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A Few Days in London Saturday, 30 August 2003
written by Sterling

This is the last article from our UK trip of June and July, meaning I've finally caught up - five weeks after we returned to the USA. Whew!

Sinclair at the Bridge No visit to England could be complete without at least a cursory stop in London, and so it was for ours. Teresa had lived in London for some years before coming to America, so there were lots of old friends to visit who hadn't been seen in entirely too long. So off we went.

It was hot when we arrived - well, hot for England anyway. Generally, this is a place of mild weather, cool summers and warm winters compared to what are experienced in much of the rest of the world. It's the classic maritime climate; the only thing that comes in remarkable amounts is rain. So, the English tend to make a big deal of meteorological extremes when they do occur. Teresa had been telling me this for some time, usually with a statement like "If it was this hot in London, it'd be front page news" on what I'd consider a normal summer day in Wisconsin. And sure enough, the evening we arrived in Greenwich, there it was in four-inch-high letters on the front of the Standard: 97° F.

Not hot by the standards of the American Southwest, of course, but hot (and humid) enough for us to be glad of the air conditioning in our second rental car of the trip, a Nissan Almera this time. Also hot enough to miss the lack of same in the Greenwich Ibis Hotel where we were staying, and plenty hot enough for us to seek out a cool pint in The Mitre across the street - but then that doesn't take much, of course.

Greenwich is a good place to base yourself when in London; it has plenty to see of its own, and it's easy to get to the city center as well. Local sights include the 17th-century clipper Cutty Sark, now in permanent drydock as a tourist attraction, and the Royal Observatory. This latter bills itself as "The Home Of Time"; it is more famous for housing the official clock of the British Empire than for any stargazing activities. In the good ol' days, a ball on a mast above the Observatory (itself on a hill) would be lowered at precisely noon each day, clearly visible to sea captains on the nearby Thames River. They could then calibrate their own clocks, vital for navigation by sextant, and set sail for the far corners of the globe with reasonable confidence of actually reaching their destinations.

The empire may be gone, but the Observatory's legacy remains. It is the origin of Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT, still universally recognized as the "zero hour" from which all other time zones are measured. And in these days of global positioning by satellite, precise timekeeping is just as important to navigation as it was then, and even for a similar reason: the exact time, plus the apparent position of a heavenly body (be it the sun or a GPS satellite), combined with knowledge of its orbital mechanics, can tell you exactly where you are.

In another holdover from its early primacy in this field, the Observatory also holds the honor of "zero point" for measuring location, at least east and west. The 0° longitude line is defined to be here - more precisely, it is the vertical reticle of the main telescope. I must confess to being a bit of a navigation junkie� originally just because GPS receivers had a higher Niftiness Factor than almost anything else you can buy, but now also because it's become crucial to our nomadic lifestyle. So I really enjoyed Greenwich - this is where it all comes together.

The London Eye The next day the weather had cooled and intermittent rain settled in. Ah, very good, much more English. So naturally, we set off on a boat trip up the Thames to see some of London's landmarks that I had missed on previous visits. And having delegated navigational duties� I wouldn't say we got lost as such, but we did, umm, miss our stop. Worked out OK, though, because we actually got more boat ride than we'd paid for, and got to see the London Eye, newly built since we were last here. The Eye is essentially a giant Ferris wheel, built for the Millennium celebration, but its construction makes it look more like a 450-foot bicycle wheel. We're going to have to come back and ride it, but since one major reason to do so is for the views, a rainy, misty day isn't the best choice. Next time we're in town, maybe.

Eventually we disembarked near the Houses of Parliament, and just had time for the obligatory photo before getting on another boat headed back downriver, towards our real destination all along: the Tower of London. Now, the Tower is one of England's most famous landmarks, but I have to confess that I was embarrassingly old before I realized that it isn't exactly a tower as such. What it is is a big castle, mostly built in the tenth century but with some parts dating back to the eighth. For much of the history of England as we know it, this castle was the seat of power; the monarchy lived here, ruled from here, imprisoned and executed its enemies here. The Tower of London The royals have now moved on to other palaces, though, and the Tower seems to be mostly tourist attraction these days, but at least its claim to fame is genuine. The history here is real - you can feel it. In rooms that were used to imprison enemies of the Crown, famous graffiti adorns the walls, from inmates as well-known as Ann Boelyn. And particularly for an amateur castle buff like myself, it's quite an enjoyable place to wander through.

The Tower is also still the home of the Crown Jewels, a bewildering display of gold sceptres, swords, and headgear that symbolize the power still held by the royal family. It's all completely over the top, enclosed in what is essentially a huge vault, with no photos allowed and the milling throngs moved past the main attractions on conveyor belts to prevent them from lingering too long. There is even speculation that these aren't the genuine Jewels at all, just official replicas on display while the authentic articles are really hidden away somewhere. Nonetheless, they're something you have to see when playing tourist.

Before too long, though, our feet were getting tired and it was time to catch the boat back to Greenwich. Our visit to London, like that to England itself, was drawing to a close; soon we would be winging back to the States, buying diesel instead of petrol once again. Look for more updates from your regular RV-based correspondent soon!

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