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Part 6. Greenwich, Bestriding the World and Talking with Fans


Carmen, Ana, Maria, Calum, Harry and Oliver.

MARIA:     It’s a beautiful day today.  It’s going to be really warm!  But in London you never know what the weather is going to do next.  You never know what to wear.  If you decide to wear a coat, it is sure to be hot.  If you leave your umbrella behind, it will rain.

OLIVER:     I think today will be very hot but take your coat just to make sure! It’s also a good idea to get out of London for a change.

MARIA:     But what is ‘hot’, Olly? ‘It’s hot’ in English means 21 degrees. ‘Hace calor’ in Spanish means 40 degrees.  Languages are so difficult!   Sometimes I want to give up!

ANA:           What about going to Greenwich? I’ve heard there’s a lot to see there.

HARRY:     Yes, there is, but it’s not pronounced “green”  “witch”.  It’s “gren” as in “pen”, and “itch” as in “pitch” or “itch” as in “itch”, come to that.

CARMEN:  “Green”  “witch” would be “la bruja verde”!

CALUM:    Anyway. What do you want to see in la bruja verde?

CARMEN:  Wait a minute!  Where’s my Lonely Planet?  Right, Greenwich! Here we are.  We can see The Royal Observatory, The National Maritime Museum, The Old Royal Naval College, The Cutty Sark, The Queen’s House, The Fan Museum and Greenwich Park.  Then there’s also…

MARIA:     That’s enough.  We can’t do all that!  We’ll be absolutely exhausted!  We’ve only got one day!

CALUM:    We must start with the Observatory.  There they have the line of Longitude 0 degrees.  The Greenwich Meridian. You can stand with one foot in the western hemisphere…

HARRY:     And one in the east!

MARIA:     That sounds very uncomfortable.

OLIVER:    And then we take a photo of you bestriding the world!

MARIA:     Doing what?

OLIVER:    With one foot in the west and one in the east!

CALUM:    Then we could have a picnic lunch in the park and go down to see the Maritime Museum and the Cutty Sark in the afternoon.

CARMEN:  What’s the Cutty Sark?

OLIVER:    She’s a very beautiful sailing ship.  She was the fastest ship of her day, and she used to bring the tea back from China.  There was a race every year to get the tea to London first.

CARMEN:  Well, let’s visit her then.

MARIA:     ‘Her’? Why not ‘it’?

CARMEN:  A ship is the only inanimate object in English which is not assigned a neuter gender.

MARIA:     What’s she talking about?

CALUM:    We call a ship ‘she’ when you’d expect us to say ‘it’.

OLIVER:    Perfectly logical!  Boats are like women, you see.  Unpredictable, wayward and drifting with the tide! ‘La donna è mobile’, as Verdi said.

MARIA:     Ridiculous!

HARRY:     Anyway, she’s been restored. There was a terrible fire a few years ago and the ship was almost destroyed.  The restoration work took several years but now she is even better than before.

OLIVER:    As with many women.  A good restoration after a certain time works wonders!

MARIA:     That doesn’t even deserve an answer!

CARMEN:  Well, I’d really like to see the ship, restored or not restored.  So how do we get to Greenwich?

HARRY:     There are trains and buses, but the best way is by boat.  The river is the real way to travel in London!  I looked at the website this morning.  There is a boat service from Westminster to Greenwich.  The boats leave on the hour and half past the hour. 

CARMEN:  So, if we hurry, we can get the one that leaves at 10 o’clock.

ANA:          How long does the journey take?

CALUM:    About an hour.  We’ll be at Greenwich at 11.

HARRY:     Come on.  Let’s go to Westminster.  Hurry!

OLIVER:    Come on, Maria.  Run.  A bit of exercise will do you good!

MARIA:     And what do you mean by that?

OLIVER:    Nothing at all.  I’m sure you’re very fit!  But come on or we’ll miss the boat! And bring your coat!

MARIA:      If it’s really going to be hot, I’m not taking a coat! Ridiculous!

In fact, they did miss the 10 o’clock boat, but it didn’t really matter.  They had a coffee and took the next boat at half past 10.  It was a beautiful journey.  The river was at its best in the morning sun, and they went past the National Theatre, that enormous mass of concrete on the south bank which is redeemed only by the plays which it presents. Then they sailed under the bridges of London and past the Tower.  The most impressive of all was Tower Bridge, the last bridge before the sea.

CARMEN:  I love Tower Bridge.  It is like a picture in a book of fairy tales!  

CALUM:    It can open to let big ships through. The roadway opens in the middle and rises like two big arms!  You can visit it, you know.

HARRY:     Yes, you can go across the walkway between the two towers.  There are some fantastic views.

CARMEN:  But we haven’t got time.  We’re going back to Madrid in two days.  We’ll have to come back again.  Ana, put it on the list for next time!

ANA:           It’s getting very windy now.  I’m freezing!

HARRY:     Well, we are on the river after all. It’s always colder on the water!  Here, have my coat!

