A New-to-Me Day Out in London

Somehow, writing these posts always seems to take longer than I think it will! After writing a couple hundred of them, you’d think I know better, but oh well. It’s editing the photos that takes such a big chunk of time and thankfully I’ve finished that, so now I just need to write! So while I was hoping I would get the whole post wrapped up tonight, it will be tomorrow by the time you read this. Or maybe two weeks or ten years from now. Who knows! Regardless, read on and join me as I re-live the second day of this trip, a day when everything I did was new to me!

After the many glorious hours of sleep last night you already read about, I woke up to another sunny (albeit windy) day, ready to hit the ground running. I had already decided that I would visit the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, only a couple of miles away from where I’m staying (funnily enough, it was my most recent Travel Throwback post that made me think of this, since I went to Greenwich for the first time on that trip). While it is true that I’ve never been *inside* the observatory, I have walked to it before (on my November 2014 trip), to take advantage of the amazing views of London. As with that trip, I totally scored with the weather as yesterday’s sunshine and blue skies made a return appearance.

Although nearly all of the scientific work was moved to a different observatory years ago, this one has a ton of interesting history and is the home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as the Prime Meridian passes directly through it. Pretty cool, right? Although I was only planning on visiting the observatory, when I went online to book the ticket, I discovered that a) the ticket was cheaper to book online vs. in person (love a discount!) and b) for a few pounds more, I could get a combo ticket that also granted entry to Cutty Sark, which I had also never visited. Well then, why not! So I booked it for the princely sum of £19 (a savings of £5, I think) and promptly had a third thing added to my list (more on that second one later).

Although Cutty Sark wasn’t even on my original plan, I went there first because the booking process prompted me to choose a time for that, but not for the observatory. As with the observatory though, I had been by the ship before (see both posts linked above), but had never toured it. Cutty Sark is a huge tea clipper that ferried tea from China and wool from Australia (among other things) to be sold in Britain, though it did change hands a few times before finally being decommissioned and moved to its current dry dock in 1954. It’s an amazing piece of history and it’s easy to see the skill and care that went into restoring it over the years (especially after a massive fire in May 2007). The dry dock was purpose-built to maximize the views of the ship, even going so far as to make sure it’s completely suspended to allow people to see the underside of the ship (the cafe actually sits beneath the underside). I don’t fancy myself to be a lover of sailing ships or maritime history, but it was certainly worth the trip and I would recommend it to anyone considering going (just be sure to watch out for low ceilings and hordes of school kids).

To mix things up and to break up the writing (though I know how much you love to read it!), check out my pictures from this part of the day first.

St. Margaret’s Lee church as seen on my walk to Cutty Sark.

There she is!

Doesn’t look like much, but these are the “ribs” of the ship in the lowest deck.

The seal of the ship.

Items from some of the ship’s crew members.

The ship’s bell. Be sure to click into the photo and read the interesting history of it!

A big ship needs a big wheel.

These were the captain’s quarters.

This winch was used to move cargo between decks.

The ship’s stern.

The bottom of the ship as seen from the space beneath it, which houses the cafe and additional displays/info.

This display of figureheads was donated by Sydney Cumbers and is called the Long John Silver Collection because Cumbers loved all things maritime and wore an eyepatch.

The cool thing about the most of the places I visited today is that everything was close enough together to walk to, yet far enough apart to feel like I got to take in the sights while I walked between them. And it was actually one of those sights I happened to be walking by that drew me in and became the second thing I did – The Queen’s House. Now I’ll be honest and say I’d never even heard of this place until I stopped in front of it to take a picture, but that’s the serendipitous nature of traveling sometimes – you never know what you’ll find as you’re out walking around and have an open mind! I discovered it’s a former royal residence, completed in 1635 for Anne of Denmark, wife of King Edward I. It’s now part of the National Maritime Museum (which I didn’t go into, but did take some photos of) and houses a number of maritime-related paintings. Once again, I found myself wandering the rooms of a gorgeous building, letting my eyes explore all the cool art and architecture. One of those paintings, which I didn’t get to until the end, is the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I – really amazing! Best of all, this museum is FREE (though there’s an encouraged donation of £5, which I happily paid), so do yourself a favor and see it. I did consider also touring the National Maritime Museum, since it’s next door and is also free, but ultimately decided not to.

I may not know the subject or artist of the paintings below, that that doesn’t make them any less interesting to look at. Enjoy!

