Since returning to our life in London at the end of September, we hadn’t really had much quality time as a family. After getting home from Valencia, my husband got sinusitis and then I ended up in hospital for a few days with asthma – something I’ve only developed in adult life. For at least two weeks I hadn’t been outside my house or the hospital. So we were really looking forward to having a family day out, courtesy of Royal Museums Greenwich, on what turned out to be a glorious, hot Saturday afternoon in October.
We live a short bus ride away from Greenwich, a leafy riverside historic area on the outskirts of London. It is a place dear to our heart, as a couple and as a family. When my husband and I were dating, we often went there for long, relaxed champagne picnics in Greenwich Park during the summer and in the winter we’d eat plates of whitebait in pubs by the river. We even considered getting married there at one point.
Since becoming a family of three, it has turned out to be an excellent family destination for us as well. Not only are there plenty of museums and large public spaces, but there are lots of fun restaurants and independent boutiques. We also like the central market where you can buy handcrafted artisan goods and street food – with lots of vegan options. Greenwich Park is marvellously big and while younger children enjoy visiting the deer enclosure in the flower garden, older children love straddling the prime meridian line (Greenwich Mean Time) at the observatory on the hill. Parents and couples will enjoy the beautiful views of Canary Wharf across the river.
Greenwich is easily accessible from Central London via bus, train, riverboat and the Docklands Light Railway.
Sitting at the heart of the waterfront is the Cutty Sark, the world’s sole surviving tea clipper.
It was one of the fastest tea clippers in existence.
Built in 1869 to carry tea from China to London when the tea business was lucrative and speed was important, the Cutty Sark had a few years of glory before being replaced by steamboats and she was relegated to carrying wool from Australia to the UK. In 1922 she was found and restored by a retired sea captain and had a few more useful years as a training ship until 1954 when she was laid in dry dock permanently and put on public display. Since then the boat has survived two fires, but after a lengthy restoration she perched atop a stunning architecturally designed glass dry dock which looks like a cresting wave.
When at the ticket desk, be sure to ask for a Cutty Sark explorer trail guide for each child you visit with. The booklet is free and has a page for each main section of the ship with activities and an area to emboss at designated stamping stations throughout the boat. My daughter really enjoyed doing this and although there are plenty of fun activities for kids on board it helped provide a bit of focus as we visited each area of the ship.
Those whose little ones under 4 who really love the ship (my 3 year old daughter is asking if we can go back to “the big ship” as I sit here writing this) can join the regular Toddler Time sessions held in the gallery under the Cutty Sark on Wednesdays during term times. (See the bottom of this post for full details, prices and times.)
You enter the ship by walking across a ramp and through a hole cut into the hull of the ship. You walk straight into the main cargo hold of the ship, where once 1,305,812 lbs of tea and later 4,289 bales of wool would have been transported from the other side of the world back to London. There are loads of interactive stations and activities for kids and informative panels with facts about the ship for older kids and grown ups. There is even a theatre seating area where you can watch a short film about the history of the Cutty Sark.
She was brave…there’s no way I’d be smelling and touching those “mystery” boxes!
There are beautiful antique pieces on display, like model ships and the original ship’s bell (which was stolen but later returned).
There are also a couple of interactive toy models of the ship which children are free to play with.
The officer and crew quarters have been beautifully restored. Some of them you can just peek into, like this one with a ghostly projection and voice of a crew member writing a letter to his family, and others which visitors are free to try out. Those bunks were awfully small!
Ever the chef, I had to photograph the galley – the ship’s kitchen!
There is something quite surreal and a bit magical about being on a tall ship riding a crystal wave which captures the movement and reflection from the sky above, ever-headed towards the modern towers of the finance industry in Canary Wharf in the distance. Perhaps a fitting destination, given how significant a business tea was in the 19th century – it was a key source of tax revenue for the British Empire.
If you’re feeling particularly energetic after you complete your visit on board the ship, you can even walk to the Isle of Dogs in East London via the Edwardian era Greenwich Pedestrian Tunnel. There is something a bit Jules Verne-esque about the small brick, domed entrance to the tunnel which leads under the River Thames.
After you’ve toured the ship itself, a gangway and a set of modern stairs (or a lift) leads you down to the modern gallery area under the ship itself. I should say at this point that almost every area of the ship itself, aside from a couple of the original crew quarters are all accessible via lift for those who require it.
Under the ship is a small cafe where you can have a cup of coffee and cake, or even afternoon tea while admiring the beautifully polished underside of the Cutty Sark.
Keep walking down the gallery and after passing a number of fun interactive displays, you can go up a viewing platform (only accessible via stairs I seem to recall, though I could be wrong about that) to get this amazing view.
At the far end of the gallery is a collection of ship figureheads, including the original “Cutty Sark”, seen in white below, holding a horse’s tail. The figurehead now on the ship itself is a reproduction.
In case you were wondering about the unusual name of the ship, Cutty Sark comes from Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter, about a farmer called Tam who is chased by the witch Nannie who is dressed only in a ‘cutty sark’ – an ancient Scottish name for a short undergarment or chemise.
We greatly enjoyed our visit aboard the Cutty Sark and as it has been designated as a toddler-approved museum by my daughter I’ll certainly be taking her to the Toddler Time sessions after term time starts up again so we can see this beautiful ship again.
Toddler Time at the Cutty Sark is held rain or shine (with songs, stories and playtime). The timings are 10.00-11.30am and 1.20-2.50pm. The cost is £5 per adult, but under 4’s are free (obviously accompanied by a parent!) but if a parent signs up to an annual membership for £44, you can go for free to as many sessions as you wish.
This post is a sponsored collaboration with Royal Museums Greenwich.