Tag Archives: Greenwich Observatory

Following the Meridian III – To the Observatory

The last two posts on following the Prime Meridian, went through Bromley’s suburbia and then through Lewisham leaving us at the resting place of several Astronomers Royal at the old churchyard of St Margaret, Lee (albeit a few metres off route).

The Prime Meridian can be picked up again on the other side of the river valley that the railway purloined, that of Upper Kid Brook, at the top of Heath Lane. The ‘line’ goes through the back gardens of The Orchard, but once round that late Victorian incursion into the ‘Heath, the open expanse of Blackheath makes it easy to follow despite some long grass in places.

The Prime Meridian almost cuts through that ultimate eyesore for the ‘guardians’ of the ‘Heath – the Tea Hut, which has been there since the 1920s (It was destroyed in a car crash in early 2020). The Blackheath Society had been trying to get rid of it for at least 40 years through various means, although in recent years they became more relaxed about it re-tweeting details of a film about it. However, it remained limpet like at the junction of the A2 and Goffers Road. It’s not terribly exciting, it’s not that attractive but was always well used and was a bit of a local institution, something that the ‘Heath was, on balance, better for. I often run past, it is by one of the main pedestrian crossings on the ‘Heath, but don’t stop, tea isn’t a drink to be running with…. There are plans to replace it.

Along the side of Chesterfield Walk is a meridian marker built into the wall of the Ranger’s House.

Next door used to be Montague House, home to Caroline of Brunswick between 1799 and 1813 which was demolished in 1815. The Rangers House, where Caroline’s mother, Augusta, lived, fortunately remains. The House was bought be the Crown in 1815 and the meridian passes diagonally through it.


Into Greenwich Park and the Observatory is in sight as the Prime Meridian skirts the north western edge of the rose garden and the covered reservoir before ‘passing through the centre of the transit instrument’.

There is one rather attractive marker in the garden at the rear of the Observatory which looks a bit like a gyroscope but is called an Armillary dial and is an early means of telling the time.

I could follow the Prime Meridian another 1.75 miles (as the meridian flies) south of the river as there are a few meridian markers north of the Observatory before it goes out into the Thames then briefly touching the O2 Arena and then finally crossing the river. These include a rather attractive sundial on the line next to the small boating lake that doubled up as a water-feature for the Equestrian events in the 2012 Olympics.

However, a line on path by the Dome which I must have run over numerous times but never noticed doesn’t seem a great place to finish though – but this would be roughly the route….

I must admit to having baulked at the £8.50 entry to the courtyard, something which was free until 2011, so the destination photos are taken through the wrought iron railings.



Following the Meridian I – Suburban Footsteps

Today, 13th October 2014, is the 130th anniversary of the a decision at The International Meridian Conference in Washington in 1884 which led to

the adoption of the meridian passing through the centre of the transit instrument at the Observatory of Greenwich as the initial meridian for longitude.

The line is well known and a tourist attraction at Greenwich, although it was 4th in a series of ‘lines’ ‘drawn’ at Greenwich – the first by Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, was 7.75 metres to the west. The blog has been there before with an unsuccessful anarchist attempt to blow up the Observatory.

While the Observatory would be an obvious place to start, I am going to resist logic and run my way back from the southern edge of London following as close to the Prime Meridian as possible, taking in a transect of the city. Fittingly, our starting point is another invisible and artificial construct – the boundary between Croydon and Surrey. Our starting point is a footpath (roughly where the large tree on the left is) around 100 metres west of a road called Park Road, remarkable only for its absence of a park. Oddly though the footpath had been tarmaced in the dim and distant past, the reasons for this became clear within 50 metres – there was a sign to Greenwich via National Cycle Route 21, a route I run down, further to the north, several times a week.

The Prime Meridian is no respecter of rights of way and heads north over school playing fields. Our first turn to the north is a footpath more or less parallel to an old Roman road that went from London to Lewes – while there have been a few Roman coins found in the area, there is little to get excited about. Our first obvious sign of the meridian is a sun dial at the front of Addington High School, which was first installed in 1953 and re-furbished about 5 years ago. It is a great idea that would be even better if it wasn’t partially under a tree and had an upright that looked less like a bit of left over piping. There is an online ‘guide’ to the various meridian markers that helped identify this, and many of the others en route back to the Observatory.

The meridian skirts the eastern edge of New Addington, which is an odd peninsula of development sticking out into the greenbelt; its development as Croydon overspill started in the 1930s through the First National Housing Trust which bought a couple of farms with the intention of developing a village based on Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City principles including 4,400 homes centred around a village green.

WW2 interrupted the growth of New Addington, and post war Croydon Council developed the estate further bringing a lot more homes than were originally intended, some light industry and eventually decent public transport links through the Croydon Tramlink in 2000 which reduced its isolation.

Some of the industrial units are more or less on the meridian and are imaginatively called the Meridian Centre on Vulcan Way. Originally, I had intended to at least ‘pop-in’ to one of the units which is home to probably the closest brewer to the ‘line’, CronX, which is part owned by a friend. However, despite being only a mile or so in to the route, I was already way behind time and in any case drinking and running aren’t the best of bedfellows, particularly for runners like me with clumsy feet.

Being surrounded by greenbelt, the route away from New Addington is rural; I am very tempted to follow the path suggested in the Greenwich Meridian Trail guide through woods and fields towards Coney Hall. I know the path quite well, in the opposite direction, as it is the first couple of miles or so of a cross country ‘mob match’ route I run most years. However, my aim is to stay as close to the meridian as possible, so after a brief run across some fields, I picked up a lane into the inter-war suburbia that is Coney Hall. One of the roads passed is rather tempting to turn down given its name, although I resist the temptation….

