In mid-October of 2012 I boarded my favourite London bus at Russell Square – the 188; a kind of Harry Potter experience if you travel on the upper deck. It takes you across the Thames River, passes by the South Bank arts centre and Waterloo Station then east on the south side of the river toward my objective, the station, Greenwich-Cutty Sark. Here you will find the National Maritime Museum (the world’s largest), the Royal Observatory, a verdant climb through a Royal park; the Great Painted Hall in the old Naval College and the prize, at least for this visit, the towering three-masted clipper ship, Cutty Sark. She has always attracted attention – for her speed in carrying tea from China and when finally retired from commerce in 1920 – by her lovers who saw in her a thing of beauty, a kind of supreme creation who in the hands of good captains and crew managed to extract every ounce of energy from the wind.
In 1954 she was preserved in an especially built dry dock. Exposed to the damp of London fogs and wind-blown rain she survived until the 21st century when like any ship she needed more than what some shipbuilders call a five year, “shave and a haircut”. Her strong hull was subject to creeping structural distortions and the various metals that held her together were corroding. A renovation campaign was started, money began to flow. The masts were removed and sent downriver to Chatham and soon a crew had been assembled who saw what they were doing as something more than a job.
The fire occurred on May 21st, 2007. A piece of equipment had been lift on overnight overheating the electrical connections. It took a while, but not as long as you might think to shake off the shock. The governors and administration and the public refused to admit defeat. Private and corporate money flowed in and government grants were won in public competition. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was instrumental in saving Cutty Sark in in the early 1950s. On 25th of April, 2012, his wife, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth 11, opened the ship to the public.
But not everyone was happy. The Cutty Sark and her towering rig of canvas has been portrayed by the best artists; her “lines”, the shape of her hull below the water has been a source of admiration through the 19th, 20th and now into the 21st century and her sheer line, that sweep of the deck from stern to bow is much more than a functional response to an engineering requirement. For some she is an aesthetic delight. The architects’ response to meeting the first requirement, preserving her in the long term, was to build a canopy of steel and glass around her hull and this created a fury of responses from a very engaged public and from scribes who knew diddly-squat about ships. And you now have to pay to see the magnificent view of her hull.
For me the compromise is well worth it. So when you are next in England travel to Greenwich to visit the Cutty Sark. The full length of her hull is suspended above the floor of the dry dock, is this magic realism? The storyline and context is well presented and the digital tools are there to explore. You can still pace the decks exposed to the weather and admire her masts and yards above.