One of the more surprisingly enjoyable events of last year was the Greenwich Tall Ships Festival, so news that there were tall ships again this year took Heather, Gemma, Heather’s Mum, and I to Woolwich Arsenal to look at them. Unfortunately, the spectacle was nowhere near as good.
Arriving at Woolwich we found, well, nothing much. There were of course some ships docked by the river but there were none of last year’s festivities on the dry side. Heather’s mum had been the day before and apparently there was much more but the Sunday we went there was no sign of anything out the ordinary. One was left with the impression that unless one wanted to fork out quite a bit of money for a cruise they weren’t interested in you.
We wandered down the river bank to see the ships anyway, and then, lacking anything else to do, headed for Greenwich in the hopes of finding more entertainment. At least we got to go via River Bus with the added novelty of passing through the Thames Barrier and beneath the cable car.
There was a little European market at Greenwich, which at least added colour though we largely ignored it. There were also a couple of further tall ships, but off in the distance. We found a branch of Waterstones with a cafe for coffee and cake. Of course we emerged with a book!
As there wasn’t much happening Heather’s mum decided to head home at that point. The rest of us went for a bit more of a wander though. To Gemma’s delight she once again encountered some lizards—three of them this time, one of which again balanced on her head. After some discussion, in an effort to actually properly see a ship, we made our way the short distance to the Cutty Sark.
The Cutty Sark looms over the Greenwich riverside area, rising out of a surrounding glass building forming the entrance way and allowing the ship to be raised up to give visitor access beneath. It was a controversial approach at the time (and disliked enough to win the Carbuncle Cup in 2012) and it’s not one I feel works. The intent makes some sense but I’ve only seen it work in the photos I’ve seen taken from an elevated view, where the ship seems to be floating in a sea of glass. From up close and within it acts as a barrier, holding the ship away at arm’s length, and making it rise unnaturally upwards, a neck craning angled view of the ship one would never expect to have.
The entrance takes you past the shining brass of the hull and into the lower deck, the iron ribs of the ship atmospherically stretching in front with ornate tea chests scattered around, cargo to guide the visitor. Passing through the hold, with little bits of history information scattered throughout, leads to a staircase up through what was once an access hatch (a lift occupies another hatch). That gives access to the tween deck, which contains the standard touch a bit of wool “interactive” pieces and some items (a telescope and the like) associated with the ship’s history.
The stairs lead up further, to the star of the experience, being on the deck of the ship. The three masts tower above, rigged but without sail, and one gets a sense of the long, sleek shape which made for the Cutty Sark’s famed speed. The galley, cramped bunks of the more senior crew’s sleeping quarters, and captain’s quarters give a sense of life on board. The Thames sits tantalisingly close, if strangely far below, as if calling for sails to be hoisted and speed to be tested.
From the deck the path leads off the side of the ship and right back down via an external stair, until one finds oneself with the strange view of the entire thing above, the hull gleaming overhead. It makes for a vast space (attractive for corporate functions no doubt) and holds a small cafe but still feels peculiar. At one end the Long John Silver (yes, really) collection of ship’s figureheads sits. They look strangely isolated in all that space, almost an afterthought stuck at the far end, a surreal crowd staring at nothing.
And then it is out, through the gift shop. It’s an historic ship and interesting to see, but the raising and surround make for a strange experience overall.