Cutty Sark set Olympic finishing line

You’ll probably already have heard about the Cutty Sark’s restoration finally being confirmed for 2012, in a statement from Boris Johnson and Gordon Brown, no less. As ever, The Greenwich Phantom’s said it better than me – the whole thing’s been a little bit odd, to say the least, with an apparent cloak of secrecy over the whole project, and the Phantom’s enquiries being ignored by the Cutty Sark Trust.

Amusingly, Boris claimed the restoration had been “progressing with speed”, when if there hadn’t been a funding hitch, it would have been completed this year, despite the fire. Hey-ho.

The episode reminds me of a thought I had when the Cutty Sark fire took place in 2007 – the ambivalent relationship people in and around Greenwich have with the tourist attractions in their midst. Greenwich Park arouses deep feelings – especially if you’ve been brought up in the area, hence the bitter rows over the Olympics. But I’ve never seen the same feelings expressed for Greenwich’s other sights. Shoot me down for saying this, but the Maritime Museum and Observatory remind me more of stuffy school trips from the 1980s than their aesthetic qualities – and as I mentioned in another post, work starting on the museum’s new wing came as a big surprise to many locals.

I still haven’t quite taken to being able to walk through the Naval College site (partly because I’ve tried to walk through in the evenings sometimes and found it locked at the other end) and – confession time here – have never actually set foot in the Painted Hall. It’s on my to-do list, along with visiting the Tower of London (I finally visited the British Museum last October). The ambiguity continues with the Dome – it’s a landmark that defines its immediate area, but does anyone really feel any great love for the O2? It’s just… there, and a pain in the bum if you time your journey home through North Greenwich.

And for the Cutty Sark? It doesn’t shout “great maritime history” to me. It whispers Delphine, a French schoolgirl I met while arseing around the area with a mate in 1989. And it grumbles the underwhelming, crumbling attraction that it was before it closed in 2004.

Is this a slag-off of the attractions that many around the world hold dear, and bring millions of pounds into the local economy each year? No. But it’s an observation that, like most Londoners with our tourist attractions in general, we have a strange relationship with the things that make us famous, and the things that help our area prosper. Tourist Greenwich and Proper Greenwich rarely meet, unless they’re blocking King William Walk with their backpacks.

The Cutty Sark’s restoration agreement provides with a chance to fix that. Of the £15m that’s paying for the deal, £3m is coming from Greenwich Council, whose cabinet agreed to cough up some of our cash on Thursday afternoon. I was impressed by all-blogging, all-Tweeting Conservative culture spokesman Nigel Fletcher, who made this suggestion, which almost certainly won’t make it into council rag Greenwich Time:

I made the point that it is important we communicate how much of a positive impact the Cutty Sark has on the Borough, and that we make the most of the opportunities we now have as a co-funder of the project, including my suggestion that some of the revenue generated in future could be channelled into smaller heritage projects in the Borough. This is something which will now be discussed with the Trust as part of drawing up the agreement with them for the donation.

You know what? He’s onto something. Whether the Cutty Sark would actually make the profit needed to make a meaningful contribution to other local heritage projects is another issue – “congratulations! here’s a tin of Brasso!” – but this is the kind of question we need to be asking, and the conversation that needs to be happening if we’re to make sure a revived, revitalised Cutty Sark – remember, the new-look ship will be encased in a plastic bubble to protect it.

“The ultimate aim is to transform the ship into a corporate hospitality venue to rival Tate Modern,” wrote the Daily Telegraph’s James Morrison in 2008. Now it’s getting a large chunk of our money, I hope that aim will be refined somewhat, and the Cutty Sark is restored to the hearts of local people as well as to the planners of corporate jollies.


  1. As part of the Council’s scrutiny programme, two of us are looking at how small local ‘heritage’ sites – often ones in which residents place value – are handled by the Council.

  2. Just so you know, the Naval College site officially closes to the public at 18.30 just now, and only lets in staff and students of the institutions based there after that time (possibly only the West Gate opens at all – it’s the way out I take when working late). However when the brewery opens in the spring I’m assuming the restrictions will be relaxed and perhaps the locals will warm to the site 🙂

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