Travel Report: Greenwich Park, London.
Greenwich Park, London.
I’m all about the parks whenever I return to the English capital. After all, they’re incredibly beautiful, not to mention merciful on the old wallet. Typically, I return home after another long spell in Asia. Thus I cannot get enough of that fresh English air, even if it’s often a tad cutting, as it was on this particular April afternoon.
I had just finished lunch with a friend in Greenwich Market. She had really annoyed me, to say the least. In fact, upon hearing that I was heading back to China for a third spell of teaching, she let out an exasperated sigh. “Leighton, when are you going to get a proper job?”
Her question was still very much on my mind after we parted. I can be a sensitive soul at times, so I found myself reflecting on how rude and misguided she’d been. As if her life, stuck behind the same desk every day, week in, week out, year after year, was somehow superior to mine.
I didn’t feel much like going back to Tooting Bec. Hence I went for a stroll, Greenwich being a delightful place for such an undertaking. Soon, I found myself at the entrance to Greenwich Park. Oh! Now here was a London park I’d yet to explore. No time like the present, I thought, ambling towards the foot of Greenwich Park’s steep slope.
Greenwich Park, London.
I quickly forgot about my friend and proper-job-gate. Indeed the grass felt pleasingly soft underfoot. And, after just a few minutes, I found myself pausing to turn and look back at Queen’s House. This former royal residence, completed in 1635, was initially built for Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I.
Unfortunately, Anne died in 1618, two years into its construction. Eventually, it fell into the hands of the queen consort Henrietta Maria. A gift, it turned out, from King Charles I. There’s so much history to this place, but I’ll leave it for another article. You know, once I’ve actually been inside.
Photo courtesy of Bill Bertram.
Rather, let me focus on the history of Greenwich Park itself, which now stands as one of London’s largest green spaces. This was one of England’s great royal parks and its first owner was a chap called Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester. He received it from his nephew, King Henry VI in 1427.
Humphrey sure wasn’t shy in putting his new land to good use. First, he built a private house on it, before work began on Duke Humphrey’s Tower, a hunting lodge later known as Greenwich Castle. Decades later Henry VIII took it over as a place to hang out with his mistresses.
Sadly Greenwich Castle is no more. It fell into disrepair in the 1650s and by 1676 had been destroyed and replaced by The Royal Observatory. Which is the very building that came into view that afternoon as I slowly made my way up Greenwich Hill, aka Observatory Hill.
What to See & Do, London.
It was Charles II who ordered The Royal Observatory’s construction. How wonderful that the original section, Flamsteed House (pictured above) still stands in such excellent condition.
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the building takes its name from the Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed, whose passion and charms were key in persuading the king to create Britain’s very first purpose-built scientific research facility.
That afternoon, peeking through the iron gates from the park, I resolved to tour the observatory myself one day. To see The UK’s largest refracting telescope (28 inches) and marvel at a four and a half billion year old meteorite. Almost five years later and I still haven’t ticked it off. Maybe Sladja and I will get round to it in 2022.
Another part of the observatory you can catch from the park is the fascinating Shepherd Gate Clock, outside the main gate. Created and installed by the engineer Charles Shepherd in 1852, this was the first public clock to display Greenwich Meantime (GMT). It’s a wonderful (not to mention highly unusual) antique that features a 24 hour analog dial.
Moving on from the observatory, my somewhat aimless wanderings led me to the handsome Greenwich Park Bandstand. Erected in 1891, this grade II listed structure still hosts live music performances. Especially in the summer, when visitors can rest and enjoy a show among the rows of deckchairs laid out by the local council.
Greenwich Park, London.
A wide range of wildlife has resided in the park over the centuries. Back in the Duke of Gloucester’s days, he and his royal chums kept and bred falcons in order to train them in the art of hawking. During Henry VIII’s reign, the royals used the park to hunt deer. As such, today’s park has a wild deer enclosure, sealed off from public access.
There are also hundreds of grey squirrels darting around. Happily these privileged beasts roam free, unmolested by bows, arrows and wild dogs. Moreover, they even get fed by locals and tourists. Despite all the signs telling you not to.
