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July 16, 2015 / Jim Fenton

Europe Day 9: Jewels and Clocks

Thursday, June 11, 2015

On this, our last day of sightseeing in London, we got an earlier start. We went straight to the Tower of London, and started with the Crown Jewels, which are less crowded early in the day. I decided that I’m far too practical to be a monarch; all that elaborate and expensive stuff (e.g., the Royal Orbs), to be used for ceremonial purposes once in a lifetime seems like a colossal waste. But I guess the point is to impress other countries, and apparently it works.

The White Tower

The White Tower

We then took the 45-minute tour of the Tower, led by the Ravenmaster, Chris Skaife. He gave an excellent and humorous introduction to the history of the Tower, and we learned that we can even follow him (and the Ravens) on Twitter at @ravenmaster1.

Following the tour, we walked through the White Tower, the building in the center of the fortress, which houses an extensive collection of suits of armor. Apparently there has been an exhibit there for a hundreds of years, to impress visitors with British strength.

GPS reading on the Greenwich Meridian

GPS reading on the Greenwich Meridian

After lunch, we took the light rail out to Greenwich to the observatory. I had visited Royal Greenwich Observatory with my family while I was in high school. It was much as I remembered it, except that there seemed to be a lot more tourists, including school groups from various countries. It’s a good thing that tourists have so much interest in an attraction such as this.

Having used my GPS to check the location of the equator a few years ago, I of course brought it to check and see if it agreed with the indicated Greenwich Meridian at the observatory. As it happens, it was off by a little bit (about .001 degree, or 290 feet). The audio guide anticipated my question and explained that GPS units use an approximation for the ellipticity of the earth. That makes sense, but I’d like to understand the details sometime.

John Harrison's masterpiece: the H4

John Harrison’s masterpiece: the H4

A highlight of the visit to the observatory was the display of John Harrison’s original clocks, H1 through H4, that Kenna and I had read about in the book Longitude. They were crucial to improving navigational safety and accuracy in the 17th century. The clocks are works of art as much as of engineering. They took many years to complete, and H4, the final model, was revolutionary in introducing refinements like bimetallic strips for temperature compensation.

While at the observatory, we also went to a short planetarium show. Although the show was good (the standard “tonight’s sky” sort of thing), comfortable seats in a dark room meant we had trouble staying awake.

We went back to town to walk around the Cutty Sark, see a bit of Greenwich, and look for a good dinner place. Being our last dinner in England, we wanted local food. One of the guidebooks suggested the Trafalgar Tavern, which was as it said: quite good, but a little overpriced.

We considered taking a boat back to London, but it was getting late so we took the more conventional route of light rail and tube back to our hotel to pack for our onward trip.

This article is part of a series about our recent vacation in Europe. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

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