Imagine you’re the captain in charge of an historic sailing ship, trying to beat the record for the fastest time back to London from Australia. You’ve got to dodge the icebergs around Cape Horn and use the compass to follow the trade winds to steer the fastest course.
Children can do all this on the Cutty Sark in Greenwich where they can have a go navigating the ship, taking the helm of the ship’s wheel and even climbing into one of the bunkbeds to try it for size.
The Cutty Sark is one of the most famous ships in the world. The Victorian tea clipper was built in 1869 as a cargo ship to bring tea back from China. It was the fastest ship of its time thanks to its long, narrow hull and large sail area.
We visited with our eldest son last weekend. Just seeing the ship from the outside is impressive enough – it has three masts and eleven miles of rigging – but we were blown away by the brilliant family-friendly activities on board and fascinated by its colourful history. This is a ship that has survived mutiny, storms and a captain who jumped overboard (the last sight of him was the sharks circling around the area where he was last seen.)
The tour starts under the ship, where you can touch the copper hull and see the world’s largest collection of figureheads. Cutty Sark’s own figurehead is Nannie, a scantily clad witch from a poem by Robert Burns about a farmer called Tam who is chased by this witch, dressed only in a ‘cutty sark’, an old Scottish name for a short nightdress.
You then take the elevator to the main deck where you’ll gaze in wonder at the masts and rigging. Its here that you can take the helm of the ship’s wheel and step into some of the cabins. There’s a real difference between the luxury of the captain’s cabin and the bunk beds used by other members of the crew. You can even climb into the beds to try it for yourself.
But if you were sailing on the Cutty Sark you were lucky if you had a bed at all. Most of the crew lived and slept on deck and worked four-hourly watches. If you fell asleep on the watch you had to sit on top of the mast – and it’s a long way up, believe me. Life would have been like this for a long time – it took eight months to sail from London to China and back again and some of the apprentices were only 14.
You can look in the galley too where all the food would have been prepared. Pea soup and salt pork was a typical weekday dinner, with potato pie as a treat at weekends. You can even see the carpenter’s workshop with all the tools laid out on the benches and try on a sailor’s hat and boots for size.
Now make your way down the stairs to the Tween Deck, a vast space which was used for storing cargo. It had to be large – 10,000 tea chests were loaded on its arrival in China, enough for 200 million cups of tea. In its time as a cargo ship, Cutty Sark carried wool, shark bones, tobacco, pianos, cocoa beans, coal and shoes as well as tea. From 1883 the ship sailed from Sydney to London with wool and this was when it sailed its fastest speeds under Captain Woodget, Cutty Sark’s longest serving captain.
Woodget was a fearless navigator. In order to go faster to Australia and catch the trade winds he travelled further south than any previous commander. This was highly dangerous as the ship frequently came into contact with icebergs. His record time for the voyage from Sydney to London was 70 days.
This space is now filled with interactive games and activities so that you can really imagine what life was like for sailors on the ship. There are so many different things to do whether you’ve got toddlers or teenagers. You can play with models of the Cutty Sark, load tea chests, learn how to tie knots or sit down on a moving bench to see what it’s like to be on a ship that’s rocking all the time.
Edward got really into the wonderful navigation game where you have to use maps and a compass to see if you can follow the trade winds from Sydney to London, using the wheel to steer faster than Captain Woodget. There’s also an amazing ship simulator which is based on the software used to train real captains. There are five interactive screens and you have to read navigational equipment, electronic charts and radars to navigate buoys in New York’s harbour or steer a P&O ferry into port in Dover.
But there’s loads of other things to do as well. You can smell and touch samples of some of the ship’s cargo: tea, cocoa beans and pickles; ring the ship’s bell and unfurl the sails on the model ship.
Finally, make your way to the Lower Hold which is full of tea chests. Here we watched a short film about the Cutty Sark’s history.
The Family Explorer Trails are full of things for children to find and do as they make their way round the ship. Under 5s can borrow a backpack filled with toys and stories. There are regular family events at weekends and holidays, with stories from people dressed up as characters from the ship’s history such as the captain, the cook and even the figurehead, as well as games, activities and crafts. On Wednesday mornings, toddlers can enjoy songs, stories and playtime on board.
If you’re in central London, make the trip even more fun by getting the boat from Westminster Pier to Greenwich. It’s a 40-minute trip down the Thames.
The Cutty Sark is open daily from 10am. Tickets cost from £12.15, adults; £6.30, children; under 5s, free.