Exploring Nautical History at London’s Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark

The tall masts of the Cutty Sark

Greenwich was busier than usual. The river was full of sailing ships, here for the Tall Ships Festival, and it seemed as if all London had turned out for the event. So I wasn’t sure about visiting the Cutty Sark, a popular visitor attraction at the best of times. But I needn’t have worried: the queue was long but it moved quickly, and the ship was big enough to accommodate the crowds.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • This is an important part of British nautical history, one of the fastest sailing ships of its time, and the only tea clipper still in existence.
  • The inside has been imaginatively laid out to convey the history of the ship, and includes activities for children.
  • Good for: families and anyone with an interest in ships or nautical history.

A Chequered Career

The Cutty Sark has had a long and varied history. Built in 1869, it started life as a tea clipper, carrying tea from China to Britain. It was one of the fastest sailing ships of its time, but was soon superseded by the new steam ships and spent some years on the Australian wool route before becoming a general cargo carrier. During the 20th century it was used as a nautical training ship.

The latest phase of the Cutty Sark’s career has been as a tourist attraction. As part of the National Historical Fleet (the nautical equivalent of a listed building) it has been on display to the public since 1954. But that was not the end of its adventures: the ship caught fire in 2007 and was not reopened until 2012. However this provided the opportunity for an imaginative redesign of the interior, creating a display that all the family can enjoy.

A Walk Through History

Old tea crates have been incorporated into the display

Old tea crates have been incorporated into the display

Each deck shows a different part of Cutty Sark’s history. We started on the lower hold, which charts the history of the tea trade, with flooring and information panels constructed from old tea chests. These date from an era when packing cases were almost works of art in themselves, and I was as fascinated by the painted crates as I was to learn that tea was once so rare and exotic that Catherine of Briganza included a crate of tea in her dowry when she married King Charles II. Similarly, on the ‘tween deck old woolsacks had been used to display information about the cargoes of wool. Some of the sacks were even being used as a screen for a short audiovisual presentation.

The Main deck, with its masts, rigging and cabins for sailors and officers, gives an insight into what it would have been like to sail on the Cutty Sark. I noted the relative luxury of the master’s saloon compared with the cramped quarters of the sailors. And an interesting touch was added by the presence of chicken crates, a reminder that the ship would have had to carry live food for its crew.

Family Activities

There is plenty to interest children as you move around the ship. On the ‘tween deck look out for the moving bench that simulates the rocking of the ship, or the video of the moving sea at the end. And there is a piano that plays a choice of old songs – the most popular with both children and adults seemed to be What shall we do with the drunken sailor!

A collection of historic ships' figureheads. The one at the top is the Cutty Sark

A collection of historic ships’ figureheads. The one at the top is the Cutty Sark

Once we had finished exploring the ship we walked down a flight of stairs to the dry dock beneath, where we could look up and admire the massive golden hull. There was a gift shop and cafeteria here, but for me the most interesting thing here was the collection of ship’s figureheads, including a copy of Cutty Sark’s own figurehead, a woman holding a horse’s tail. This is the witch in Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter, who wore a “cutty sark” (short shirt) and stole the tail from Tam’s horse. No-one really knows why this name was chosen for the ship, but looking at the witch with her hair flowing behind her, I imagined that she could move very fast, a fitting reminder that this was once one of the fastest ships on the ocean.

Practicalities

  • Entrance is via the lower hold. If you are visiting other maritime attractions in Greenwich you can save money by buying a combined ticket. It is also possible to reduce queuing at busy times by pre-booking online
  • There is limited access for wheelchairs, and some parts of the ship can be reached by lift. You can find more information on the website
  • There is a cafeteria and a shop beneath the ship.

Leave a Comment