Greenwich is a must for anyone with an interest in naval history - but this fascinating part of London offers fine architecture, fine art and fine food as well
Through the rain-lashed windows of the Trafalgar Tavern at Greenwich, I could make out the high-rise of the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf - and the `spiked` Millennium Dome, snoozing like a fat hedgehog on the familiar southern loop of the River Thames.
Authors Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and Wilkie Collins used to dine here in the mid-19th century on plateloads of freshly netted whitebait. Prime Ministers Gladstone and Disraeli would bring their entire cabinets for the Trafalgar Tavern`s traditional whitebait suppers, washed down with iced champagne and a particularly lethal punch. My own whitebait arrived crisp and golden and dusted with paprika. I didn`t even try to match the thirsts of the movers and shakers of Victorian times. I stuck to a single glass of the house white.
At nearby Greenwich Pier, the Cutty Sark, England`s last surviving tea clipper, was undergoing repair and restoration from the blaze that ripped through her hull on May 21, 2007. Although the port`s most iconic attraction is currently hidden from view, Maritime Greenwich remains a living, breathing World Heritage Site to be celebrated - and savoured.
Along the walkway known as the Thames Path, I paused at the gilded gates of the Old Royal Naval College – acclaimed as England`s finest example of monumental classical architecture and celebrated in Caneletto`s sumptuous panoramic painting of 1751. I found the twin domes, the classical columns, the colonnades and the formal lawns untainted by time.
In the 11th century, the invading Danes established a base in Greenwich. Henry VIII and his daughters, the future Queens Elizabeth and Mary, were all born in the Tudor palace that once stood here. The stately buildings of the old college served as a hospital for Navy pensioners disabled in the great sea wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. The guides will tell you of a cricket match played here between a team of one-armed men and a team of one-legged men. So fierce was the bowling that six of the one-legged veterans needed running repairs to their wooden legs.
I joined the trickle of visitors among architectural masterpieces created by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor that now form part of the University of Greenwich. In the Painted Hall, I craned my neck to view a 180-foot decorated ceiling that took the artist James Thornhill five years to execute. Overhead, King William and Mary sat, depicted in celestial splendour among the angels and cherubs to proclaim the wonders of constitutional monarchy.
The crowds grew thicker in the National Maritime Museum, a few minutes walk away. Children clustered round the glass case containing the dress uniform that Admiral Nelson wore in his final moments at Trafalgar. Still spattered with the great man`s blood and punctured by a single bullet hole, Nelson`s tunic has held the same gruesome fascination for generations of small boys - and small boys` dads.
Outside, in the dappled sunshine of Greenwich Park, families played beneath the same venerable chestnut trees that have flourished here since the site was laid out in the 1660s. High on the hill, in the baroque splendour of the Royal Observatory, Charles II`s Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, mapped the stars so that sailors could fix their position at sea. From 1884, the world began to set its clocks relative to Greenwich at Longitude Zero.
I followed the melee for the short haul up the path, to the observatory complex, where half a dozen Japanese children teetered along the stainless steel line across the cobbled yard that marks Greenwich Mean Time. Inside a bronze-clad cone of a building that rose above the courtyard like some extra-terrestrial people carrier, the Peter Harrison Planetarium, created in 2006, stirs the senses. The old-style, two-dimensional star maps have been replaced by a profoundly moving, digitised journey through the Milky Way into the sun`s seething cauldron – and to the swirling, gaseous fluorescence of nubulae and supernovae, millions of light-years away. At the end of the 25 minutes, the full house of 118 people appeared too stunned even to applaud.
Snuggled at the foot of the hill, the town itself is a joy. In Greenwich Market, for example, I snacked on prawn pancakes from a tapas stall and downed a pint of draught Amstel in the dark Victorian coolness of the adjoining Coach and Horses pub. That evening, I negotiated six oysters on a platter of ice and seaweed in the Rivington Grill (178 Greenwich High Road), which specialises in the best of English cuisine.
The Cutty Sark is due to welcome visitors once again in 2010. In the meantime, Maritime Greenwich continues to revel in its place on the Thames riverbank, at the front row of history.