King William Walk
London SE10 9HT
Thursday November 10 2016
Teeth better but cold worse we met in maritime Greenwich with of course the DLR station named for today’s expedition. Sadly, or gladly depending on your fondness for sea travel (not), we were not to leave dry land today. I still have memories of an early school outing to the Cutty Sark in what must have been the early days of her being saved. She opened to the public in 1957 and we must have been taken a couple of years later – my abiding memory is of lots of tea and wool and rigging and the fact she won a race back from Australia. In the Fifties the ship was in a dry dock and exposed to the elements without benefit of much to preserve her timbers which therefore started to crack and bulge – hence the massive restoration which started in 2000, delayed further by an electrical fire but re-opened by the Queen ( for the second time) in 2012. Now the slender sleek hull (it was this streamlining design which gave her the speed) is encased in steel and well supported by struts.
That is where we started our visit: on the lowest level (loos and café) to wander round the clipper’s hull – there were boards to explain her restoration but as it was very quiet we were told about it by an enthusiastic ‘crew member’ before he was distracted by a group of infant visitors. The impression of being under the sea is enhanced by the animated mural of a fishy sea scape running round the edge. The audio visuals explain her class – a Clipper because she goes ‘at a clip’ and her name borrowed by her Scots owner from a Robbie Burns ballad. This version has a translation as I certainly needed it. The witch Nannie Dee cannot cross the water but is pursuing a rider in a ‘cutty sark’ or short shift which was supposed to add speed. You only need to look at the ship to see that for her size she has a very slim hull but a large area for sails, all to make her quicker.
At the front end what from a distance looks like a party of brightly clothed guests turns out to be a collection of figureheads, recognisable amongst them Garibaldi, Florence Nightingale (women well outnumber men), and Abraham Lincoln, who must have been turning on his Memorial at today’s presidential election result… This area is obviously used for ‘corporate hospitality’ events…
Up a level (and there are spacious lifts also) to the lower deck or hold. This is set out as if loaded with tea which is the commodity for which she was designed and commissioned – it being a somewhat luxury item that was gaining in popularity. The displays include a very useful time-line on tea from its introduction to the UK – choice quotes from our ‘old friend’ Dr Johnson – until the launch of the Cutty Sark. In fact she was a bit late to the tea race which was soon being run by steam ships. There is also a mural along part of one side evoking the London portside where the cargo would have been unloaded.
Up to the ‘Tween deck where the tea chests are ‘joined’ by bales of wool as after about 14 years on the China run the Cutty Sark ran on to Australia returning with fine merino wool. At the front or fo’csle you can stand directly behind the Cutty Sark’s figure-head who has been given life through a rather sweet animated film – she describes how windy, and therefore noisy this part of the ship would have been and this is where the crew slept originally, probably in hammocks. The ‘tea’ crew numbered about 25 later reduced to 19 for the ‘wool’ runs. The Cutty Sark’s most successful period was under the captaincy of Woodget who got his ship and crew back from Australia in a record breaking time of 11 days * (and you complain about 20 hour flights). Once steam took over this run as well, the ship passed to Portuguese owners who ran her for about 20 years to the 1920s.
From here you get back into the fresh air and the top deck where there are two sets of accommodation, crew and officers. Each has a sitting room and kitchen appropriate to the numbers with ‘examples’ of the food available in pull out drawers. Given the likely weather at sea everything that can be is screwed down or has a lip to prevent dishes sliding off - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gimbal There is a very elegant gimbal to hold drinks glasses. In fact all the woodwork is beautiful and has weathered very well and is bound with intricate brass work to strengthen it – the workmanship and carpentry is beautiful though of course uncredited.
Standing on deck allows you to wonder at the mass of ropes which would have allowed you to control the massive sails – speaking as one who cannot even thread a needle without getting into a tangle, how sailors work out which rope belongs to what is a bit of a mystery, but doubtless part of their training. In fact according to Wikepedia they are not even called ropes but rigging and spars and lanyards; like any craft it has its own language and customs.
On the day we visited there were actually two chaps up in the rigging – apparently there is a regular practice of renovating the bits of woodwork which hold the ropes – think toggle to stop the cords on your windproof jacket from shifting – and that’s what they were doing today. They were tied on of course, the weather was calm and the ship not moving which are all benefits the original crew would not have had. You cannot overestimate the bravery of those who climbed the rigging….
Gazing upwards can be quite mesmerising and probably the best part of the Cutty Sark Experience – her elegance can be appreciated from nearby but for a more detailed appreciation of her history and prowess you would need to go on board.
* PS. Thanks Tim for comment and information below. So 11 days is stunningly fast even by today's shipping standards though I expect the CS is a bit smaller than some freighters today.