“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” Rudyard Kipling had declared with conviction in “The Ballad of East and West”. It makes you wonder whether he had been unaware of the Prime Meridian in the London suburb of Greenwich where the two do meet — at least, geographically.
The Greenwich Prime Meridian, the imaginary line of zero-degree longitude that circles the planet and divides the earth into the Eastern and Western hemispheres, is located on the ground at the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich. And if you’re wondering if it has anything to do with what is known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), it does. The time recorded at this spot is, indeed, known as Greenwich Mean Time, the reference point for most calculations of time in today’s world. I think many of us would remember those messy questions about time differences we had to answer in the Geography test in school.
The site is easily accessible from Central London. All you have to do is take the tube to the Bank station and transfer to the Docklands Railways which will transport you to Greenwich. Once there, you simply head through a tunnel towards the Observatory. But I chose the more scenic alternative: a cruise along the Thames from the pier at the Parliament building to the boat pier at Greenwich. It takes about an hour. At a cost of around twelve pounds for the roundtrip, this option offered a chance to take in the sights along the river.
With fifteen minutes to spare before departure, I boarded the boat for Greenwich at Westminster pier. The top deck was still relatively empty as I settled near the rear row to enjoy the beautiful sunny day and the sights around this very historic part of London. Big Ben was getting ready to strike the hour, with hordes of tourists gathered below, cameras poised to capture that moment.
My attention was diverted from the scene by the appearance of a tall, blond, elegantly dressed couple in their late thirties who had come on board. I got a closer look at them as they approached the rear of the deck, found a spot next to me and made themselves comfortable.
The man’s smart dark suit seemed straight out of an Armani showroom while the woman’s pinstriped pantsuit was accessorised perfectly with her black Prada handbag. Around her neck a Hermès scarf fluttered in the breeze, revealing a string of pearls. The man could be considered devilishly handsome. He had her captured with his eyes. I overheard parts of their conversation and noted from their accent that they were indisputably British.
I tried guessing from the way they were dressed what their professions might be. They looked liked corporate types from a distinguished London firm who were quite out of place among the noisy, camera-toting tourists. Were they taking some time off from work on an impulse and sneaking away from the usual grind? If so, I couldn’t blame them. It was a beautiful day.
With barely five minutes left for the boat to set out, a tour bus pulled up and spilled out a rather large tour group, whose members seemed to be carrying almost identical digital cameras. Our boat was now almost filled to capacity and the captain’s voice boomed across on schedule to announce our departure for Greenwich. With a roar, the engines revved up and we were on our way along the Thames.
The cruise was a special tour in itself, for we glided past famous sights like the Tower of London, passed below the London Bridge and the Tower Bridge and had a quick glimpse of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The constant clicking of camera shutters made it clear that most of the tourists on board could not resist capturing the vistas on that lovely sunny day.
Soon, we left central London. Our captain reminded us that once upon a time, a major shipping area lined with warehouses had lain along the banks of the river. Over the years, these buildings had fallen into complete disrepair as the shipping trade declined.
But the times had changed and these warehouses were now being converted into residential buildings and fast becoming London’s most sought-after real estate. Many of the already converted buildings were now luxury flats with balconies that offered the city’s most coveted view, with the lapping waves of the Thames providing the background score. As our boat passed this area, I noticed people on several of the balconies relaxing and enjoying the view of the boats plying the river. Some of them waved at us as we went by. A few of my fellow passengers waved back at them and a young man in front of me muttered, “What a fabulous view those flats must have! I must confess I’m green with envy!”
Thus energized, I prepared for the uphill trek to the Old Royal Observatory. The climb was not too steep and soon, I was at the gates, waiting in line to enter the courtyard where the Observatory stood. As the queue moved forward, I found myself at the place where an electronic clock was recording Greenwich Mean Time. We all checked our watches to make sure that our time was set to this special clock.
Finally, I was out in the courtyard. And there it was, right in front of me! Rather simple and somewhat anticlimactic, I had to confess. For the Greenwich Prime Meridian, the line of zero-degree longitude that separates our planet into East and West was just a metal line on the ground that extended along the wall of the Royal Observatory. East was marked along one side of the line; the other side was marked West. Listed along each side of the line were some of the major cities located in each hemisphere.
Fascinating, I thought to myself, unable to resist the impulse of following the example of the others by standing astride the line, with a foot in each hemisphere. What a high that gave me, the experience of straddling both the Eastern and Western hemispheres! It was a memorable and quintessential London experience. Later, as I read through the list of names for major cities on either side of the line, it gave me a special thrill to discover New Delhi and Bombay (Mumbai).
There was a bonus too. The serene views around the Royal Observatory hill were enjoyable especially with ice cream from one of the sidewalk stalls. I barely noticed the time during the downhill stroll back to the pier. My mind, still on that line along the ground where the East met the West, was also full of pleasant anticipation for the return journey along the Thames that awaited me.
As I stood at the pier waiting for the boat back to Westminster, I noticed that the elegant young couple who had been with me on the boat were still seated at the outdoor café table where they had installed themselves earlier. Nursing their cups of coffee they seemed oblivious of their surroundings and did not seem to be in any rush to join us. He leaned to his right to get closer and spoke into her ear, she brought her right hand up to stifle a giggle. Time was on their side and it wasn’t being mean either.