Outings: Of stars and sailing ships - Education News - Education - The Independent

Outings: Of stars and sailing ships

Go to Greenwich for a day out and you're almost guaranteed

to lose your sense of time - there's so much to explore,

writes Sarah Jewel.

A day's visit to Greenwich is an intriguing eye-opener on the relationship between time, space and the navigation of the sea. In the 17th century the greatest problem that beset all maritime trading nations was how to travel across the seas to the New World without getting lost. In 1675 Charles II decided that he would appoint an astronomer to draw up a map of the heavens that would be accurate enough for sailors to pinpoint their longitudinal position at sea. It took John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, 40 years, but his meticulous charts of the night sky solved the problem until the invention of the marine chronometer. In 1884 Greenwich was chosen as the site of the prime meridian line of the world (longitudinal position 0) and Greenwich Mean Time began.

Charles II's Royal Observatory, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is perched on the top of Greenwich hill and the magnificent view from the meridian line looks out over the National Maritime Museum, the Queen's House - Inigo Jones's 17th-century royal villa, the Royal Naval College and the 19th-century tea clipper, the Cutty Sark. Beyond the Thames, the yellow construction cranes of the Millennium Dome loom as this century's tribute to the passage of time.

The visitors

Sarah Jewel took Esther Hindley, nine, and Guy Hindley, seven.

Sarah: We took the Docklands Light Railway to Island Gardens and then walked through the leaky foot tunnel under the Thames to Greenwich pier. It was pouring with rain as we came out of the tunnel and we looked up at the glistening symmetry of the rigging and masts of the Cutty Sark outlined against the sky.

Launched in 1869, this delicate little ship was built to sail to China and back in the great tea races of the 1870s. After standing over the polished wooden and brass steering wheel on the main deck and fantasising that we were out on the open seas, with the rain lashing into our faces, we needed warming up.

Greenwich village is full of bars, cafes and exciting shops. We dived into the Pier Fish Restaurant where we each had some tasty cod and chips and a rather watery hot chocolate. Then we made a beeline through the park to the Old Royal Observatory.

For anyone, like myself, with an under-developed sense of spacial awareness this is the place to push the buttons, play with the gadgets and get to grips with measuring the lines of longitude and latitude around the world, working out time changes between the eastern and western hemispheres. Clocks of all description are on display, from "H4" the forerunner of all precision watches, to the Accurist Millennium Countdown clock.

As we left the Old Royal Observatory the sun started to shine, and we walked down the hill across the beautifully kept lawn to the National Maritime Museum. Huge oil paintings of the battleships that fought during the First and Second World Wars line the walls of the exhibition of 20th- century sea power. The bloodied breeches of the greatest captain of the seas, Admiral Lord Nelson, are on display in the exhibition that charts his life and loves.

Esther: I thought the Docklands train was very exciting because there was no driver and it feels as though you are controlling it yourself. I liked sliding about on the decks of the Cutty Sark which were very wet and slippery, and looking below deck at Long John Silver's collection of lady figureheads.

In the Old Royal Observatory we played games and learnt what the time difference is between London and Los Angeles. We saw an enormous telescope that can see through the clouds at night, but I was disappointed that we weren't allowed to look through it. We played with a machine that explained how light rays shine through different-shaped lenses. I think my class should go there, because we are learning about convex and concave lenses at the moment.

At the Maritime Museum there was a really exciting gallery for children with lots of different gadgets and games all about people and the sea. I liked putting my hands in a huge pair of rubber gloves inside a tank and feeling how difficult it is to operate machinery under water. In the Lord Nelson exhibition there was a film about the Battle of Trafalgar that showed how Nelson got shot. In the room about 20th-century ships, the whole exhibition was shaped like a boat, and there was a pretend control room of a frigate where we shot torpedoes at an enemy ship on a computer screen.

Guy: I liked the train because it went slow and fast and it felt like being in one of my racing cars that tip to the side when they go round the corners of my Scalextrix. I thought we had a very good captain of the train - but I wasn't sure how he controlled it.

I thought the Cutty Sark was very interesting, and I liked going below deck where there was a sailor who was tying all different types of sea knots with funny names like Chinese button knot and monkey's fist knot.

The thing I liked best at the Observatory was the old wooden telescope in the Octagon Room, because when I looked into it I didn't see the sky and the rain - instead I saw Pluto, the dog from Disneyland. I would like to go there at night and look through the enormous telescope and see a star being made, like we saw on the video screen. At the Maritime Museum I liked sending a Morse code message across the room to Esther in the children's gallery. I had a very good day out.

The deal

Getting there: the Docklands Light Railway runs from Bank or Tower Hill Tube to Island Gardens. Walk through the foot tunnel to Greenwich. Boat cruises from Westminster, Charing Cross or Tower piers to Greenwich pier.

Prices: The Old Royal Observatory and the National Maritime Museum (0181- 858 4422) open daily 10am-5pm, adults pounds 5.50, concessions pounds 4.50, children pounds 3; combined ticket includes entry to Queen's House.Cutty Sark: open daily 10am-5pm, Sun 12 noon-5pm, adults pounds 3.50, children pounds 2.50, family pounds 8.50.

Other attractions: Royal Naval College, Queen's House, Greenwich Park.

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