Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Marking the meridian - October 2009

The Prime Meridian is 125 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 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 are 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 both the UK and USA and was therefore being used by 72% of the world's shipping. The French eventually 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 1884, 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 down the zero degree line of longitude, south from Greenwich, stopping off at all the places where the meridian has been marked in some way. There are plaques and monuments, bollards and arches, plus an awful lot of random everyday objects that just happen to lie on this most special of lines. I did exactly the same thing five years ago, but travelled north from Greenwich instead [words] [photos]. There aren't quite so many official markers on the trek south towards the edge of London, but there's a lot more than zero.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory

Our prime meridian goes through Greenwich thanks to a 17th century astronomer's telescope. John Flamsteed was the first Astronomer Royal and made all his observations from a hilltop shed in the grounds of the newly established Royal Greenwich Observatory. An imaginary line drawn from north to south through this telescope became the marker from which celestial measurements of longitude were taken. But Flamsteed's was the only the first of four Greenwich meridians, each defined by a different successive 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 125 years ago this week.

It's the last of these lines which draws thousands of tourists to the summit of Greenwich Park every year. Legs astride the meridian they scramble to take photos of one another in the front courtyard, one foot in the west and the other in the east. You've probably stood here yourself, although if you've not visited recently you may not yet be aware that the public face of the Observatory has had something of a presentational revamp. There's no longer direct admittance to the courtyard, so folk now have to venture inside through a turnstile in the main Equatorial Building. No charge, it's still free, but they've finally got rid of the ridiculous requirement to collect an unnecessary ticket on the way in. Turn left to visit the two-year-old Astronomy Centre and bold bronze conical planetarium [photo]. Both are excellent, but time instead requires us to turn right onto the "Meridian route".

The Observatory's rear courtyard has recently been remodelled, replacing a nondescript patch of grass with a flower border and raised path [photo]. Visitors aren't made aware that they're crossing the meridian here, presumably to avoid congestion, but a metal globe on a plinth marks the invisible line across the garden [photo]. Onward past a rather huge telescope to the information desk, where a beaming girl would quite like to flog you an audio guide for £3.50, then out into a landscaped Garden of Time [photo]. Ahead is Flamsteed House [photo], whose Wren-built Octagon Room would have been perfect for the first meridian telescope had not the building accidentally been aligned 13 degrees off true north. An excellent exhibition of time and timepieces is housed within, including John Harrison's longitude-beating nautical chronometers, although most foreign vistors whizz through here fairly fast. They're after that definitive photo astride the famous brass meridian line in the main courtyard [photo], or maybe an ice cream from the first trailer kiosk in the western hemisphere [photo].

And then visitors pass back inside, this time for a rapid chronological jog through Greenwich's zero degree telescopes. Flamsteed's first, then a room aligned for Halley, then the room in which James Bradley took his measurements. The final chamber is almost completely filled by Airy's Transit Circle, which points outward across the milling snappers in the courtyard towards the stars beyond. If the Greenwich meridian could have an epicentre this would be it, not that most of the passers by seem to recognise the instrument's true significance. A variety of Prime Meridian souvenirs are available nextdoor - perfect if you're ever short of a fridge magnet or two. And don't forget to take the detour up the stairs to the Time and Society Gallery (important, but underwhelming), because this leads on to the Onion Dome perched at the very top of the building. Housed inside is the largest refracting telescope in the UK, a pert 28-incher built in 1893, through which the public are still invited to take a look at least once a month. Had this monster have been in place a decade earlier, then the Greenwich Meridian would probably have passed through these giant crosshairs instead. But it's Airy's line of sight that's been immortalised here at Greenwich and, quite literally, all around the world.

n.b. 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".

Greenwich Observatory (south)

i) The meridian exits the rear of the Meridian Building virtually unnoticed, its path marked only by an astrolabe (or, more precisely, an armillary sphere) on a plinth in a flowerbed [photo].
ii) From the hilltop, it's straight down the sloping lawn of the Old Royal Observatory Garden. Even if you think you know Greenwich you may never have been here, gated and secluded behind stepped terraces and trees. Access is from a twisting path that kicks off below the front of the Observatory, and the Greenwich Phantom has the full lowdown.