Harry put his coat around Ana’s shoulders, and the boat continued down the river. It was quite a fresh wind, and Maria was also feeling cold.    Oliver offered her his coat, but she refused it.  She was not going to be obliged to him for anything!  Then she was angry with herself for being proud.  She was then even angrier with herself because she was freezing! They arrived at Greenwich at half past eleven.

MARIA:     So this is Greenwich!  I need a very hot coffee!

OLIVER:    Maria, you could have worn my coat on the boat!  Why didn’t you ask me for it?

MARIA:     Why didn’t I …?    Humph!

OLIVER:    Humph?  Is that Spanish?  What does “Humph” mean in English?

MARIA:     I’m not going to translate it!  You can get freezing cold in any language!  Didn’t you see I was shivering? When you offered it to me and I said no,  you should have insisted. That’s what you should have done! I’m going to get a coffee!  Goodbye!

OLIVER:    Well, we’d better all have one or perhaps something stronger.  Come on!

They had a quick coffee from a stall in the street.  It was served in plastic cups, which didn’t improve Maria’s temper!  Then they walked up through the park to the Old Observatory at the top of the hill.

CARMEN:  We must remember to see the Time Ball at one o’clock.

MARIA:     What’s the Time Ball?

OLIVER:    Well, look at the Observatory building.  On top of the Tower there is a big red ball. Can you see it?

MARIA:     Of course, I can!  I’m not blind!

OLIVER:    Well, at five to one the ball rises halfway up. 

CALUM:    And then at two minutes to one it rises to the top.

CARMEN:  And at one o’clock exactly, it falls to the bottom again.

HARRY:     Correct!

MARIA:     And what’s the point of all that?

CALUM:    It’s done this since 1833, and it shows the exact time to the ships on the river.

MARIA:     So, what happens if they’re looking the other way and miss it?

OLIVER:    Well, then they wait until the next day!

MARIA:     How ridiculous!

CARMEN:  It’s like the clock on the tower in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid.  The ball falls at 12 midnight on 31st December to mark the New Year.

OLIVER:    And if you’re looking the other way and miss it, then you have to wait until the next year, and you keep your champagne for another twelve months!

MARIA:     Really!  I don’t think that’s very funny!

OLIVER:    English sense of humour!  You’ll get used to it!

MARIA:     Humph! 

HARRY:     And here’s the line of zero longitude.  This is where we take the photo!

OLIVER:    OK, one foot each side of the line!  One in the east and one in the west.

CARMEN:  Ready!

OLIVER:    Say “Cheese!”

They lined up and said cheese, and Oliver took the photo.

ANA:           It says this is Flamsteed House.  Who was Flamsteed?

CALUM:    John Flamsteed was the first Astronomer Royal.  He was appointed by Charles II in 1675.  The job still exists today. Now, guess how many Astronomers Royal there have been since John Flamsteed from 1675 to now.

CARMEN:  25?

ANA:           No, more!  I’d say 30

MARIA:     Not as many. 19?

OLIVER:    Maria’s the nearest.  There have only been 14!

MARIA:     It must be a very good job!  No one wants to give it up!

CALUM:    GMT is Greenwich Mean Time, and that is the standard that time all around the world is based on.

ANA:          On the motorway east of Zaragoza when you’re driving to Barcelona, there’s a bridge over the road. No one goes over it! It’s just there to mark the Greenwich line of zero longitude.  That’s what it’s for! When I go under it again, it won’t seem quite the same, now that we’ve been here!

They just had time to go round the exhibition on time and clocks, and when they were coming out, Ana happened to look at her watch.

ANA:           Look at the time!  It’s ten to one!

CARMEN:  Time, time, time.  I read a quiz question the other day.  Which of the three words, ‘money, work, or time’ is the most common in conversation in English. And the answer is…

ALL:           Time!


OLIVER:    They’re all connected, aren’t they!  Time is money!

CALUM:    Work is time!

CARMEN:  Work is money!

ANA:          Money is work!

MARIA:     Money is everything!

They ran outside and joined the group of people waiting for the Time Ball to go up.

MARIA:     The point is that you need a watch to know the time so as to be ready to see the ball fall.  But the ball is supposed to tell you the time.  So it’s not very clever really.  It’s a sort of Catch 22 situation.  In fact …

OLIVER:    Maria, I don’t know why you’re still talking!  No one’s listening to you!  

MARIA:     Well, really!

At one o’clock precisely the Time Ball fell, just as it has done for over 150 years. Then the six friends found a bench near the Observatory and had their picnic lunch.  Steak and kidney pie, Cornish pasty and sausage rolls with cans of Coke.

CARMEN:  OK, that’s lunch finished!  12 minutes!  Not bad!

OLIVER:    Lunch is time.  Time is lunch.  Lunch is work.  Lunch is money!

MARIA:     Who’s talking too much now? And none of it makes sense!

CALUM:    Well, anyway we must get on and see a lot more things.  Or we’ll run out of…?

CARMEN:  Time!

HARRY:     What’s next?

CARMEN:  What about the National Maritime Museum?

OLIVER:    Good idea.  We’ll find out about seamen, adventurers and explorers.  The story of the sea is the story of Britain.  We’ll see the life and times of Sir Francis Drake.