Next, I found myself picking a path under a gorgeous row of cherry blossoms. Bringing a taste of Japan to the English capital, a number of the trees lean beautifully into each other, forming an elegant Cherry Blossom Tunnel. A few, I’ve read, even arrived from Japan itself as a state gift.
On the subject of trees, there are around 4000 in Greenwich Park. Among them stand over fifty 17th century sweet chestnuts, an old sycamore and a handful of magnificent ancient oaks. One of them, pictured below, was such a grand sight I actually stopped right in my tracks to photograph it. Then strode over to the great thing to stand for a moment under its vast shadow.
Adventures in London.
However, it’s actually the decrepit remains of an old oak that stands, or rather sits, as Greenwich Park’s most famous tree. They call it Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, a veteran tree seeded in the 12th century. According to historians, it most likely stood in the garden of Placentia Palace, home to the Tudor royal family.
Photo courtesy of Steve Daniels.
They also reckon Henry VIII named the tree after his daughter, Elizabeth I. And that she often picnicked under the oak in the summer. The tree died at some point in the 19th century, but didn’t collapse until 1991 during a fierce storm. It remains right where it fell, protected from inquisitive hands by a surrounding fence.
Right at the top of the hill, looking down over the expanse of the park, across Queen’s House and beyond, sits a large stone square. It is home to a grand monument in honour of Major-general James Wolfe.
The statue, unveiled in 1930, commemorates Wolfe’s victory against the French at Quebec in The Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Winning the battle secured Canada for the British, but cost Wolfe his life. As the story goes, he was hit with three gunshot wounds early on in the fighting. And that was that.
Wolfe lies buried in Greenwich at the nearby St Alfege Church. “A British hero”, claims the plaque that accompanies the monument. A man with a proper job, I suspect, in the eyes of my friend.
Greenwich Park, London.
Photo courtesy of Daniel Case.
I remember standing up there for a while looking out over London. The home I was about to leave once again for more foreign adventures. It would be another two years before I came back, though I didn’t know it then. Gathering myself, I let out a deep breath and made my way back down the hill towards the future.
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There’s something special about London’s villages, including Greenwich, an almost unique atmosphere of genuine self-sufficient communities within the major city confines. They are always great to explore and, as you suggest, the park is usually the heartbeat of the place.
Thanks for checking in for the start of my latest string of London articles. I love London’s parks and will be sharing plenty more over the next week or two. Hope you guys are readjusting to life back in Blighty.
Excellent post Leighton. We toured Greenwich in 2017, but spent most of our time at the Observatory and in the Maritime Museum. We did notice all of London languishing and playing on the great lawns. Thanks to James Wolfe for our country, although the French-English debate rages on to this day in Canada. Thanks for sharing. Happy Sunday. Allan
Oh yes, The Maritime Museum. I went there as a kid to do research for my school history project on Captain Cook. Would love to go back with Sladja next year. Another excuse to revisit Greenwich. Happy Sunday!
Ah, nothing like a big park to help keep you in touch with history and nature. Really enjoy how the two come together in Greenwich. Can’t wait to get inside of the Queen’s House and hopefully the Observatory. I love it when you wax poetic. May you never run out of hills to walk down toward your future.
Thanks Memo, the hills they keep on coming. Our next hill leads to Sarajevo tomorrow, bringing an end to an amazing two months in Montenegro. I owe you an email!
Thanks for recounting your visit to this beautiful park with so much history and importance. Being on the prime meridian would be cool. I always try to note passing such things if the plane I’m in has flight following with lat and long info. I always thought Britain was on the metric system but see from the clock photo that it also uses imperial measures like yards and feet. Great share Leighton.
Thanks for checking in John. Greenwich Park is a fine natural space, even by London standards. Hope to add the observatory to the vaults next time. Like you I was also unaware of the measurement system until this visit. Hope your Sunday is unfolding well.
