The Meridian Garden

By the 1940's, the Observatory's main site at Greenwich occupied an area of 2.46 acres. This section deals only with the Meridian Garden. Other parts of the grounds are covered in the following sections:

The Courtyard
The Astronomers’ Garden
The Garden to the west of Flamsteed House
The Magnetic and South Grounds
The Observatory Garden (now part of the Royal Park)
The Christie Enclosure (now part of the Royal Park)


Location of the Meridian Garden

The Meridian Garden is the name given in 2009 to the strip of land to the rear (south) of the Meridian Building. It is where visitors to the Meridian Line have to queue to pay their admission charge. Today, the ground slopes upwards towards the west (the ticketing point). In days gone by, it sloped in the opposite direction.


Origins and other names

Looking eastwards from the centre of the Middle Garden in about 1905. The Great Equatorial is behind the Summerhouse and the Meridian Building is on the left. The wall behind the gazebo dates from 1791 when the garden was extended and the Courtyard enclosed. It marked the eastern boundary of the grounds until they were extended further eastwards to enclose what became known as the Drying Ground. The opening in the wall leads though to it. Photo courtesy of Hillary Buckle

The garden has its origins in a small flowerbed that existed beneath the retaining wall of the small brick building that housed Flamsteed’s instruments (the present ticketing point). In around 1749, additional land was enclosed to enable Bradley to build his New Observatory (now part of the Meridian Building) and the garden was much enlarged. It was extended further eastwards in 1791 when the Observatory Courtyard was enclosed. At this point, the garden was bounded by a retaining wall to the south a wall to the east, the Meridian Building to the north, and the stables (now a plant room) to the west. By the 1840s, the garden was being referred to as the Middle Garden, a name retained throughout Airy’s period of office and subsequently used by the National Maritime Museum from 1967 until the start of the 1990s.


As the route to the stables

After the 1749 extension, the garden had two levels, divided by a retaining wall that ran parallel to the Meridian Building. The upper level was planted out. The lower level had double gates set into the wall at its eastern end and gave access to the stables. The land sloped gently downwards towards the stables. The boundary wall to the south sloped likewise. The wall between the two levels was later removed – most probably when the garden was extended in 1791.


The Kitchen Garden and Drying Ground

A plan dated 1813 (Work16/126), indicates that at that time, the garden was in use as a kitchen garden. It was at this time, that a further piece of land was enclosed immediately to the east and the wall between them partially removed. The new piece of land became known as the Drying Ground. The following year, the first section of the Lower Garden was enclosed for use as a new Kitchen Garden.


A change of use in Airy’s time

With Airy’s arrival in 1835, the stables ceased to be used for horses and were converted into a garden-house. The Middle Garden was laid out with ornamental flower beds and a rustic looking gazebo at its eastern end on the site of Flamsteed’s well telescope. A new access point from the Upper Garden (Astronomers’ Garden) was created in 1835/6 by the building of a steep flight of steps on the east side of the stables. At the same time, a second set of steps was built from the Middle Garden down to the Lower Garden. Both still survive, though those to the lower garden are now permanently blocked. The ground at the entrance to the stable was leveled, and an old outhouse either converted into, or rebuilt as a hot-house (greenhouse).

The hot-house in about 1944. The steps in front of it go down to the Lower Garden (now know as the Observatory Garden and from where the photo was taken). The garden-house (former stables) is located to its left. Although the photographer is not recorded, it is likely to have been Cecil Beaton who, at the request of the Ministry of Information, made a photographic survey of the Observatory and its departments in the reporting year 1944/5. Detail from Ministry of Information photograph D.24699, courtesy of Hillary Buckle

The same view in about 189397. Detail from a postcard published by Edmund Dsdau


The Tower Passage

The creation in 1856/7 of the Tower Passage – a sloping passageway that Airy cut through the ground story and basement of the Altazimuth Tower (on the site of Flamsteed’s Observatory) to give easier access from the Upper Garden to the Middle Garden – required a reconfiguring of the paths and flowerbeds in the Middle Garden. This new layout appears to have remained unchanged until the 1960s, when the Meridian Building was adapted for museum use.


Changes instigated by the National Maritime Museum and the discovery of Flamsteed’s Well

In the 1960s, the wall between the middle garden and the drying ground was removed and the garden re-landscaped. During these works, the site of Flamsteed’s Well Telescope (long a subject of conjecture) was discovered buried partly beneath the southern wall and partly beneath the wall that separated the Middle Garden from the Drying Ground (demolished 1967). It was subsequently fenced in and its position marked with a sign. A wide gravel path ran along the boundary wall on the south side a, whilst the north side was laid to lawn. The path of the Meridian across the garden and up the boundary wall was marked in a similar manner to the way it had been marked in the courtyard in 1960 – with a brass strip set into narrow stone slip. Public access to the garden was originally from the Meridian Building via the point at which visitors currently pay their admission charge. It was probably not always open. In 1984, the Astronomer Royal and Prince Philip planted trees in the lawn on either side of the Line to commemorate the centenary of the International Meridian Conference in 1884. They either died fairly soon after, or were removed in 1992/3 when the buildings were refurbished and the courtyard closed to the public for the duration of the works. To reduce the disappointment of those visiting the observatory at this time, the Meridian Garden was opened so that the public could still take a photograph on the Line. It was probabaly then that the fencing around the site of Flamsteed’s Well Telescope was removed and the position of the well marked with a circle of bricks on the ground – not in the true position partly under the southern wall, but slightly to its north. It was probably after the Courtyard reopened that a railing and gate (since removed) were erected at the east end of the garden adjacent to the Great Equatorial Building.

When the National Maritime Museum took over the Observatory site, its staff continued to make meterological measurements for the Met Office, some being made at the Observatory and others from a Stevenson’s Screen set up specially for the purpose in the Museum’s grounds close to the Queen’s House. In the 1990s, it was realised that placed as it was in the middle of the lawns, it was preventing the erection of marquees there for corporate and other events. The Stevenson’s Screen was therefore moved to the Meridian Garden –  a less than ideal position due to the proximity of the buildings and trees. It remained until about 2004 when it was removed and Greenwich ceased to be a weather station. Its position was taken by the remains of Herschel’s 40-foot telescope which were moved there from outside the South Building to make way for the building of the Peter Harrison Planetarium.


Concreting over of the garden

By 2007, visitor numbers to the Observatory were such that the existing entry point to the site was becoming congested. Rather than go back to the old ways and allow access to the Courtyard directly from the Park, the National Maritime Museum decided instead to experiment with what has become the present entry route via the Meridian Garden. After a trial, planning permission was sought to hard landscape the garden with a view to making the route permanent. This was granted on 13 November 2008 and works rapidly put in hand to reroute services, remove the lawn and create a new broad path in York paving, incorporating a heated ramp for disabled access. The one remaining tree was felled in March 2009. The building of the ramp reversed the slope of the garden. As a result, the ground adjacent to the central section of the southern boundary wall was to become so perilously close to its top, that the erection of new railings alongside it was required. But before they were installed, the upper section of the wall was rebuilt. The York Stone was recycled from the main site of the National Maritime Museum, where it was removed to make way for the Sammy Offer Wing.

The site of Flamsteed’s Well Telescope was remarked as was the line of the Meridian. The Meridian was marked across the new path in granite setts but an inch or so too far to the west. The old brass strip however was not removed. It remains buried under the concrete foundations of the path and under the plantings in the flower boarder. Click here to read more about the history of the marking of the Meridian Line in this garden. The landscaping was largely funded from the reserves of the Friends of the Museum.