Greenwich Park

iii) A narrow line of Meridian-marking granite slabs crosses The Avenue - the inclined roadway running from the bottom of the Park to the top. [photo]
iv) Mind that horse! The proposed route of the Olympic Cross Country course wiggles twice across the zero degree line (and another twice to the north of the Observatory too). It's just as well that the 2012 course won't be following the meridian precisely, else there'd be a big tree needing major surgery, and groundsmen would also need to clip the edge of an overgrown old reservoir. Olympic bosses continue to reassure us that the historic Park will be be perfectly well protected from the trampling hooves of global equestrians and, more importantly, perfectly safe from the massed paranoia of certain local neigh-sayers.
v) These could be renamed the Meridian Tennis Courts.
vi) The semicircular Rose Garden is an elegant and peaceful part of Greenwich Park [photo], in bloom even in October! If you fancy a nice sit down, some of the benches around the hedged perimeter are in the western hemisphere, and some are in the east.
vii) Next up, the Ranger's House once used to be home to the Greenwich Park ranger [photo]. More surprisingly, in 1815 that park ranger was Princess Sophia Matilda, the niece of George III. Today English Heritage run the place, and use the house to display a diamond magnate's decorative arts collection. Unfortunately it's shut for the winter to casual visitors at the end of September, and so I arrived a week to late to look inside. The Greenwich Meridian passes through the dining room, the Crimson Parlour and the Gallery, and is marked by a metal plaque on the outside of the southern garden wall [photo].
» Various large enamelled maps around Greenwich Park purport to show the location of the meridian. Be warned that these aren't terribly accurate, and show (for example) the line passing through the putting green and the wrong bit of the Observatory. Too expensive to replace, presumably, although I'm pleased to see that the Royal Parks website includes an updated and rather more precise version.


viii) Ah, the vast grassy plateau of Blackheath, across which the meridian spans the boroughs of both Greenwich and Lewisham. If you mind the footballs, kits and peace campers, it's possible to walk along the invisible line almost completely unobstructed (apart from a rather awkward crossing of the busy A2 near the Blackheath Tea Hut). On the southern edge a slightly-toppled litter bin (on the corner of Hare & Billet Road and Mounts Pond Road) really ought to be an official meridian marker, but sadly isn't [photo].
ix) Onward through the verdant detached gardens of The Orchard and the big villas on Eliot Vale. (Blimey, isn't undulating Heath Vale lovely?) Then across the Lewisham-Kidbrooke railway line, and through the heart of the Sacred Heart Convent on Belmont Hill.


x) On Lee High Road, near the bus stop at the junction with Halley Gardens [photo], is the southern meridian's first pavement plaque [photo]. I had to negotiate a passing couple with a snappy staffie, but once they'd gone I paused by the roadside to take a proper look. This groovy flat stone was laid by the local Mayor in 1984, and apparently commemorates both the meridian's centenary and Lewisham's Anti Racist Week [photo]. The significance of this combination completely escaped me, but maybe there was a special 2-for-1 offer on chiselled slabs at the time. Whatever the reason, the complete ordinariness of this inner suburban street highlights the quintessentially random passage of Greenwich's longitudinal legacy.
xi) The meridian clips the bottom corner of Manor Park, a recently revamped Lewisham greenspace, although nobody thought to spend any of the council's money to mark its passage. Instead there's a rather nice twizzly wind-blown sculpture further up the park, and a few wildflower meadows bordered by a narrow wetland zone. Across the precisely-zero line flows one of London's lesser known rivers - the Quaggy - at the very point where it slips from pleasant parkland shallows to ugly concrete channel. [photo]

Hither Green

xii) Only a handful of railway stations lie precisely on the meridian, and Hither Green is the only one south of the Thames. Even better, you don't have to enter the station to see its meridian marker. A pedestrian subway leads beneath the tracks [photo], linking the shopping parade in Staplehurst Road to a bleak plaza on the opposite side of the tracks. Midway through, almost precisely where a ramp leads upward to the ticket office, a silver arch crosses the darkened roof of the tunnel [photo]. A red strip up and over the centre divides the western hemisphere from the east [photo]. Top marks to whoever thought up this idea, which beats the usual council-friendly scrawled mural depicting worthy services from the local community. Step beneath in awe and wonder, and let's be on our way.
xiii) Lewisham Council have had another go at marking the meridian outside a new residential development on the corner of Hither Green Lane and Woodlands Street. They teamed up with Barratt Homes, whose dead-ordinary living-boxes are piled up alongside, and installed a line of eight metal plaques across a paved piazza beside a car repair shop [photo]. Each plaque depicted an English town or location straddling the meridian, some more local than others, which was a rather charming way of twinning the area with Sussex, East Yorks and points inbetween. That was in April 2007, but unfortunately the developer's optimism has proved unplaced. A bunch of metal squares lightly bolted to the ground, in southeast London - what were they thinking? All but one have been duly nicked, presumably for scrap, leaving only the plaque for "Peacehaven" intact on the pavement. Maybe just as well, because it's only taken 2½ years for the graphic etched on the Peacehaven plaque to become almost completely illegible [photo]. If that's Barratt quality, one can only fear for residents of the adjacent flats.


