Finding longitude


When Sharon asked me if there was anything I wanted to do while we were in London, I had a ready answer: I wanted to visit the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and see the Harrison clocks.
“What?” she said.

I started telling her about the clocks which were the first to tell time accurately enough at sea to make it possible to determine your longitude and make it possible to navigate the oceans safely.
And her eyes glassed over.

Now bear in mind that Maritime Greenwich is a World Heritage Site. So is the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the Kew Gardens in London, and several other sites in England (like Stonehenge and historic Edinburgh), but such sites are relatively rare, inevitably historic, and almost always worth a look-see.

And we had a whole day to get there, if we could just figure it all out.

To be honest, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the place, and I was wrong. I charted out an underground route that took us from Marble Arch to North Greenwich, when we should have headed to the Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich stop. Live and learn, I guess.

This honest mistake took us first to the O2, a gigantic white tent with an auditorium and shops and restaurants inside. It used to be called the Millennium Dome and was featured in the James Bond move, “The World is Not Enough,” so I recognized it right away.

But we were pretty far from historic Greenwich, and it took a ride on the Thames Clipper, a public water taxi, to get where we wanted to go. This proved to be a tedious trip, so I won’t write about it, except to say it was raining and Sharon was miserable.

She was miserable before we got to the tube station for a variety of reasons. I will list them:

1. She didn’t think I knew where I was going.

2. She didn’t want to go there.

3. Her socks kept getting wet.

Her socks were getting wet because it was raining, as I mentioned before, and she was wearing sandals and socks. She changed her footwear to give her feet a rest from the shoes she had worn for several days, and she didn’t take into account that London streets and sidewalks can be a bit uneven and harbor pools of water when it rained. (This is why rubber boots, called Wellingtons, are so popular in England, where it rains often.)

So before we had walks two blocks from our hotel, her feet were wet. Two blocks later, and they were soaked. Before we got on the Tube, she bought a dry pair, and changed during the ride. Then the first order of business once we arrived was to find a restroom with a air dryer so she could dry her wet socks so they could be held in reserve for when the new pair got wet.

We went through this change-and-dry routine several times, and she got a little bit happier, until she learned that our first tube stop of the day was for the wrong Greenwich. Then she wasn’t happy any more.

And the fact that I walked her about in the rain for a while longer before finding the landing dock for the Thames Clipper didn’t help either.

And once we landed, the Royal Observatory was in sight, but still a long walk away, and uphill — all the better for observation, I guess, but inconvenient for a visitor on a rainy day.

Still, there were plenty of visitors there, which I maintained was proof that our destination was a worthy one. Sharon remained unconvinced.

Actually, she saw some really great stuff, although she may never know it. Like the Harrison clocks, which I had read about in the book “Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time” by Dava Sobel, which is much more interesting that its title.

And we got to straddle the prime meridian, which is 0 degrees longitude, mainly because British scientists figured it all out first and got to designate where 0 degrees would be.

It was all very cool. Science carried out in this very building changed the world forever — and we were there. It was worth getting a little wet.

The rain had stopped by the time we were through at the observatory. And that cheered Sharon up. We had to work our way through some major tourist shops to get back to the public transport, and that cheered Sharon up even more.

All in all, I thought it was a stellar day.


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