the pavement had been re-tarmacked after the meridian householder had erected a new front wall so only a quarter of the original circle remained. Up and down these residential streets I went, locating a total of seven blue and yellow circles within one 500 metre corridor and no doubt alerting a number of Neighbourhood Watch schemes in the process.

xxxi) After Langthorne Road the meridian entered St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cemetery, the final resting place of Jack the Ripper's last victim. It passed through some nuns' graves (may the Sisters of Wanstead rest in peace), clipped the corner of the chapel and headed north through a sea of ornate marble monuments. A crowd of mourners had gathered beneath a tree for a burial dead on the meridian, so I beat a hasty retreat. On across the Central Line (just east of Leyton station), the new A12 relief road and the lounge bar of the Northcote Arms.

xxxii-xliv) More rows of houses followed, and more circles. I saw a woman having a screaming row sitting in the front seat of her car on the meridian, and a boy sitting on a front garden wall combing his afro on the meridian. On through Norlington Boys' School (cutting through cycle locker number 8 and the technology annexe) and precisely through the side entrance of Barclay Infant School. On through the top left corner of Whipps Cross hospital (where David Beckham was born) and through a parade of shops on the Lea Bridge Road (more accurately through the Roti Roti Restaurant, specialising in 'grilled and Karachi dishes'). All in all I saw more than 20 blue and yellow circles on the meridian before I got bored and went home.

xlv) ...but not before I'd visited the one pre-millennial meridian marker in Walthamstow. This grooved concrete slab (pictured above right) lies on the eastern side of Wood Street, just south of Wood Street station (one of those rare slap-bang-on-the-meridian stations). It was odd place to find such a marker, set into the pavement outside an obscure lock-up beside the 14th Walthamstow Scout Group HQ, but no more odd than my meridian pilgrimage had been I guess.


What are the chances of the meridian passing precisely through the summit of the tallest hill in northeast London? But it does.

This is the top of Pole Hill, a wooded hillock in Norman Tebbitt's old stomping round of Chingford. It's quiet, it's gorgeous, and it's unique. This is the edge of London, the border with Essex lying less than half a mile away. This is where the green belt begins, the northern slopes rolling down to form the edge of Epping Forest. And this is where the Greenwich Meridian passes, marked by not one but two stone pillars.

xlvi) The taller, western monument was built first. Unlike most of the other markers along the meridian it's not just ornamental but once served a real practical purpose. In the early 19th century the main telescope at Greenwich was James Bradley's transit telescope. This was used to observe the passage of stars across their highest point in the sky by timing them as they passed a fixed north line. Any transit telescope needs to be checked regularly to ensure that it really is pointing north and so a northern reference marker was required. It was an extremely fortunate coincidence that the Greenwich Meridian passed exactly through a hilltop 11 miles to the north - and that's why the Astronomer Royal of the day built an obelisk here on Pole Hill.
This pillar was erected in 1824 under the direction of the Reverend John Pond M.A. Astronomer Royal. It was placed on the Greenwich Meridian and its purpose was to indicate the direction of true North from the transit telescope of the Royal Observatory. The Greenwich Meridian, as changed in 1850 & adopted by international agreement in 1884 as the line of zero longitude, passes 19 feet to the East of this pillar.
xlvii) The shorter, eastern monument was built later when the Airy meridian was adopted at Greenwich. It's a stumpy concrete triangulation point, complete with Ordnance Survey benchmark (which is strange given that all OS maps are still constructed based on the Bradley meridian 6 metres to the west). Recently a few local yobs appear to have added some unnecessary streaks of red graffiti to this particular monument, but they're probably just aerosols.

Lawrence of Arabia adored this place so much that he purchased an 18 acre plot of land on the hilltop. The land is no longer in the family, but there's still a great view from the top of Pole Hill. You can gaze down towards the City skyline, with the BT Tower and London Eye immediately recognisable in the distant Thames valley. Unfortunately the one place you can't see any more is Greenwich because the surrounding trees have grown up over the years and blocked the important line of sight from the great transit telescope. Maybe the view's better in the winter but I loved the place with leaves, long grass and and tiny spiders hanging from the trees. A place of true beauty on the meridian - what are the chances of that?

Waltham Abbey

xlviii) Waltham Abbey is a curious mix of old and new. The meridian arrives in town across the 20th century M25 (between junctions 25 and 26), crosses cobbled 16th century Sun Street (site of the Meridian coffee shop), then promptly hits the ruined remains of an 11th century abbey. The main Abbey building lies a few metres to the west, a spectacular example of Norman architecture. Or so I'm told, because it was closed to the public on the day I visited so that three consecutive Essex weddings could take place. The local men looked slightly uncomfortable squeezed into hired suits, while the local ladies oohed and aaahed at the horse and cart pulled up outside the church. Lovely gardens for the wedding photos though.

