The Hunt for Harrison's Clocks

photo: hovercraft

Our return hovercraft arrives at Dover, minutes
before the storm.

Paris to London via Italy and Back

by Linda Thalman

Boullay-les-Troux:- Saturday, 3. June 2000:- Two and a half days just isn't long enough to go from Paris to England and try and do all of the south of England, all of the Greenwich museums, plus a whirlwind visit of London.

Especially when you go via Italy. We are always seeking new routes to cross the Channel - known as 'The Sleeve' in French - we opted for the catamaran crossing from Dieppe in France to Newhaven in England.

Dieppe is only a short two-hour high-speed drive northwest from Paris and we tooled along the autoroute on a Friday mid-afternoon, not missing in the slightest the usual weekend crush heading west to Normandy.

Dieppe's city centre is quaint. Arcades, dozens of seafood restaurants, almost all with glass-enclosed terraces jutting onto the wide sidewalks, a long pedestrian-only shopping street. Dieppe is on the seaside, or Channel-edge.

We skipped over puddles - yes, it was raining - and bought umbrellas for four - myself, my companion Pierre, and friends Ali and Christine - and for good measure, cocktail and champagne glasses. The glasses were just in case we wanted to celebrate something such as arriving, or being on time or anything at all. The French bottle of champagne we'd packed filled the glasses nicely.

We discovered that we were on a twin-hulled ship piloted by an Italian captain and owned by an Italian shipping line. One waiter was British, our waitress was from Marseille. How very strange to go via Italy - Marseille also belonged to Italy for a long time - between France and England!

The three-day return fare was 850 francs plus 200 francs per person for the all-you-can-eat-and-drink shipboard lunch. The service was very good, but the food and drinks were less value for money than the P&0 ferry boat restaurants.

Still, we enjoyed a leisurely two-hour crossing and went through customs and passport control in the U.K. at 19:00 sharp, UK time. Unlike travelling in Europe, going from France to the U.K. requires identity papers, so have your passport or 'carte d'identité' ready.

Having previously scoured the Web for bed and breakfasts not far from Newhaven, I'd booked a lovely place - by phone - as the B-and-B with a garden interest had no email address.

Arriving as scheduled and as discussed on the phone, knocking on the door roused not even the dogs. A quarter of an hour later, another guest welcomed us! The owners had left for dinner. Despitephoto: linda, b & b garden two phone calls a week before to confirm our stay, they must have got wind of our trip via Italy and figured we weren't showing up.

It's me, roaming off a big breakfast in the B & B's lovely garden.

Miscommunication even between native English speakers happens, too. About 23:00 we 'squatted' in the two remaining bedrooms and left a note on the breakfast table for our hosts, saying we'd arrived.

Crystal clear skies at seven o'clock the next morning greeted us as we roamed the three-acre property, which included dozens of sheep, some ponds, a hidden garden, a pool, tennis courts, and lovely mixed-border flower beds.

At breakfast we met the owners of the B-and-B. Then we zipped north towards Greenwich which is actually in London. It's a good hour's drive to central London - though touted as being only minutes by tube, which was a good 15-minute walk from the B-and-B. I'm not convinced.

Our original, real goal of this weekend's escapade was to visit the 'Story of Time' exhibition at the Queen's House. Twenty rooms filled with fascinating objects depicted the creation, measurement, depiction, experience and end of time. It was fascinating!

Our second original goal of this trip was to see John Harrison's famous clocks at Greenwich - but these were not in the 'Time' exhibition where we expected them to be.

One does learn some things in the 'Time' exhibition. Such as the 1884 International Meridian Conference stipulating the use of the Greenwich Meridian as 0 degrees, and this became the world's 'Prime Meridian.'

The French refused to recognize Greenwich's role untilphoto: queen's place 1911, because Paris has two meridians, about 300 metres apart. These were fixed in the time of Louis XIV, some years before the observatory at Greenwich was built. So much for European cooperation!

In the lower left, the Queen's House - the site of the exhibition.

Recent métro maps in Paris have appeared showing the trace of the number one 'Paris Méridien' through the city, possibly to aid picnickers in finding it this year on Bastille Day.

Believe it or not, we got our money back from the hostesses when we innocently asked at the end of the visit where the clocks were. "The clocks are in the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill - here's your refund." she said.

