The Cutty Sark is one of the most famous ships in the world. I first visited her as a little boy during an outing to London and although I’d lived not far from her over the years, it wasn’t until the ship had undergone a multi-million pound restoration that I returned.
The famous tea cutter has been a fixture on the waterfront at Greenwich for years but there was little I recalled of that first visit, other than the old ship smelled weird and unpleasant, that it was gloomy and cramped inside and very different to the modern ships we saw sailing down the nearby Thames.
Fast forward to 2012. I’d changed, the Thames had changed and the Cutty Sark had changed too. Light, bright and fit for the 21st century, she’d reopened following a six-year restoration programme, which was interrupted and complicated by a major fire at the site.
The renovation had done wonders for the old ship, letting us get closer to her than ever before. Visitors, for example, can now get into the newly enclosed dry dock that’s been her home for so many years.
The Cutty Sark was launched in 1869 in Dumbarton, Scotland, and for much of the 1870s was involved in the tea trade between China and London, before moving on to the England-Australia route to transport wool and other goods. In 1895 she was sold to Portugese owners and renamed the Ferreira but after many years of service was in danger of becoming another wreck when Wilfred Dowman found her, bought her and restored the ship. She was berthed at Falmouth in Cornwall and Greenhithe before finally arriving at Greenwich in 1954.
The restoration programme controversially enclosed the dry dock, creating a large and bright space for the reception area, inevitable shop and cafe. But the ‘skirt’ it’s now enclosed within means you can’t see the ship’s graceful lines from top to bottom.
We entered her through a door in her side, down in the bowels of the ship, where the restored ribs of the vessel are exposed and exhibits and films tell the story of her early life in the tea trade.
On the ‘Tween deck, the experience continued with more hands-on artefacts and films describing her later life as a ship on the Australian trade routes and as a Portugese vessel. Outdoors, on the top deck, we admired the rigging and masts, descended into the master’s restored quarters and saw the rooms used by others who called the ship home. Sadly, some of these – the galley and other workshops included – can only be seen through glass.
Finally we descended into the dry dock, where the story of the Cutty Sark’s restoration was revealed. We experienced the weird sensation of standing under the vessel itself and gazing up at its tremendous bulk. She looks cumbersome, something like a pregnant whale, and it’s incredible to think that she was one of the fastest ships of her class at the time she was sailing the high seas.
Also in the dock was a collection of colourful merchant navy figureheads, some of them famous characters from the past.
Overall, the team at the Cutty Sark have done a good job of telling the story of her life on the oceans and the men who built and sailed her. Fortunately, they’ve managed to avoid the dumbing down we’ve seen at some newly renovated attractions while at the same time making it interesting enough for all types of visitors.