MARIA:     Ah, the pirate! Drake, el pirata!

CALUM:    That all depends on your point of view!

CARMEN:  And on which history books you read at school!

OLIVER:    Then there was Captain Cook and, of course, Lord Nelson.

MARIA:     Ah, the Battle of Trafalgar.

ANA:           And before that he was in Menorca with Lady Hamilton in the Golden Farm.  The house is still there in the harbour of Mahon.  I went there last summer and visited it.

OLIVER:    Yes, Nelson was quite a character.  Did you know he only had one eye?

CARMEN:  One eye?

OLIVER:    Yes, he lost the other in some battle or other!  Once he put his telescope to his blind eye.  You see he was in the middle of a battle, and he was ordered to stop fighting.  In those days they used to send orders by flags from one ship to another.  Well, Nelson was sure that he could win if he carried on, so he put the telescope to his blind eye and said, “I really do not see the signal.  A man has a right to be blind sometimes.”  He carried on fighting and won the battle.

ANA:          Well, let’s go.  It’s down the hill, isn’t it?

MARIA:     All this exercise.  I’m exhausted already!

OLIVER:    Come on!  Race you to the bottom of the hill!

MARIA:     Right!

They ran down the hill, and Oliver and Maria arrived together.

OLIVER:    Not bad! Not bad! You’re very fit!  You’re full of surprises!

MARIA:     Of course, I’m fit! But I don’t think I’m surprising!

OLIVER:    Well, that all depends on who you’re with.  You surprise me.

MARIA:     That’s an English compliment, I suppose!

OLIVER:    Yes, that’s an English compliment!

MARIA:     Humph!

They visit the National Maritime Museum, and then have tea in the restaurant there. 

ANA:           I’d like to see the Fan Museum.  I thought it was only in Spain where people used fans.  There was a language of fans, you know.  At dances the young women were always under the strict control of their mother or their aunt or some other older woman and so they used their fan to send messages to the man they fancied. Holding the fan shut and down meant ‘Do you love me?’ If you held it half open just under the eyes it meant ‘I love you’.  And so on.   I can’t remember all the codes.

OLIVER:    I hope the men remembered them.

MARIA:     Obviously they did!  It was in their interest to remember them!

OLIVER:    Using fans for conversation can’t have worked very well.

MARIA:     Of course, it worked.  It was the WhatsApp of the time. And at least women were doing something.  They were sending messages not just waiting patiently for the man to approach them.  That was a step forward.

CALUM:    In the 18th century the women used fans here too but I’ve no idea if the language of fans here was the same as in Spain. Perhaps it was!

OLIVER:    I hope so.  What if every country had its own language of fans? Imagine a Spanish woman visiting London on the 18th century and sending the ‘I love you’ message on her fan, and the man thought it meant ‘I’m rather thirsty’ and hurried over to her with a cup of tea!

MARIA:     But no Spanish woman in her right mind would send an ‘I love you’ message to an Englishman! 

CARMEN:  You never know.  You never know.

MARIA:     Perhaps it was warmer in the 18th century and that’s why the women used fans here.  Then later they changed their fans for umbrellas.  Umbrellas and wellington boots, which is very much how things are today!

OLIVER:    True but what a pity!  Think of the language of wellies!  What could be less romantic!  For example, two wellies with a little mud means ‘I’ve been outside for five minutes!’ Two wellies covered in mud means ‘I’ve been outside for an hour!’ No one could say ‘I love you’ with a pair of wellies!

MARIA:  Talk, talk, talk!

HARRY:     OK, the museum is very near here.  All will be revealed, and all your questions answered.

OLIVER:     But beware of Spanish women bearing fans!

CALUM:     We’ve just got time to see it before we get the boat back. 

CARMEN:  Right, let’s go.  Come on Maria.

MARIA:     OK.  But this is the last museum I’m doing today!  

OLIVER:    Come on!  You can take it easy when we’re on the boat!  You can even wear my coat!

They visited the fan museum which turned out to be very interesting, much to Maria’s surprise.  Then they had to run to the pier to get the 6 o’clock boat to Westminster.  They just made it, which was lucky, as it was the last boat back that day.  It was even cooler on the river than in the morning, and Maria did borrow Oliver’s coat, though he had to offer four times before she finally accepted.  She finally said to him ‘I am only taking your coat to do you a favour. It’s just to make you feel better.’ They reached Westminster Pier at just after seven o’clock.

CARMEN:  Right. Now we’ll go back to the hotel.  Half an hour to get ready, and then a meal?

ANA:          What about a Japanese restaurant tonight?

MARIA:     Italian?

CALUM:    Chinese?

CARMEN:  Thai?

HARRY:     Indian?

OLIVER:    British?

MARIA:     No thank you.

CARMEN:  Look, there’s a Chinese restaurant right next to the hotel.

MARIA:     Good.  I don’t want to do any more walking today!

OLIVER:    OK, Chinese it is.  See you all at eight?

CARMEN:  At eight o’clock. Bye!

CALUM:    See you later.  Bye!

OLIVER:    Ciao Maria!

MARIA:     I’ll ciao that man if he ever says that to me again!