Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Thursday 26 April 2012

It's not often one gets to drink a coffee with 1000 tons of ship hanging overhead, but now you can (at a price). The Cutty Sark has been reopened, and I managed to get in with the first group of visitors this morning.

The ship has been raised several metres to rest on a secure steel framework rather than its own keel (which was deforming its shape and threatening eventual collapse of the hull), and the wear and tear of decades (not to mention the damage from the fire during restoration work) has been repaired and refurbished with a degree of care and resort to traditional materials and craftsmanship that borders on the obsessive.

You enter through the lower hold, with the bones of the ship on full display, along with plenty of information about the tea trade (including a special space for the tiniest children).

Then it's up to the tween-deck, a broad open space for cargo (and for the captain to practise his cycling and roller-skating), with most of the crew squeezed into quarters in the bows. Here the focus of the displays shifts to the wool trade and to the experience of working on the ship: there's a chance to practise your skill at steering to catch the fastest wind, and to sit on a seat that rolls while you watch old film of sailing ships in the roughest of seas.

Onward and upward to the top deck, with the officers' quarters, the galley (and pens for pigs and chickens, complete with sound effects), and the masts and rigging towering above. Then you "go ashore" into a staircase and lift block, to take you down to the dry dock itself, and the most dramatic element:
coming out from an anonymous corridor to find the shining brass cladding of the hull and keel lowering above the open space (which will of course be let out for lucrative private shindigs).

Here there is a small cafe, and a striking collection of ships figureheads,
dominated by Nannie, the Cutty Sark herself, clutching the tail of Tam o' Shanter's horse. More displays on the restoration of the ship and its impact over the years of its being a tourist attraction, and then, as ever, one exits via the gift shop.

It's not cheap (and not just to get in - nearly £5 for a coffee and small cake?!), but then neither was the restoration. Worth it? It was for me: but it may be years before I go again.

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