So great that you timed your visit to Greenwich Park to coincide with the cherry blossom. I really enjoy a stroll through that part of London and am often to be seen heading onto the DLR to Greenwich. A really good post Leighton and I think it’s awful that someone should think that teaching English as a foreign language in China isn’t a proper job as I definitely think it is!
Thanks for your kind feedback Marion. Maybe we’ll finally meet in Greenwich, should Sladja and I bring project London to fruition in January.
That would be really nice to look forward to Leighton. It would be great to meet you both.
Sounds like your friend isn’t much of a friend, is she? I can relate to folks who ask about your career prospects and, concerned/well-intentioned they may be, it can be annoying and also taxing on one’s self-worth. That aside, Greenwich Park is such a spacious, green estate! Especially in a hyper-urbanized place like London, having pockets of nature to decompress from city life is very refreshing…and much-needed!
Hey Rebecca, you’re right, she wasn’t much of a friend. And, funnily enough, within a few years we lost contact altogether. At the very least, I have that conversation to thank for leading me to Greenwich Park. Totally agree on how important such spaces are in the world’s mega cities.
Looks like the perfect spot on a nice day! Great place to unwind after a not so great interaction. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for visiting Lyssy. Hope fall in New York continues to treat you well.
What beautiful weather for April even if it was a bit chilly! And your friend sounds like an idiot for saying that – I sure as heck couldn’t teach English in China. That is for sure much more of a challenging job than mine sitting behind a desk all day!
Thanks for reading Han and for being on the right side of the #friendgate argument ha ha.
One of my friends once asked me once when I was going to dye my hair so I wasn’t hideously ginger anymore. People can just be so rude!!!!!
Oh, lord. Hope you told her where to go.
Yes, in no uncertain terms!!
There are some pretty fantastic parks in London. This brings back memories of when we visited Greenwich nearly a decade ago. Unfortunately it was raining so we didn’t spend much time in Greenwich Park.
Ah the reliable English weather! Thanks for reading guys and taking the time to comment. I was lucky that afternoon with the elements.
Fascinating history lesson on the many different parts of Greenwich park! This has always been a high listed place on my UK list and a great way to start off the week! And I would be pretty mad if a friend said that to me- not only is it a real job but it’s an important job and one that I would guess she was actually pretty jealous of underneath the snarky comment.
Meg, you are a star. I didn’t expect so many readers to jump to my defence so vociferously, it’s quite touching. Hope you enjoy my next few London park articles!
What beautiful spring views of Greenwich Park. It doesn’t fit with my grey and wet memory, jostled by the wind as I left the tunnel from Canary Wharf. I was however impressed by the majesty of the palaces in their prime parkland setting. Nice post!
Thanks for stopping by! It’s a pity London is so spoiled by bad weather and that we have so much of it. The city is so transformed when the sun comes out and the sky fills with blue.
This brings back memories our time there. Greenwich Park is a great place to stroll around.. so historic. Too bad your friend was a bit growling. Good that you went off to Asia.
Glad you also got to see the majesty of Greenwich Park. Thanks for visiting!
Greenwich park is on of my favourite places in London – to go for a nice long stroll, to just picnic in the summer, to spend long hours reading outside when the weather allows for it. Learnt some history lessons from your post, thank you for sharing! I’m planning to go for a big stroll there in a few weeks to see the trees all golden 🙂
Hey Nic, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! I’m very jealous of your ability to just pop down to Greenwich Park. Hoping very much to revisit in early 2022, as long as we can get our booster jabs in Belgrade. And of course that entry requirements don’t change in the meantime. Enjoy the trees for me!
Fingers crossed Leighton! We’re all hoping for an easier 2022 for travellers 🙂
What a lovely park Leighton! Love the sight of the Cherry Blossom Tunnel and that beautiful old tree! A ‘proper job’ she said … see where General Wolfe ended up with a ‘proper job’!!
Ha ha indeed. But he has his own statue. Oh hang on, I think I’ll take the offer of a longer life, thanks!
This park looks like a lot of fun!!
Thanks for reading Pam!