Today, the Baron Greenwich and his wife will visit his namesake town and let her announce the opening of the restored Cutty Sark sailing ship after its lengthy, expensive, and very controversial refurbishment.
There is just one entrance/exit to the ship’s interior which has been cut into the side of the ship’s hull and takes you into the main hold. You are indirectly guided up a flight of stairs to the wide expanse of the middle deck, with its metal roof being just low enough to leave this correspondent perpetually worried about banging his head.
I actually liked that – they kept the height unchanged and unaffected by modern safety concerns. The local shops might do a good trade in headache pills as well, which they might appreciate. Unsurprisingly considering its recent flammable history, there is a lot of very visible fire fighting pipes running all around the ship.
It is this floor that houses some of the artefacts and displays from the ship’s history, and is also the most spacious area within the ship today.
Heading up to the deck though they have fully restored how the ship would have looked at the time it was in use. Some wooden cages for animals emitted animal sounds and have wooden animals within them. Towards the rear, you can go down into the officer’s area, with the captain’s tiny cabin – the size of which may confuse people used to Hollywood representations of a huge room.
At the time of my visit, there was a very strong smell of white paint and frankly, it felt a bit like a 1970s Barratt Home, with almost every wooden surface covered in gloss paint. That should fade in a week or two though.
In quite a few locations there are video screens, and they have quite cleverly built one into the mirror in the dining room, so it almost looks as if you are watching a person chat while facing the mirror. To get deep back down to the hold means the staircase at the front of the boat, or the lift they have sliced into the heart of the ship.
The hold is probably the most evocative area, being more dimly lit and with the structure of the ship more obviously noticeable here. Packing cases dotted around remind visitors of the ship’s early purpose, and bales of wool its later history, and a mini-cinema offer a chance to sit down.
Having “done the ship”, it’s time to head back out and down into the dock and stand underneath the boat. This is the most controversial aspect, with a decent number of commentators being very concerned about the structural integrity of the ship in this elevated position.
The massive steel piles holding the ship aloft do make it look more like a ship driven by oars than by sails when seen from the front – maybe – if you squint a bit.
I think the effect works though. It creates the “ohhh!” effect most effectively and offers them space for the usual corporate events below the ship, as well as space for a cafe at the back.
My main problem is that the rest of the ship left me distinctly underwhelmed. It’s basically just a ship, with a lot of cramped areas to get around and not a lot of heritage on display. Most of the heritage is in the form of video displays rather than actual artefacts.
To put artefacts in the ship would be difficult, and to put them in the dock would reduce its wow factor, not to mention the chance to hire the space out. But I missed them.
Yes, it’s nice to look around, and the dock area is impressive – but I felt rather cold about the overall “museum”. At £12 per adult it is not a cheap place to visit and in order to appreciate a visit, you are going to probably want to linger in the dock for a while – by the cafe, which adds to the cost.
Will it be popular? You bet it will – it’s a huge tourist draw to the area. But, if I had £15 to spend on a visit to Greenwich, then I think I would be heading over to the Royal River exhibition instead.