The National Maritime Museum.

This colonnade connects the original Queen’s House (left) with a later addition (right). And yes my fellow Doctor Who fans, that’s where the climax of Dimensions in Time takes place, too!

The Queen’s House.

Loved this portrait and the frame it’s in.

There were more than paintings to see, too.

Love the blue of these dishes!

The Armada Portrait.

I assume these may have been part of a ship at some point.

An astronomical clock! Not as imposing as the one in Prague, but still pretty cool.

Outside the back of the Queen’s House, looking up Greenwich Park to my next stop, the Royal Observatory.

After that perfect diversion from my plans, I made my way up the hill in the photo above (more of a workout than it looks to be, especially just before you reach the observatory) to reach the Royal Observatory. As I mentioned above, I had walked there before, but only to enjoy the views of the city after having seen some photos my friend Jason took from there. And when I discovered how close it was (I was staying in Lewisham on that trip as well), it was a no-brainer to go check out those views for myself! And this time, it felt like a no-brainer to actually pay the observatory a visit, too. Although it’s really only a museum these days and there’s actually not as much to it as I thought there was, it was still a worthwhile visit. You can take a selfie with the aforementioned Prime Meridian, tour Flamsteed House, a building designed by Sir Christopher Wren and the former home of the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, see the Octagon Room, and get up close to the Great Equatorial Telescope (you can’t look through it normally, but it looks like there are events sometimes when you can). There’s also a planetarium, which has its own entry fee, but is probably also fun to visit! Oh, and did I mention the views of London from literally steps outside the observatory’s door? Yeah, take advantage of those, too! All in all, I’m really glad I made a point to visit this place on my trip, though I’m a little sad it took me 15 years of coming to London before I finally did it!

Photos ahead!

I don’t often use the panorama setting these days, but this view was screaming out for one.

And the non-panorama version.

Yours truly with the view. Can you tell I really enjoyed this view??

Me again, this time with one foot over each side of the Prime Meridian.

Just in case you wanted proof that my feet really were on each side of it.

Flamsteed House.

Loved the color of this vase!

The ceiling of the Octagon Room.

More of the Octagon Room, including someone looking through a replica of the old telescope that was once in this room.

The mechanism of a really big clock inside the house.

The Great Equatorial Telescope. Or some of it anyway – it’s hard to get it all in one picture!

And with that, I wrapped up my fabulous time in Greenwich to move on to my final destination of the day, which was actually the second thing I had decided to do, as mentioned in the intro to this post. Where is that, you might ask? Chislehurst Caves, that’s where! But, but…caves?? In London?! Yes, that’s right, a big ol’ cave system, right here in London (well, Bromley really, but close enough), just waiting to be explored. This is a place that’s been on the edge of my awareness for only a few years, back to that trip when I walked by the observatory for the first time. On that same trip, the same friend who shared the amazing London views also went to the caves with another friend, so I’ve been curious about it ever since. I think I even considered going on my trip earlier this year, but the timing didn’t work out as the caves are open Wed-Sat and I had been thinking of going on a Monday, which obviously didn’t work out. So glad it did this time though! Interestingly, although they’re called caves, all 22 miles of them (don’t worry – you only tour about 3/4 mile of them) were actually man-made to enable mining of chalk and flint. According to the internet (and the tour guide at the caves), there are stories that the history of the caves goes back thousands of years, to the time of the druids, who are rumored to have held druidic ceremonies, including human sacrifices, in the caves. True? Who knows! Makes for a good story though. And even if you ignore that possibly-false history, the real history of the caves being used first as a mine, then as an ammunition dump during World War I, then for mushroom cultivation, then as an air raid shelter for 15,000 during World War II, is fascinating enough on its own! Yes, it’s true – upwards of 15,000 people basically lived in the caves for a few years during World War II because of the constant threat of bombs being dropped on London. During this time, the caves operated as a town, with things like a church, a hospital, a dentist, a post office, and more being set up! You can see the remnants of that society on the tour today, though the caves are now mostly empty, with displays here and there to show what life was like for the people who lived in them during that time. Except for the displays though, there is no electricity, so you make your way around with your guide’s powerful flashlight and the lantern you’re given at the start of the tour. At one point, in the longest corridor on the tour, next to what is rumored to be an old druidic sacrificial altar, the guide simulated what life was like after lights-out when bombs were being dropped on the city above. Participation was totally optional, but the four of us on this tour decided to do it. To achieve it, the guide took our lanterns (and his flashlight) and walked around a couple of corners, out of sight completely, so we were left in utter darkness. And it stays that way because there is zero light for your eyes to adjust to! There must be some speakers in the corridor because we then heard the barrage of (simulated) bombs, which was fascinating. It’s amazing to think that so many people lived in these caves under constant threat of those bombs! Overall, I can’t recommend the caves enough as it’s a really quirky, interesting place to visit. And for only £6, you can’t go wrong. It’s even reached easily, just down the street and around the corner from Chislehurst Station. Go visit!

