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Sunday, 17-Oct-2004 00:00 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Marking the meridian: Newham

Time Spiral
Stratford station
Meridian Square
View all 6 photos...
xix) The original Big Brother House: OK, if I'm honest the meridian doesn't quite pass through the site of Nasty Nick's series 1 downfall, but the zero degree line does pass through the Bow field in which they built the house and within 100 metres of the original Diary Room. I've written about this now-empty field before of course - try here.
xx) Abbey Mills Pumping Station: It's probably inadvisable to cut straight through the middle of East London's Sewage Cathedral... unless you're an imaginary line of longitude, that is. I've written about this place before too - try here.
xxi) See also: Cody Road Industrial Estate, the District Line (between Bromley-by-Bow and West Ham), Bow Back Rivers, the Northern Outfall Sewer (now the Greenway), the Gala Bingo Hall on Stratford High Street, the Jubilee Line (by the footbridge just south of Stratford station), the car park round the back of Bridge House (home to Newham Council's Housing Department) and Stratford Box (contract 230 of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link).

xxii) This is Time Spiral, a six metre high twisty-turny clock erected in the pedestrian forecourt of Stratford station to mark the meridian. According to the artist, Malcolm Robertson, this is a piece wherein "curved walls sweep in towards a central point from all directions and amalgamate to form a unified spiral structure that acts as a beacon to continuously draw the spectator's attention upwards and outwards. The beacons draw their energy from the surrounding area and combine forces to produce a strong visual landmark of dynamic unity." If this is indeed the case, and somehow I doubt it, then the people of Stratford don't seem to have noticed.

xxiii) The people of Stratford haven't noticed the meridian either, despite the local council naming the large public plaza outside the station Meridian Square. They don't realise when they're lurking around the public conveniences at the southern end of the bus station that the meridian passes immediately through the cubicles. They don't realise when they draw up beside the 108 bus stop in their Ford Focus to drop their mates off that they're parking precisely on the meridian as well as illegally on a red route. They don't realise when they use the pelican on the ring road to cross from the bus station to the nasty cheap shopping centre opposite that they're actually crossing from the western to the eastern hemisphere. And they don't realise when they're standing at the eastern end of platform 10 waiting to escape Stratford by train that there's one additional line here that's invisible to the naked eye. People of Stratford, your knowledge is less than zero.

Saturday, 16-Oct-2004 00:00 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Marking the meridian: Tower Hamlets

Avenue beside Studley Court
Memorial at Victoria Quay
Compass plaque
xv) On leaving the Dome, the meridian takes a quick trip through the Blackwall tunnel (northbound southern tunnel built 1897, southbound northern tunnel opened 1967).

xvi) The meridian hits the north bank of the Thames at a brand new Barratt housing development in Blackwall. They've been good and not built a stack of one-bedroom shoeboxes on the line itself, but have instead planted a cobbled avenue of trees with yet another brass line down the middle. By the river there's a circle of concentric cobbles with a compass at the centre, pointing north. This is Virginia Quay, and a memorial a few yards to the east commemorates the departure point of the first permanent settlers to sail from England to the New World. King James I came down to Blackwall Steps to wave the settlers off, unaware of the dangers they would face across the Atlantic from malnutrition, Indian chiefs and being turned into Disney cartoon characters. The First Settlers' Monument, which was unveiled by the US Ambassador in 1928, reminds us how just successful their journey of colonisation turned out to be.

xvii) The meridian crosses the Docklands Light Railway at (or more precisely fractionally to the east of) East India station. There used to be a red line on the track marking zero degrees but it's not there now.

xviii) Next heading northwards: a security man sitting at a small barrier on Saffron Avenue, the A13, a downcast council estate at South Bromley (the last houses on the meridian for the next two miles), Poplar gasworks, Bow Creek.

Friday, 15-Oct-2004 00:00 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Marking the meridian: North Greenwich

Meridian Quarter
Millennium Milepost
Ordnance Jetty
View all 4 photos...
xi) After nearly a mile adrift in the Thames, the meridian comes ashore to clip the western edge of the North Greenwich peninsula. This is a grim industrial wasteland, still scarred with the remains of wharves and old factories. Even when the rest of the peninsula is reborn as a modern yuppie playground, this western sliver will be left unloved and underdeveloped. Except for the top bit.

The Dome
xii) When Michael Heseltine was looking for somewhere to dump his great Millennium attraction, it was the meridian that swung his decision in favour of Greenwich. This was otherwise a rotten location, an inaccessible brownfield site heavily contaminated by what had been the largest gasworks in Europe. Still, it was better than Birmingham. The chequered history of the resulting Dome is well documented. However, the Dome wasn't actually built on the meridian itself, which passes one radius away on the western side.

It doesn't feel quite so inspirational alongside the Dome today, four years after the Millennium. The Meridian Quarter has been barricaded behind a tall blue wire fence, the red light has long been turned off and the Living Wall is more of a dead pile of concrete blocks. The meridian line enters this deserted site through a grimy mirror (right of photo), then passes yellow Kodak photo point number 18 and a small pavillion full of old Dome exhibits. It's impossible to read any of the poems along the line from the perimeter footpath, not that you'd ever have been interested in the first place. There's no perspective, experience or culture here today, just a bleak, lonely and forsaken location. If any section of the meridian properly defines zero, this is it.

xiii) The tall black totem pole you can see to the right of this photo is a Millennium Milepost, placed Dome-side on the Thames Path by Sustrans the transport charity. There are 1000 such mileposts on cycle routes across the country, each featuring a lettered metal disc which is a clue in a long-forgotten national treasure hunt. I could tell you what the letter is on this particular meridian-sited milepost but that might ruin the fun for all you cycle-clipped puzzlers out there. I can tell you that the sign has been placed two metres too far east.

xiv) Ordnance Jetty juts out into the Thames on the north-western side of the Dome, straddling the meridian. It's a T-shaped pier, once used for unloading ammunition but recently topped off with grass as a safe haven for plants and birdlife. A low metal gutter sticks out from the shoreline pointed towards two white posts on the jetty, along which that red light from the Dome's Meridian Quarter used to be channelled. No longer. The gutter now contains nothing but one uniquely positioned weed.

