The journey to Greenwich, aboard a Thames Clipper catamaran, was the perfect scene-setter for a visit to the Cutty Sark: the river-bus skimmed along the river, the stiff breeze whipping up a fine spray. It takes just over 30 minutes by Thames Clipper from the London Eye pier to Greenwich, and there’s something really special about arriving in Greenwich – long-associated with Britain’s maritime and naval history – from the water.
The restored Cutty Sark ‘floats’ majestically in her dry dock a few minutes’ walk from the riverside. As part of her five-year restoration, she was raised off her keel, to protect the shape of the ship, and visitors can now walk beneath her burnished brass hull, allowing one to fully appreciate the scale and elegance of her structure.
Cutty Sark is a tea clipper, a super-fast (for her day) sailing ship, which raced across the oceans in the fierce competition to bring tea and other cargoes from China and India, and beyond. Clippers were designed to make best use of the strong trade winds, and in the days before steam, this was the means of express merchant transport, bringing her cargo of tea – and later wool from Australia – to satisfy the British demand for these goods. Cutty Sark is the last surviving tea clipper, enjoying Grade 1 listed monument status, and she is both a living testimony to the golden age of sail, and an icon of British maritime history.
In the old days, before the fire which destroyed large parts of her structure, one entered Cutty Sark by a narrow gangplank, leading straight onto the cargo deck. Now there is an attractive new entrance, ticket desk and gift shop through an opening cut into the hull, and helpful staff ensure you make the most of your visit. Inside, there are audio-visual displays about the tea trade, and the history of clipper ships and the Cutty Sark herself (her name comes from a short Scottish undergarment), including a film explaining the restoration. New stairs between the decks make movement around the ship much more comfortable, and every inch of her has been restored with meticulous detail and care: shining brasswork and warm, newly-varnished wood, scrubbed decks and bright, clean ropes, and signal flags flapping jauntily in the rigging. Visitors can enjoy a real flavour of what life on board the ship was like with access to the crews’ and Master’s quarters, a peek into the pantry (galley), and displays of her numerous cargoes, from tea and wool to buffalo horns, and other memorabilia. There is even a small piano on display, presumably part of the on-board entertainment during the 3-month voyage from China to Scotland.
Stand beneath the brass-clad hull of the ship for a real, jaw-dropping sense of her size and ground-breaking design. The brass gleams, drawing the eye up and around the structure of the ship.
The Cutty Sark is not the only visitor attraction in Greenwich: the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory and the Queen’s House are all within easy walking distance and together form a great day out for everyone.