[Caveat: I visited the Tall Ships event between 5pm and 6pm on Friday. The skies were a sullen grey. It might be that not all of the tall ships had turned up yet. I didn't get to board any of the ships. The remainder of the Festival might turn out to be a bit more thrilling that my report is about to suggest.]
The Tall Ships have arrived in Greenwich after a seabound regatta from Falmouth. It's the biggest assembly of tall ships in London for 25 years. There are "almost 50" of them, which is quite a lot, except you're highly unlikely to be able to see even half of them at the same time. A grand parade of sail is promised on Tuesday afternoon, when you're probably at work, but for most of the rest of the time the ships are moored up along several miles of the Thames. They've been split across four locations in order to spread the love between various local communities, with some off Maritime Greenwich, some along the Greenwich peninsula, a handful in Docklands and the rest at Woolwich. I never got as far as Woolwich, so maybe it's the ships at Woolwich that are brilliant.
The Royal Borough of Greenwich is extremely proud of their Tall Ships event, and have set up various shore-based activities to keep the expected million visitors entertained. Beside the Cutty Sark is a Festival village sponsored by a mobile phone company (they have a small tent), featuring a cluster of traders transferred from Greenwich Market. One trailer is selling nothing but The Captain's Hat, eight pounds worth of souvenir headgear, presumably bulk-bought in the hope visitors would all want one, although nobody I saw had succumbed. Round the corner in the grounds of the Old Naval College are groups of historians dressed for the occasion with a collection of implements to demonstrate - they were rather popular. Less so the echoing marquee by the main road, lightly filled by a collection of maritime-related organisations and charities. Neither were the food merchants doing especially well, but then it was Friday afternoon so who'd want fish and chips, a hog roast or fried chicken anyway.
I'd arrived too early for the evening's entertainment, an artistic performance of illuminated fish, but watched intrigued as the Catalan theatre company manoeuvred their giant sharks and jellyfishes into position overlooking the river. I was also much too early for the fireworks, but you can always head down to Woolwich after dark tonight if you want to see part two. And what of the tall ships, I hear you ask? What indeed. A few were moored off the promenade, not as many as I'd been expecting, but more seemed to be arriving upriver as the afternoon progressed. "I was expecting sails," said one woman I passed, evidently disappointed to see only bare masts on the majority of vessels present. If you're hoping for something resembling The Onedin Line, think again, this is more a riggingfest for most of the time.
The festival promises the opportunity to board certain ships and look around, but those off Maritime Greenwich are exempt. Instead you can pay £3 for a boat trip half a mile upriver to board the tallest tall ship of all, the Dar Mlodziezy. This is moored at Enderby Wharf, a historic site which developers have all but demolished in order to built apartments, duplexes and boxes in the sky. It'll come as no surprise to hear that one of these developers is the festival's principal sponsor, because what could be better for business than attracting hordes of would be purchasers to the riverside? I'm not sure that those who ventured up the footpath north from Greenwich were especially impressed, however. Only one residential project is yet complete, a bland stack of flats called The River Gardens, and beyond that the Thames gets fairly desolate. Now I like desolate, or at least I liked it before they knocked all the old industrial buildings down, but what's promised over the next few years is a monotonous frontage of non-affordable dwellings with all character sucked out.
I should at this point point out how awful the map in the official Tall Ships visitor leaflet is. The underlying base map is fine, but then some trainee without a geography qualification has dropped symbols onto it that bear only passing resemblance to reality. In Greenwich the Festival Village has been plonked beyond Maze Hill, while the disabled viewing zone is apparently somewhere in Deptford. Woolwich's disabled viewing area is much too far west, beyond the Ferry, while that at Canary Wharf is somehow inland. Worst of all is the cartographer's attempt to add the cablecar to the map, departing from the wrong point behind a relocated O2, then crossing the Thames at the wrong angle to land beside a completely misplaced (and much too convenient) Canning Town station.
I really wasn't expecting to stumble across the North Greenwich festival hub where I did. I thought it'd be by the Dome, but not so, it's a half-mile trek along wheelchair-unfriendly paths down the western side of the Greenwich peninsula. This too is a bleak walk, brightened only by housing developers' banners announcing what you'll be able to buy on the levelled wasteland behind the fence. And what of the tall ships, I hear you ask? Well, here are half a dozen more, assuming they've all turned up, including two schooners and the trainee brig Stavros S Niarchos. Crowd control barriers are in place to marshal the queues for getting on board, should huge crowds ever turn up at this remote spot. Shipboard visits are free and could be really interesting, but you need to turn up well before the official closing time else stewards will send you packing. A most unlikely hospitality village has been set up on what's more normally the Hanson aggregates site, with a small bandstand, several refreshment trailers and a souvenir van pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't busy on my visit - it might possibly be today.
The Tall Ships are off Greenwich until Tuesday, with on-board visits and onshore entertainment promised between 10am and 6pm. You'll not be dazzled, but you might well be impressed, and it's not like this spectacle will be returning any time soon.
[Caveat: I visited the Tall Ships event between 5pm and 6pm on Friday. The skies were a sullen grey. It might be that not all of the tall ships had turned up yet. I didn't get to board any of the ships. The true Festival might turn out to be a bit more thrilling that my report suggested. And I might even go back again over the weekend to make sure.]