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Greenwich Millennium Time

Exploring the historic English town where East meets West on the world's prime meridian line, and where the British will host a billion-dollar Year 2000 extravaganza.

November 01, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENWICH, England — This town-turned-suburb, which makes Rudyard Kipling a liar and bears a measure of blame for all the world's shrieking alarm clocks, looks innocent enough. Built around a handful of historic buildings and an immaculate grassy park, it lies 15 minutes by train from London's Charing Cross station, an hour down the River Thames by tour boat. For a Londoner or a city-weary tourist, it's an easy day trip.

Or, should you take the longer view, Greenwich is a cradle of civilization-changing ideas, a longtime rallying point for astronomers, sailors and mechanical engineers. It is home of the prime meridian at zero degrees longitude, headquarters of royal astronomers through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the origin of Greenwich Mean Time and reference point for global timekeeping. Lately, it also seems to be the epicenter for British millennial boosterism.

Hence, if you stand atop the highest rise in Greenwich Park and look north beyond the green fields and 18th century architecture of the Queen's House and the Royal Naval College, you see a strange construction project rising alongside the river in North Greenwich, a hulking white pincushion with a dozen protruding yellow needles.

That's the Millennium Dome, theme park, cultural exposition, redevelopment project, tourist attraction and alleged billion-dollar boondoggle, due to open on Dec. 31, 1999. Prime Minister Tony Blair calls it "a beacon to the world" and "the most spectacular celebration anywhere in the world to mark the millennium." Playwright David Hare, one of millions of English millennial skeptics, calls the dome an "insane piece of statist grandiloquence."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 8, 1998 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Solo sailors--Due to a reporting error, an article last week ("Greenwich Millennium Time," Nov. 1) named Francis Chichester as the first man to have sailed around the world alone. In fact, Chichester was the first Englishman to do so. The first recorded solo circumnavigation of the globe was made by Canadian-American Joshua Slocum, from 1895 to 1898.

But if you are visiting London before the great click-over to 2000, the Greenwich of market stalls, maritime history and scientific inquiry may do just fine for you. It did for me this fall. In fact, it filled up three days.

It's a good walking neighborhood. Once I'd checked into my plain but tidy above-the-pub room in the Mitre Hotel on Greenwich High Road, I walked everywhere and resorted to a taxi only when it came time to invoke press privileges and take a hard-hat tour of the Millennium Dome site, about two miles downriver.

My first destination was the Greenwich market. From Friday through Sunday, the Greenwich Town Centre, a covered courtyard shopping area between the twin main drags of Greenwich High Road and King William Walk, hosts an arts and crafts market. There's been a market at the site since 1849, when produce was the main product (thus the sign over one entrance: "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight"). In the last few years, however, the scene has become so popular that it spills into neighboring streets.

This was a Sunday, and the stalls offered an inventory of such eccentricity that a browser had to smile, even if some merchants refused to. Eighty-year-old cricket-player trading cards. Mobiles made of marbles and elegantly mangled flatware. A plate commemorating the Queen's 1953 coronation ($23). A plate commemorating Prince Andrew's 1986 wedding with Fergie ($12). Burmese magazines from the 1950s. A 6-inch Peruvian tarantula, framed and preserved under glass ($45).

This city being the perfect place to scoff at Kipling's poetic assertion that East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, I looked for a volume by the writer. No luck. But as someone who's explored London's larger and more widely known Portobello Road and Camden Locks markets, I liked this one best of all, because it seemed much calmer.

My friends Doug and Claire, who'd come up from Oxford to join me for the day, seized on one of the old trading cards. I sprung for some artfully mangled flatware, which my wife has dangled from a corner in our kitchen.

National Maritime Museum, founded in 1934 and now in the throes of a $32-million expansion, stands a few blocks from the market at the foot of Greenwich Park. Completion of the expansion is scheduled for March, when curators will unveil more than a dozen new galleries on themes including art and the sea, ocean ecology, trade, empire building, explorers and maritime London. But even in its current transitional state, the museum is a valuable stop.

In addition to a striking set of maritime paintings and models and the kid-friendly All Hands gallery, the main attraction is an exhibit on Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the ferocious maritime warrior who trounced the French navy at a time when Napoleon seemed a good bet to take over the world. The show explores Nelson's outsize and difficult personality, which outsiders might underestimate as an element in the English sense of identity.

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