The Cutty Sark, Greenwich

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The Cutty Sark – Description

The Cutty Sark is a clipper ship in dry dock in Greenwich next to the Old Royal Naval College. The boat was built in Scotland in 1969 as a merchant vessel for the tea trade and is one of 3 remaining clipper ships of the 19th century built with a composite construction of a wooden hull on an iron frame. The Cutty Sark is 94 feet long, decorated with gold leaf and ornately carved. Her top recorded speed is 17.5 knots. The vessel was named Cutty Sark after the witch Nannie Dee in Robert Burns’ 1791 poem Tam o’ Shanter. Tam meets a group of witches all of whom are ugly except for Nannie who dances in a revealing garment called a Cutty Sark. The figurehead is a carving of a bare-breasted woman holding a horse’s tail in her hand.

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The Cutty Sark – History

The tea trade in the early days of the Cutty Sark’s working life was an extremely competitive business and there was a substantial bonus for the ship to arrive in London with the first tea of the year. While the Cutty Sark was never the first ship home, she was one of the fastest and in 1871 broke the world record for sailing between London and China completing the trip in 107 days – at her fastest she covered 360 miles in a single day.

The Cutty Sark completed 8 round trip annual journeys to China, but the Suez Canal opened to shipping in the same year as her launch. The canal spelt the end for tea clippers as steam ships could use the shorter route through the canal and deliver goods more reliably, if not more quickly. In 1883 the Cutty Sark started transporting wool from Australia to England and for 10 years she was the fastest ship in the wool trade, however steamships eventually dominated that business too making it unprofitable for a sailing ship. As a result Cutty Sark was sold to a Portuguese firm in 1895 and she was used as a cargo vessel until the 1920s when she was sold on and converted to a cadet training ship based in Falmouth. In 1954 after a collision in the Thames and subsequent repairs she was moved to a dry dock in Greenwich where she remains.

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The Cutty Sark – Restoration

In the course of major restoration works in 2007 the ship was badly damaged by fire the cause of which remains uncertain. Thankfully at least half of the fabric of the ship was off-site at the time being restored at another location.

Restoration of Cutty Sark  is now completed and she was reopened by the Queen on 25 April 2012. Around 90% of the vessel is original including the masts, rigging, figurehead (called the Naughty Witch) and coach house. The ship is suspended 3 metres above her dry dock and it is possible to stand underneath her as well as go aboard.

The restoration project won the Building Design Magazine Carbuncle Cup 2012. The Carbuncle Cup is a tongue in cheek architecture prize for the ugliest building in the UK completed in the past 12 months. Reasons given for the award of the cup to the restoration of the Cutty Sark included:

from street level, the once thrilling lines of the ship’s stern and prow have been obscured behind a glass enclosure; the act of lifting the ship put a dangerous strain on its fabric (the Cutty Sark’s chief engineer apparently resigned from the project over this issue); the entrance to the ship is through a hole bashed through the side of the hull; the banal design of the lift, stair and air conditioning tower which provides access between the ship’s deck and the undercroft and, overall, the lack of sensitivity shown to the historic ship.

Il leave it to you to decide if they’re right.

The Cutty Sark – Visiting

Entry is by timed tickets available online (, telephone ( +44 (0)20 8312 6608) or in person on the day (availability is often limited on the day).

The Cutty Sark – Website

The Cutty Sark – Getting There

Address: Cutty Sark Clipper Ship, King William Walk, Greenwich SE10 9BG

Nearest Underground/DLR Stations: Cutty Sark DLR (2 minute walk), Greenwich DLR (8 minute walk)