London: Greenwich & Brunel

With the weather promising “increasing sunshine with a 90% chance of 5-10mm of rain” we decided to ignore the weather, wear our coats, and take the train to the Greenwich Royal Observatory. As far as outing goes, this was a fun day out, however, the observatory could easily feel overrated for the cost (£22 for the family). It’s a lot of money for a photo of yourself standing on the meridian line! With regards to the rest of the museum, there is little in the way of real science, with the displays aimed at visitors who have virtually no scientific knowledge. It would be hugely enhanced to have both the entry level basic science, and a more indepth option for those who already understood the basics. Much of the display material revolved around only two of the ten scientists who lived on site over the course of the Observatories history, and the lifestyle of their families.

Dolphin sundial: the gap in their tails gives you the time.

The first ten Astronomers Royal all lived in Flamsteed house, and the museum walks you through the rooms with a few comments on some of those who lived there. For a romance writer, family life, especially the lives of the women, is fascinating. However, only two got a mention beyond their name, firstly the daughter of Nevil Maskelyne, Margaret, who is noted as competent mathematician, while his sister, also Margaret, is mentioned solely because she married Robert Clive, a divisive figure in the East India Company whom many blame for the Bengal Famine of 1770, as well as plundering of India’s treasures for his personal gain, and the profit of the Company. All the other women fade into the background (typical for the era, but still a disappointment).

Astronomer Royals:

1675–1719 John Flamsteed
1720–1742 Edmond Halley
1742–1762 James Bradley
1762–1764 Nathaniel Bliss
1765–1811 Nevil Maskelyne
1811–1835 John Pond
1835–1881 Sir George Biddell Airy
1881–1910 Sir William Christie
1910–1933 Sir Frank Dyson
1933–1955 Sir Harold Spencer Jones

Lived elsewhere:

1956–1971 Sir Richard van Riet Woolley
1972–1982 Sir Martin Ryle
1982–1990 Sir Francis Graham-Smith
1991–1995 Sir Arnold Wolfendale
1995–present Martin Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow

Of the scientific displays, the most notable is the four Harrison clocks that illustrate how the genius clock maker solved the problem is longitude in shipping, solving the key problem that caused most shipwrecks. The book, Longitude, by Dava Sobel, tells this story. To see the four clocks together in the same place illustrates the evolution of Harrison’s thought processes, and was worth the entry fee for this alone. And yes, this opposes my opening opinion of the value of entry!

H4: the Harrison timepiece that solved Longitude

Several of the old telescopes are there, along with brief notes on their usage and problems, while the main telescope has no information for the interested visitor. The mechanism for opening the roof and moving the telescope is still there, and while there is no information on how it works, it can be figured out. It would be enhanced with a simple diagram for those with no mechanical knowledge, and is noteworthy enough that any information about how the roof operates would add to the visitor’s experience of the Observatory.

From here, we walked through the large parkland surrounding the Observatory. It is lovely, very English with broad promenades lined with trees, and wide grasslands. The village of Greenwich is a quaint English township with many lovely pubs, cafes, markets, and other interesting, quirky shops. We ate the King’s Crown, chosen because it had a unicorn outside, and No4 declared that was perfect. The food was lovely, and the beer selection excellent. We didn’t go into the Cutty Sark (the fastest tea clipper) but walked passed. It is an impressively sized boat. There is enough to do in Greenwich village to keep one occupied for the afternoon, but Mr Engineer had his heart set on a tiny, highly specified, museum, so we boarded the bus and headed off.

The bus ride took us through the back blocks of London, and without an app to guide us, we would have been terribly lost, disoriented in a new city. The Brunel Museum is near Rotherhithe station, and sits in the original tunnel entrance for the world’s first sub-river tunnel. Brunel father and son are two of the most prominent engineers in Britain’s history, and the son has the most fabulous name: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Aside from this tunnel (currently used as part of the Underground network), the Brunel pair are responsible for many shipping and engineering feats. This tunnel took fifteen years to complete, cost £614,000 (£73,235,380 in 2016 – quite cheap compared to building a tunnel of the same length today according to Mr Engineer, but as he points out, the safety standards are a quite different now. At least ten workers died building Brunel’s tunnel, a number that wouldn’t be accepted now. To raise funds, Brunel Snr held a concert in the entrance hall in 1827, and the tunnel finally opened in 1834 – however, it was only open to foot traffic as the lack of funds didn’t allow for the ramps for wheeled vehicles to be built. The tunnel opened with a toll of 1 shilling to walk through, and had a million visitors in the first few years (not quite enough to pay back the cost of building it).

All of this is captivating history, but unfortunately the small Brunel museum didn’t live up to the story. On the plus side, it is cheap to enter and run by volunteers, and if you don’t know the story, there are good storyboards outlining the tale of how it was made. The drawcard for Mr Engineer was the original tunnel entrance, however, this is not as exciting as it sounds because only part of the column exists, with the rest forming part of the Underground network and therefore inaccessible. It would be super cool if the concrete floor was made of glass and you could into the original tunnels, and also watch the trains zip past, however, the cost of this idea is prohibitive!

Original merchandise that you could buy when the tunnel opened in 1834

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