xlix) Waltham Abbey Gardens are so ancient that they may well be the burial site of King Harold (think '1066', think 'came second'). The meridian passes between the moat and the cloisters, straight through the Rose Garden where a steel arch forms a Meridian Gateway (complete with moon, stars and giant red sextant). The line continues across a pile of stones that used to be the old blacksmith's forge, then narrowly misses an arched medieval stone bridge (called, imaginatively, Stoney Bridge). It really is a lovely spot for a picnic, just so long as you can ignore the traffic on the Waltham Abbey bypass a few metres to the north.

l) Cross the bypass, turn right at the Dragonfly Sanctuary and you come to Cornmill Meadows, possibly my favourite of all the sites along my meridian journey. This long thin peaceful woodland was once part of a Greater London Council arboretum which supplied many of the trees planted in London's parks. The meridian passes right up the centre, marked to north and south by two statues carved from granite blocks taken fom the old London Bridge. This unlikely pair are called Travel and Discovery, one (south) featuring a world map carved with 0° line of longitude and the other (north) blessed by some slightly strange human form. But my favourite bit wasn't the statues, it was the arrow-straight footpath that stretched between them. I followed this grassy track for a full 15 minutes through a multitude of trees, crossing a wooden footbridge over a tiny stream and tiptoeing through a couple of muddy meridian puddles. This green line had zero people but maximum charm. I was able to walk uninterrupted precisely along the meridian for nearly a mile, in a way that just hadn't been possible anywhere else on my journey. Having tracked as many as 50 meridian markers between here and Greenwich, this felt a perfect place to stop.

Down the line (a point and click guide)

North Pole
Arctic Ocean, Norwegian Sea, North Sea
E Yorks: Tunstall (the most northerly landfall on the meridian, although the monument here recently slipped down the cliff), Sand-le-Mere caravan park , Holderness peninsiula, Patrington (there's an inscribed stone here beneath a metal sign), Sunk Island Sands, the mouth of the River Humber.
NE Lincs: Cleethorpes (marked by a signpost on the Marine Embankment between the boating lake and the sand dunes at Humberston).
Lincs: Fulstow, Brackenborough Hall, Louth (right through the middle of this market town, with two plaques in Eastgate), Woody's Top Youth Hostel, Snipe Dales nature reserve (with Meridian stone), East Kirkby aerodrome (and aviation museum, with monument), the eastern outskirts of Boston, the mouth of the River Welland, Holbeach (marked by a millstone beside the road to Spalding).
Cambs: the Fens, Flood's Ferry Road, Somersham (with a pavement marker in the High Street), Swavesey (marked in the middle of the village), Great Eversden, Meldreth.
Herts: the Royston bypass, Hamels Park golf course, Noah's Ark Farm (Ware), Hoddesdon.
Essex: Lee Valley Park, Waltham Abbey, the M25 (the only UK motorway on the meridian), Gilwell Park campsite (home of outdoor Scouting).
London (north of Greenwich): Pole Hill, Waltham Forest, Stratford, the Dome, Greenwich (but I've written about those already).
Greenwich Observatory
London (south of Greenwich): Greenwich Park (bisecting the putting green, dividing the rose garden, then straight through the dining room, crimson parlour and gallery of the Ranger's House), Blackheath, Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School (Lewisham), the northern end of Hither Green railway station (site of the meridian's only train crash on 12th March 2001), Catford (through St Andrew's Church), Shortlands, West Wickham (with Meridian stone on the common), New Addington.
Surrey: the M25 (again), Oxted (commuter village), Lingfield Park racecourse (almost).
W Sussex East Grinstead (there are various stone markers at East Court, and the town's coat of arms features a vertical white line representing the meridian)
E Sussex: Sheffield Park (on the Bluebell railway, plaque on station wall), Chailey (meridian stone erected 1953), Lewes (another direct hit on a town centre), Peacehaven (the Meridian Monument looks out over the English Channel).
France: (except the French don't believe in our meridian, so I can't be bothered to tell you where it goes).
Spain: from the Pyrenees south to (just outside) Benidorm, then into the Mediterranean.
Africa: Algeria, the Sahara, Mali (straight through Gao on the the river Niger), Burkina Faso (through the northern town of Dori), Togo (just a tiny sliver in the northwest corner), Ghana (through Lake Volta, reaching the coast at Tema).
The Atlantic Ocean: the Equator, more than 5000 miles of ocean.
Antarctica: Queen Maud Land
South Pole

Along-the-meridian websites (in case you've not had enough already)

My journey up the meridian with more photos
Peter Marshall's photographic journey along the meridian through London (beautiful pictures)
An interactive trail along the meridian in Greenwich
All the Ordnance Survey Explorer maps that cover the meridian...
... and some of the places along the way
Meridian markers - a Geocaching project
Bishop Tom walks up the Meridian
On The Line - an in-depth Oxfam educational project
the Degree Confluence Project - aiming to visit every global intersection of a line of longitude with a line of latitude, including 53°N 0° (nr Boston, Lincs), 52°N 0° (nr Royston, Herts) and 51°N 0° (near Haywards Heath, E Sussex) (highly recommended)

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