Like New Addington, Coney Hall is an enclave of 1930s housing, built on a former farm sticking out into the greenbelt, however, that is where the similarity ends – Coney Hall is Mock Tudor suburbia with its half-timbered gables. It foreshadows much of what is to come for the next few miles.

I should have resisted a minor detour to the west of the meridian, but there is a rather attractive Grade II* listed 15th century church – St John the Baptist – which stands on a hill overlooking fields. Almost next door is Wickham Court – an old manor house of a similar age and with links to the Boleyn family, glimpses of what is now a fee paying school are possible through the trees.


Along the crest of the same hill as St John’s there is a marker of the meridian, an odd little obelisk, like a small Ordnance Survey triangulation point..

In 1997 there was a rather grandiose scheme to plant a series of trees to make the meridian visible from the air. While it wasn’t an enormous success, Bromley was an enthusiastic adopter of the scheme though and offered trees and a large scale map to residents on the ‘line’. Unfortunately, there was neither a requirement to actually plant on the ‘line’ nor to mark the tree – so the trees that have survived are largely indistinguishable from any others.

There were a couple planted a little further up in hill in Coney Hall, but both are long gone; but through the parkland and into South Walk one of the two planted there remains with a large tudorbeathan backdrop (see above).

The roundabout on Glebe Way is almost crossed by the meridian according to the Guide, but then it is ‘tacking’ across footpaths and roads looking for our next marker or in fact two of them. There is a sundial and obelisk on the edge of the grounds of Hawes Down Junior School which are now around 60 years old and rather attractive, although difficult to spot through the quite dense boundary hedge.

There is conveniently a bridge over the railway, a short distance from its terminus at Hayes which opened in 1882. Hayes is an old village, with an attractive church, St Mary the Virgin, which has parts going back to the 15th Century. The village had links to the Cade Rebellion of 1450 but the nearest to rebellion around here these days would be a vote for UKIP, with the Tory vote approaching 60%. Sadly, we see nothing of old Hayes, it is the best part of a mile from the bridge – this is very much suburbia here.

Our next marker is still in mock Tudor territory but noticeably the houses are smaller here than in Coney Hall, it is at the end of a terrace rather than the large semis ¾ of a mile to the south. While the tree is now but a stump the owners have marked the passing of the Prime Meridian with a sign.

While I run on onwards and northwards, there is nothing else in this borderland between West Wickham and Hayes to indicate the passing of the Prime Meridian through the kitchens and lounges of commuter land. It is an area I know fairly well at night – these are streets I sometimes run along with my running club – but during the day they seem unfamiliar, unremarkable and unaffordable to most.

Crossing over that main artery of many a Beckenham Running Club route, Pickhurst Lane, there are several more of Bromley’s meridian marking trees in the leafy avenues towards Shortlands.

We are passing close to Enid Blyton country here, she lived for a dozen years a couple of hundred metres away at 83 Shortlands Road and wrote ‘The Adventures of the Wishing Chair’ whilst there in the 1930s. In my search for meridian trees I should have perhaps been on the look out for a ‘Magic Faraway Tree’, written much later though. There is though a rather imposing war memorial just off the ‘line’ but on my route.

The run continues next week from Shortlands towards Greenwich, and the territory begins to change.

The Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Greenwich Observatory

Last weekend (15 February 2014) I was reading Jerry White’s ‘London in the 19th Century’ and it made reference to an anarchist plot to blow up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park in 1894. When reading, little did I know that exactly 120 years before, almost to the hour the bomber, Martial Bourdin, was approaching the Observatory on a path I often run up (hidden in the deep shadow earlier today)

There had been anarchist bomb attacks across Europe in the 1880s and 1890s including the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander in 1881, the bombing of the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in December, along with a series of bombs in cafes and other crowded public places.

London had become a relatively safe haven for anarchists from across Europe many of whom seemed to centre on the Fiztrovia area. Bourdin was born in Tours around 1867 and had first moved to London about 1887, to join his brother Henri a tailor who lived at 30 Fitzroy Street. Bourdin also worked as a tailor and worked on a piece work basis for his brother. He spent a year in the United States returning to Fitzroy Street in late 1893.

What is unclear is why Bourdin targeted the Observatory, a closed scientific institution, late on a midweek February afternoon; it was very different to the other anarchist targets elsewhere in Europe. Several theories have been suggested; his brother in law (who may have been an agent provocateur, and who had accompanied him to the tram stop taking Bourdin to Greenwich) wrote in his obituary that Bourdin was merely trying to test the bomb in a deserted location and it went off early. Others have suggested he was planning to take the bomb to France and was trying to shake off tails, or that he was going to pass the bomb to someone else to take to France. Whatever the reason, the bomb was relatively small, the size of a brick, and was unlikely to have done that much damage to the Observatory, if that was its target.

Bourdin seems to have unintentionally detonated the bomb before throwing it, fatally wounding him. Whilst he was taken down to the hill to the Seaman’s Hospital at the Royal Naval College, he died soon after.

Later that that week the anarchists’ London base, a club in Windmill Street, off Tottenham Court Road – Club Autonomie – was raided, papers taken which eventually led to a number of prosecutions and the club closing.

The story was loosely re-told fictionally by Joseph Conrad in ‘The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale’, published in 1907, he uses the agent provocateur theory in the novel.

This wasn’t the only botched bombing by anarchists around this time – there was an attack on the home of a judge who sentenced some of the others who had frequented the Club Autonomie and were associated with the Walsall Anarchists, or rather it wasn’t, they got the wrong house …. Research seems to indicate that they were a group with an agent provocateur in the pay of an embryo secret service.

More locally, there were bombings of post offices in Lewisham and New Cross, but those are for another post (added in March 2014).