xiv) Beyond the South Circular, at the heart of the Corbett Estate, the local parish church lies directly on the zero degree line [photo]. This Edwardian pile ought perhaps to be called St Andrew's-on-the-Meridian, but alas not. It has (reputedly) the widest Gothic nave in Britain, a whopping forty feet across, plus a newly restored organ. I didn't get to peek inside, however, because The Free Pentecostal Apostolic Church of the Lord Jesus Christ were in full flow within.
xv) It's not quite perfectly aligned, but Torridon Road SE6 is London's most meridian-y street. It heads almost precisely due south for a full kilometre, with the zero degree line running through every single one the residential terraces on the eastern side of the street [photo]. Gardens at the top of the road, then back rooms further down, then front rooms, then front gardens - an unseen link between a complete row of neighbours. We should, perhaps send some of the Greenwich Observatory's thousands of tourists to stand instead on the traffic island outside the post office [photo], or to take photos of Torridon's 0° mini-roundabout [photo].
xvi) And then, oh blimey, I really wasn't expecting this. I knew that Catford had an enclave of surviving post-war pre-fabs, but I wasn't expecting to turn a corner on my Meridian journey and stumble upon them [photo]. Altogether there are 189 low-rise temporary chalets here, each set in its own fenced off patch of land, and each lovingly cared for [photo]. A few fluttering Union Jacks here, a few gnomes there, and all around the feeling of being amongst a defiantly proud and tightly knit community. Residents christened this the Excalibur estate, and the byways are all named after lesser known knights of the Round Table. Meliot Road (named after Sir Meliot de Logris) runs closely parallel to the meridian, with the line passing through one particularly fine example of a half-timbered prefab [photo] [photo]. Oh to discover that such a building even exists, let alone in such a significant location. In the 1950s a prefab-packed estate such as this might have been a common sight in many parts of South East England, but this Catford hideaway is a rare (and uncommonly large) survivor. Six chalets have recently been protected with Grade II listed status, but long-term residents won't be reassured until the council finally designate the whole of Excalibur an official conservation area. Long may this unique lifestyle continue, it's magic.


xvii) There are lovelier parts of London than the sprawling estates of Downham, but the Greenwich Meridian sensibly attempts to pass through via the remains of an ancient forest. A zigzag strip of footpathed woodland remains, somehow, which the meridian line duly crosses three times. The first crossing is outside a row of squashed cottages, the second close to a lonely bench and dog waste bin [photo], while the third is a little more secluded [photo]. Along this narrow leafy corridor, part of the long distance Green Chain Walk, I stood and watched two parakeets squawking shamelessly in the upper branches of a zero-located oak.
xviii) At the foot of Bromley Hill, close to yet another roadside pub converted into a McDonalds, there's a rather ordinary parade of shops [photo]. Off licence, pizzeria, minimarket, that sort of thing. But just beyond the Tandoori restaurant, outside the Cleartone Dry Cleaners, is one of the southern meridian's rare pavement markers [photo]. It's a labelled rectangular stone with a precisely aligned groove pointing directly towards the front door of this esteemed laundry establishment, now under new management. So new in fact that when I arrived the owner was on his hands and knees in front of the shop painting the woodwork in alarmingly bright shades of pink and purple. "Don't mind me," I said, "I'm only taking a photo of that slab". So he carried on painting, and I got my close-up photographs [photo], and his shop gets an unexpected plug on this blog today.
xix) If you've ever wondered where Millwall FC have their training ground [photo], it's nowhere as inner-city as the Den. Instead the Lions head several miles south to a very green playing field in the Ravensbourne Valley and practise kicking footballs across the meridian.

xx) Don't get your hopes up. The Meridian's not going anywhere well known like Bromley town centre. Instead it slinks through the western outskirts, almost edging into Beckenham, to various places you've never been. Like the Warren Avenue Playing Fields. It's a kickabout space for local sportsmen not good enough to play for Millwall, with a very ordinary sports pavilion positioned almost perfectly on the Greenwich Meridian [photo]. There's also a desperately unloved children's playground consisting of little more than an ex-roundabout and three decaying swings [photo]. The latter, if given a lick of paint and shifted a couple of metres to the east, would make for a fine (and extremely cheap) meridian sculpture. But no need, because there's a real one coming up almost immediately to the south.
xxi) On Farnaby Road, at the precise point where the gardens make way for a golf course, a stumpy metal post lurks beside an overgrown fence. It was put there by the Ravensbourne Valley Preservation Society to mark both the millennium and the meridian, and still presents two mirrored faces to west and east [photo]. Few pedestrian visitors pass this way and the neighbouring bus stop offers only a token service six days a week. Be in no doubt, most local residents cross the meridian by car.
xxii) Ravensbourne Avenue is quintessential stockbroker country. A mile of detached homesteads alongside a golf course, stretching from one commuter-friendly railway halt to another. Ideal for bonus-blessed workers, ladies with golden glows and the recently retired. We're not right at the top end of the affluence scale, as you can tell by the minimal gaps between neighbouring villas and the relatively narrow front gardens. But the gardens are prim, and the hedges are perfectly clipped, and the curtains of the spare bedrooms twitched invisibly as I walked by. Living on the meridian adds no value to the cluster of white-fronted villas in the centre of the road [photo], but I bet the local estate agents could talk it up as a desirable interior feature.