Wow! The refund - 300 francs! - helped us pay for a spicy Indian dinner for four at Khan's of Kensington later on Saturday night.

We worked up our appetite by buying books, books, and more books and having fish and chips and beer in a crowded pub a stone's throw from the British Museum. We'd have needed a week to do that museum - and a bit of time to figure out how to get our admission fees refunded.

Through the British Automobile Association Web site - confirmed again by phone, with credit card - we had reserved a lovely room overlooking a garden and a choice of a full English breakfast or breakfast buffet at the three-star Bardon Lodge in Greenwich, for 85 pounds per room.

A full breakfast means you don't eat for the next 24 hours! I opted for the less-than-full breakfast with only fresh fruit, muffins, yogurt and coffee; knowing we'd be eating again soon. Otherwise, the 'full-breakfast' wasphoto: trio on meridian perfectly fried eggs, bacon, tomatoes, sausages, toast, black pudding, coffee and tea, of course.

Finally we staggered off to find the clocks. We actually hit it right by going to the observatory, at the top of the hill. But, at the information desk we asked for the National Maritime Museum - where we thought the clocks were on display - and were correctly told to go back down the hill.

On the meridian line in Greenwich, with me, Pierre and Christine. Ali took the photo.

Down the hill, by car, we went. This was a good three-kilometer drive. Then hiked to the NMM and, lo! and behold! were correctly told that the H1, H2, H3, H4 and H5 clocks were at the top of the hill at the Royal Observatory. Time is circular, n'est-ce pas?

So, clock fans, head straight for the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, don't stop at 'go' - to land on the one and only meridian line. And don't miss the clocks. John Harrison, born 1693, died 1776 - was a clockmaker and scientist and he solved the longitude problem for seafarers of his time who needed to know what time it was at their home port. Latitude was a piece of cake, but not longitude.

Harrison, won the 'Great Longitude Prize' announced in the 1714 Act of Parliament offering 20,000 pounds - the equivalent to one million pounds or 10 million of today's francs. For a method of finding longitude to within half a degree he spent his entire lifetime building marine timekeepers. In the museum, they are still working.

Time is money? John Harrison might have thought so. Maybe he even invented the expression, but I don't know. He had to wait though a lot of it before the prize money was paid up.

Heady from all the clocks and science, we literally raced towards our precisely timed 16:00 hour Channel-crossing on the Hover Speed in Dover.

Along the motorway, we had to interrupt our 'racing' near Ashford at Country Gardens to fill the car boot - British lingo for car trunk - with roses, clematis, bedding plants and do-dads for the garden. Time was on our side and the boot wasn't completely filled because of lack of time for shopping.

We arrived ahead of schedule in Dover only to learn that our precisely-timed crossing tophoto: harrison booklet Calais was canceled and the next boat/ship/canoe was at 17:00. A violent wind storm had hit northwest France and Holland. We killed time buying battery-motor boats for the bathtub for Ali and Christine's two daughters.

This booklet about Harrison can be purchased at the Royal Observatory.

We caught the tail-end of the storm as we 'flew' into France on the Hover Speed - a hovercraft pounding into three and a half-metre waves, looking you straight in the eye. As the windows got car-washed by gigantic waves and spray we enjoyed gin tonics that were sliding left and right on the table, while we desperately looked for seat belts instead of life-rings!

This bettered any 'space mountain', roller coaster or fun-fair ride I've ever ridden. Our flight - because it was announced as a 'vol' in French - was close to blasting off on a shuttle flight to the moon - only centimetres over the water. Gulp, gin, gasp, gin, thrills!

With the wind at our back we just rode on home to the ranch, safe and sound. Now, what time was that? Why, it was exactly 18:42:28 + 0200, Central European Time.


If you can't visit in person, or wish to plan a visit, here are the Web sites. Try the Greenwich 2000 Tourism Zone site for details about clocks, time and stuff. For driving in the UK give the AA's site a hit. B-and-B seekers will appreciate the Bed & Breakfast for Garden Lovers guide and another site for Country Gardens deserves a visit. 'Longitude,' by Dava Sobel is worth reading beforehand too.

Linda Thalman©2000
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