Thursday, 14-Oct-2004 00:00 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Marking the meridian: Greenwich

Sculpture at the observatory
Sundial at the boating lake
Plaque on The Chantry
View all 6 photos...
Greenwich Observatory
i) A brass line stretches across the courtyard, marked with the names, latitudes and longitudes of various world cities.
ii) There's a big silvery sculpture at the northern end of the brass line, consisting of a pole inclined at 23�½ degrees to the vertical, an equatorial ring and two segmented sails.
iii) A tall stone plaque (with a vertical black meridian line) is set into the wall immediately beneath the observatory courtyard. A short brass line continues across the higher of the two footpaths.

Greenwich Park
iv) At the foot of Greenwich Park is a banana-shaped boating lake. The zero degree line cuts straight across the middle, making this your big chance to pedalo along the meridian. On the northern bank lies a raised circular platform supporting a big triangular sundial (shown in the photo above, at noon Greenwich Mean Time with the sun's shadow pointing due north). This is the Millennium Sundial and, like a certain other local millennial project I could mention, it's fatally flawed. The architect was given the wrong information and the sundial ended up being built 2 metres off the meridian, so it runs 8 minutes adrift. They should have built it dome-shaped.

Maritime Greenwich
v) On the first road north of the park, a plaque built into the wall of The Chantry reads 'Prime Meridian, zero degrees longitude'. A downward-pointing arrow divides East from West.
vi) North from the plaque there's a row of ten raised studs following the meridian across the road before disappearing into the front room of number 2 Feathers Place.
vii) Old Woolwich Road School lies bang on the line, and so has been renamed Meridian Primary.
viii) The meridian crosses the grounds of Trinity Hospital, a retirement home for 21 local gentlemen and the oldest building in Greenwich.
ix) The green meridian laser passes directly between the four tall brick chimneys of Greenwich Power Station. This coal-fired station was built by London County Council in 1906 to generate power for local trams. More recently it was used by London Underground as a peak-time back-up station, before finally being mothballed last year (just in time for a serious power cut).
x) The meridian enters the Thames totally unmarked at Crowley's Wharf, a few metres west of the nasty modern development at Anchor Iron Wharf. Steps lead down to the beach (yes, the Thames has beaches) from which the meridian heads off north across the river, just missing the giant derelict coal jetty sticking out from the power station behind.

Wednesday, 13-Oct-2004 00:00 Email | Share | | Bookmark
Marking the meridian: The Royal Greenwich Observatory

Greenwich Observatory
Flamsteed House
Looking north along the meridian
The Prime Meridian is 120 years old today. That's the imaginary north-south line through Greenwich which divides the world into western and eastern hemispheres, and from which longitude and universal time are measured. It passes less than a kilometre from my house. And we'd be lost without it.

To celebrate today's anniversary I'm taking you on a week-long journey up the zero degree line of longitude from Greenwich to the M25, stopping off at all the places where the meridian has been marked in some way. There are plaques and monuments, sundials and statues, and an awful lot of random everyday objects that just happen to lie on this most special of lines. Plus it's a great excuse for a walk through East London. Do join me.

Millions of tourists have stood precisely here, in the courtyard at the Royal Greenwich Observatory astride the famous brass meridian line. Cameras at the ready, left leg in the western hemisphere, right leg in the eastern hemisphere, click. The meridian passes directly through the observatory, and is precisely defined by the centre of the crosshairs of George Airy's 1851 transit telescope. Above the telescope on the outside of the building there's a clock counting the days since the Millennium, a silver plaque and a tiny hole out of which a green laser shines along the meridian after dark, visible for many miles to the north. The red line down the face of the building marks the precise longitude at which time begins. But it's not the original Greenwich Meridian.

Flamsteed House was built in 1675 on the highest ground within Greenwich Park, the perfect location for an observatory with unobstructed views of the sky over London. Unfortunately the windows of Christopher Wren's magnificent Octagon Room were found to be pointing slightly off the north-south axis, and so the first Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed made all his observations from a shed at the bottom of the garden instead. It was the telescope in this shed that established the first of four Greenwich meridians, each defined by a different telescope and each now marked by a silver plaque on the observatory wall.

Meridian 1: based on John Flamsteed's telescope, 1685
Meridian 2: based on Edmund Halley's telescope, 1725 (185cm east of Flamsteed's meridian) Established when Flamsteed's original telescope began to subside into the ground.
Meridian 3: based on James Bradley's telescope, 1750 (11m east of Halley's meridian). Still used by the Ordnance Survey for map-making purposes.
Meridian 4: based on George Airy's telescope, 1851 (5.79m east of Bradley's meridian). Selected as the Prime Meridian of the world exactly 120 years ago today.

With the advent of global positioning technology in the 1990s, a new virtual meridian has been introduced. It lies 102�½ metres further east than the official Greenwich meridian and is the line used for all air and sea navigation. That's why when you stand in the courtyard at Greenwich wielding a handheld GPS device it doesn't show a longitude of precisely 0�°0'0". However, for the last 120 years it's been Airy's Prime Meridian that is more properly recognised here at Greenwich and, quite literally, all around the world.

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