In honour of Burns Night, I’m reprinting this article from a simpler time (i.e., when it was safe to travel on a train to visit a tourist attraction). The connection to Robert Burns is revealed in the third paragraph.
Cutty Sark is a 19th-century sailing ship, preserved as a museum in a dry dock in Greenwich in London. It’s a clipper, a type of ship built for speed, specifically to carry tea from China to Britain. Tea was still something of a luxury in Britain at this time, and the first ship to make a delivery of the new season’s crop could command a high price.
The exhibition tells the story of the tea trade in general and Cutty Sark in particular. When tea was first introduced to Britain, import duties on it were so high that it was a profitable cargo for smugglers. Aristocrats would keep their tea stash under lock and key, and prepare the drink themselves, rather than trust their servants to do it.
The name of the ship comes from the poem Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns. Tam is on his way home, drunk, late at night, and sees light coming from a ruined church. Witches and warlocks are dancing there, and the devil himself is playing the bagpipes. Tam notices one particularly attractive young witch wearing a sark (a shift or chemise) that’s too cutty (short) for her. Unable to restrain himself, he calls out “Weel [well] done, cutty sark!” in admiration. The witches and warlocks, alerted to his presence, chase him. He makes his getaway over a bridge (the devil and his servants can’t cross running water), but the young witch manages to seize the tail of his horse. The ship’s figurehead is a likeness of the witch, holding the horse’s tail. It’s not entirely clear to me why the ship’s owner chose the name. Certainly it suggests a fast vessel, but since the witch’s quarry escaped, it also suggests one that’s not quite fast enough.
For a trip from China to Britain, the ship’s hull was essentially packed solid with tea crates, and carried about 580 tons of tea – enough to make about 200 million cups. The crew initially slept in a compartment at the bow, but complained this was too small, and so a couple of cabins were built on the deck. Even allowing for the fact that people tended to be smaller back then, these must have been cramped – eight or ten bunks in a space not much bigger than our spare bedroom.
Cutty Sark made “only” eight runs on the tea route. The ship’s launch coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal. The canal shortened the route from Shanghai to London from about 16,000 miles to about 12,200, but it wasn’t suitable for sailing ships. That, coupled with the improving efficiency of steam engines, meant that steamships became a much faster way of bringing tea to Britain. Clippers were broken up or moved to other routes where speed wasn’t as important. Cutty Sark spent forty years or so sailing the world before returning to Britain in 1922 to be converted into a training ship. By the 1950s, it was no longer needed in this role. As it was the last surviving tea clipper, it was moved to a permanent dry dock on the River Thames and converted into a museum.
The exhibition tries to convey what life was like on board, though a lot of imagination is called for – you’re spending a few minutes on a stationary platform in the middle of a big city, not weeks on a rolling ship hundreds of miles from land, constantly being chilled by the wind and drenched by the waves.
Unusually for a ship in a dry dock, you can walk around underneath the ship and admire its lines. The way this was done has been criticised as being ugly and more for the benefit of the corporate hospitality market than for the sake of preserving the ship. Personally I don’t see what the problem is, though I know very little about architecture.
Allow an hour to go around, or maybe an hour and a half if you want to read all the text or have a go on the interactive exhibits.
This article originally appeared on Steven’s blog at https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/15925731-weel-done-cutty-sark.
OMP Admin Note: Steven J Pemberton is the editor of the OMP blog. His writing is mainly fantasy and science fiction novels. You can learn more about those at his website at http://www.pembers.net. He contributed a short story (History Lesson) to the One Million Project: Fantasy anthology, and writes stories for the OMP’s Fox Universe/Earth-F project on Wattpad.
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