Some of the pictures aren’t as good as I’d like them to be, but with only light from a flashlight and some weak lanterns, that’s to be expected.

The sign pointing me to the caves.

The blue plaque outside the caves.

The ticket office (with the cafe off to the right) was neat and had a feel of an old mom-and-pop store in the US.

The rules of the caves for the inhabitants during the war.

The caves’ church, which held services seven days a week and had upwards of 250 people crammed into it. It’s still considered holy ground today.

In case you were wondering what the lantern looked like.

This well was the only source of fresh water in the caves.

These paintings aren’t that old (they were done in the 1960s), but they represent the artist’s interpretation of druidic life in the caves. They’re on the outside of a set of bathrooms, which today are empty, but during the war contained what amounts to small chemical toilets that had to be emptied into big tubs by hand (ick), which were then carted out of the caves once a week.

This carving is also not old as it was done by artist Sandy Brown in 1995. It took her a year to do with very little light, but she wanted to do it as a representation of what she thought druidic life would have been like. But she made sure to modernize it so it could never be claimed as something that was hundreds or thousands of years old. As proof, look at the bottom of the carving, which includes the modern building Canary Wharf and…Spiderman. 🙂

Here’s that really long corridor I mentioned above.

This is that (supposed) druidic sacrificial altar, which served as our bench while the lights were out and the “bombs” were dropping.

This now-shallow pool of water was once something like 15 feet deep, but was largely filled in during the war to prevent any of the caves’ inhabitants from falling in and drowning. It’s said that the body of a woman in a white wedding dress was found in the pool as it was being filled in and that that “white lady” haunts the caves and is sometimes seen by visitors. One of the guys in my tour group said that he was a shaman and would like to “send her back home” if he saw her. He even asked if he could light a small candle at the pool, presumably to draw her out and/or send her home, but the guide said he couldn’t. Very interesting!

This shows how the caves were set up during the war. See that A1 on the wall (upper-right corner)? That was your address! Remember though that there were 15,000 people living down here, so these bunks would have been EVERYWHERE. Also, all that body heat raised the temperature to nearly 90° F! Compare that with today, where the temperature is probably 40° (you can see your breath, so bring a jacket) and you get an idea of how cramped things must have been then.

Peeking inside the hospital. Interestingly, there were no major illnesses during the time all those people lived down here, but there was one birth!

An example of what mushroom cultivation/farming in the caves looked like. Fun fact – the caves are still owned by Kent Mushrooms Limited.

This old ticket booth is where people paid their rent for living in the caves during the war.

The money-handlers inside the ticket booth.

What a fabulous day I had! Four new-to-me things that were fun and interesting, nice weather, and lots of great memories. After my adventures, I went into the city to have a quick drink at Retro Bar and I also decided to stop by TKTS in Leicester Square to buy a ticket for a Sunday matinee. Ooooh, but for which show? Come back to find out!

One final photo, taken as I was just about back to Charing Cross to catch the train home.

4 thoughts on “A New-to-Me Day Out in London

  1. Hi Jeff, you really did a lot in one day if you ask me!! All looks amazing! I have a question for you…what does “pitches” refer to in the Rules of The Cave? Bed? Bedroom? I looked up the word and there are a variety of meanings but none that I thought would apply to the rules? Just curious! Have safe trip and enjoy!

    1. Hey Pam! The pitch is like your assigned address, so the A1 in that photo would be the pitch for that person/family. At least that’s how it was explained by our guide. 🙂

  2. There’s a very interesting Fan Museum in Greenwich; also a pub where Nelson also ate frequently. Did you see his bloodied uniform? It may have been in the Queen’s House display; Not sure.

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About thejeffelston

Based in St. Paul, MN and love to blog about travel. Comment, follow, and join me on my journey!