ENGLISH HERITAGE:Cutty Sark Location: King William Walk, Greenwich SE10 9HT [map] Open: 10am-5pm (until 6pm in summer) Admission: £13.50 (£12.15 online) Website:rmg.co.uk/cutty-sark Four word summary: hermetically sealed tea clipper Time to allow: 1-2 hours
First things first. Cutty Sark isn't an English Heritage property, it falls under the auspices of Royal Museums Greenwich. But English Heritage members now get 25% off the admission price, which is almost a coffeesworth at the end of your visit. Unfortunately the website doesn't offer savings on the online price so the reduction has to come off the walk-up fee, but it's still a 17% cut. Alternatively if you have a National Trust membership card that's worth 50% off, so wave that instead.
The last time I went aboard the world's fastest tea clipper it was the 1970s. A photo exists of the family in typically unflattering garb standing on the edge of the dry dock admiring the coppery hull. These days you can't get that close without paying up, as the ship has been engulfed in a frame of steel and glass. Adding a wraparound provides very necessary support to its fragile structure, holding the ship 3m off the ground rather than resting on its keel. But today's Cutty Sark resembles a galleon with a hovercraft's skirt - fabulous for arty photos but of dubious historical integrity.
One thing the restoration permits is a longer tour, first round the boat from the lowest deck upwards, then into the chamber created underneath. The Lower Hold reveals the iron skeleton of the ship and the original timbers which survived the great conflagration of 2006 (by being elsewhere for restoration at the time). It's also where the majority of the tea was stored, which in terms of presentation means a lot of tea crates, tea trivia and tea-related exhibits. That's fair, as what could be more quintessentially English than tea, but it's also easy filler. Halfway along is a short film to watch, the rack of seats doubling up as a tiny theatre where Nicholas Parsons and Alan Davies have performed, which is inspired, but its inclusion means there's even less for the daytime visitor to see.
The Tween Deck, named for interstitial reasons, is positively bright in comparison. It also looks quite empty. Numerous interactive exhibits are scattered along its length to tell the history of the ship, although overall there is a sense of the Cutty Sark's Wikipedia page being stretched as far as it'll go. Meet the Scottish spirit of the figurehead. See bales representing the years the ship was a wool clipper. Explore the cargoes hauled on later journeys before the steamships took over. Listen to an exported piano. Sit on a wobbling bench. The most fun is attempting to steer the ship home from Australia on a digital screen by following the trade winds, avoiding icebergs and the doldrums, although I bet on busier days you have to queue for that.
Up on the Main Deck you get to walk amid the masts and ropework, and to explore the crew's quarters in several bunkbed hideaways. It's no spoiler to reveal that the senior officers lived better than the deckhands. On my visit there were actual shipwrights up the actual rigging, which added a certain frisson, even if when they descended it turned out they were wearing flat caps and safety boots. Others were tackling the renovation of the Monkey Fo'c's'le, which was out of bounds, busy sawing and painting in readiness for next year's 150th birthday. Exploring the length of the deck does give some sense of daily life aboard ship, although any illusion of seaworthiness is of course shattered by looking overboard towards Docklands, M&S Simply Food or Nando's.
When you're done on board, a gangplank leads to a separate lift tower which'll whisk you down to the cavernous gallery underneath. Walk to the very far end to enjoy a display of massed figureheads, and to clamber back to ground level where a 'viewing platform' allows the capture of Insta-symmetrical shots. Alternatively sit with a coffee to admire the keel in all its glory, or look up at what's always been my favourite feature, the Roman numerals painted on the rudder. Elsewhere a few weak displays tell the story of the Cutty Sark brand and of the ship's 21st century restoration. But the majority of the under-ship is empty, because its true worth is as a hireable venue for generating income, as the stash of plastic chairs hidden behind the back stairs confirms.
For Londoners who've not been for years it's worth a look, rather than forever prowling round the perimeter on trips to Greenwich, although the interior exhibitions are rather thin. I think I also chose well by visiting on a December weekday, unburdened by excessive tourist hordes and excitable school trips, allowing me to focus on the great ship and its heritage. It's all too easy to take a cup of tea for granted, overlooking the chain of events which brought the chopped-up leaves to your kitchen. Cutty Sark reminds us that international trade was once a painstaking challenge... and maybe soon will be again.
Special discounts for English Heritage members(London)
» Cutty Sark (25% off)
» Danson House (50% off)
» Dulwich Picture Gallery (2 for 1)
» Benjamin Franklin House (2 for 1)
» Strawberry Hill House & Garden (discount restarts April 2019)
» Hogarth's House (free entry) (even though it's free anyway)