Shortlands / Park Langley

xxiii) After crossing the Bromley South railway line just west of Shortlands station, the Greenwich Meridian gets proper suburban. Residential street after residential street, occasionally flats but more usually houses, and increasingly houses with more garden than house. I traipsed up and down hills, and wandered along winding avenues only to retrace my steps, all in an attempt to follow an invisible line through the neighbourhood. I kept hoping that some interesting feature might lie along the zero line of longitude but I was disappointed. Enid Blyton's house on Shortlands Road? Missed. The hilltop Celtic cross [photo] of the Shortlands War Memorial? Close, but not quite. Anything that wasn't a house, a road or a garden. Absolutely not.
xxiv) I was briefly excited, strolling along Hayes Lane, to discover an entire London suburb I'd never heard of before. Park Langley doesn't have its own station, nor any terminating buses, so doesn't exist in the eyes of anyone who lives more than a few miles away. This 100-year-old neighbourhood (south of Beckenham) comes from an age when "estate" meant quality, and boasts a thousand or so detached properties laid out along gently curving streets. The meridian clips the first house on the southern side of Top Park, at the entrance to the Park Langley Conservation Area. Immaculate clusters of bright orange flowers surrounding each ornamental street tree, still blooming brightly even in October [photo], provided convincing evidence that local residents have both pride and considerable time on their hands.
» And on, and on, crossing aspirational avenue after aspirational avenue, more of the same, very des res, highly unaffordable.

West Wickham / Coney Hall
xxv) After traversing the West Wickham Sports Grounds, and crossing the final stretch of the railway line to Hayes, the Greenwich Meridian nudges the playing fields of Glebe School. Most secondary schools have a wooded hideaway right at the bottom of the playing field, where the smokers usually hope to hide out, and that's the part we're talking about here. Staff and pupils have marked the meridian's passage with not one but two special markers - one a 7ft stone pillar, the other a squatter dish-shaped compass a few metres away. Or so I'm told. It's impossible to see any more than a glimpse of either through the trees from the adjacent footpaths, so my attempted photograph is worse than useless [photo]. Don't worry, I took it on a Sunday when the school was deserted, and pupil privacy in Meridian Corner is assured.
xxvi) You know the roundabout in Coney Hall where Glebe Way crosses Addington Road? The roundabout sponsored by Profascia Direct Ltd, purveyors of UPVC fascias, flat and tile roofing? The meridian crosses that [photo].
xxvii) One final within-London meridian marker can be found at the Coney Hall Recreation Ground. It's likely that you will never ever visit this recreational plateau, not unless you have a penchant for obscure 1930s suburbs, or ever choose to walk section 4 of the London Loop long distance footpath. The zero-degree post looks like rather like an OS triangulation point, only made from considerably cheaper materials, and with a lumpy hemisphere protruding from the top [photo]. Two sides are inscribed with not very much writing, and the whole thing looks like a couple of hefty kicks from some local youth would cause it considerable damage. Thankfully, when I visited at least, local youth were much more interested in kicking a football about. Less thankfully they'd deliberately ignored the nearby goalposts and chosen instead to kick around by the meridian post, which made photographing it slightly awkward. But I sort of managed [photo]. And then rapidly made my exit.

New Addington
xxviii) The last place the meridian hits before exiting the capital is the overspill estate of New Addington. The very top of New Addington at that, about as far from desirable as the borough of Croydon gets, along King Henry's Drive and through Addington High School. I considered visiting for a final photo, but there was no convenient footpath from Coney Hall and the Sunday afternoon bus service was less than enticing. So I resisted. So you'll have to make do without. I suspect it's no loss.

And then, continuing south...
Surrey: the M25, Oxted (passing through Paydens the chemist), 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 - also home to Meridian FM)
E Sussex: Sheffield Park (on the Bluebell railway, plaque on station wall), Chailey (meridian stone erected 1953, see map), Lewes (another near-hit on a town centre), Peacehaven (the Meridian Monument looks out over the English Channel).
France: (the French don't believe in our meridian, but it goes from Normandy to Lourdes anyway).
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

www.flickr.com: my Meridian gallery

...and to read about my walk along the meridian north from Greenwich, click here

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