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

Cutty Sark, London
The tall masts of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich

What is the Cutty Sark?

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 It was one of the fastest sailing ships of its time, but was soon superseded by the new steam ships and spent some years on the Australian wool route before becoming a general cargo carrier.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.

Book Cutty Sark with Tiqets

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

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.

Tea crates on the Cutty Sark, London
The Cutty Sark was originally a tea clipper, and old tea crates have been incorporated into the display

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 on the Cutty Sark

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!

Figureheads on the Cutty Sark, London
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, 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.

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