One of London’s most famous ships is the Cutty Sark, the world’s only surviving extreme clipper.
Built on the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland in 1869, she was one of the last tea clippers to be built and also one of the fastest. If you’re not entirely sure what an ‘extreme clipper is’ it’s a very fast boat designed to carry cargo at maximum speed.
Having survived storms, mutinies, a dismasting and a devastating fire, the incredible British clipper ship is now more than 150 years old.
Updated 2022. Disclosure: We were guests of the Cutty Sark for the purpose of this review. For more information please see my disclosure policy.
Today, the Cutty Sark calls the London borough of Greenwich home and is a great place to visit with kids.
It’s easy to visit from Central London, either by the London Underground or along the River Thames on the Uber Boat by Thames Clippers, and can be combined with a trip to the Royal Museums Greenwich.
Filled with interactive games and displays, family-friendly performances, hands-on exhibits, school holiday activities and the ever popular Cutty Sark afternoon tea, it really is a fun-filled day out for families. Don’t miss this tourist attraction when you’re in London.
The Cutty Sark for kids
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The history of the Cutty Sark
The history of the Cutty Sark Ship reads like the best of all adventure tales. Built in Scotland in 1869, she was designed like all clipper ships to have a long, narrow hull and sharp bow meaning that she could cut through the waves at speed rather than ride on top of them.
Her first voyage began on 16 February 1870 when she set sail for Shanghai, China laden with wine, spirits and beer. She returned to England in October carrying 1,305,812 lbs of tea – the equivalent of nearly 47 double decker buses!
The Cutty Sark completed eight trips to China for tea but owing to bad winds and misfortune, she was never the fastest ship on the tea trade.
The opening of the Suez Canal meant that steam ships had a quicker, more direct route from Asia to Europe and they took over the tea trade leaving ships such as the Cutty Sark having to find new cargo, eventually settling on the Australian wool trade.
This change in fortunes also saw the famous clipper ship reach its full potential, once making it back to the UK from Australia in a record 2.5 months, which was 5.5 weeks faster than any other ship at the time.
During her career the cargo ship transported more than 45,000 bales of wool, 10 million lbs of tea and various other pieces of cargo including over 10,000 tons of coal.
Today the ship is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and welcomes visitors of all ages.
On board the historic ship today are plenty of interactive exhibitions that promise an action packed day – as well as an insight into the ship’s colourful history.
An audio guide shares thrilling tales of murder and mutiny as well as Cutty Sark facts such as the reason why the middle deck of the ship, the ‘Tween Deck is slightly tilted. This deck, positioned between the lower hold and the top deck, had an ever so slanted floor so that any water that entered the deck would run off the sides and not into the hold below, damaging any cargo.
For younger kids there is a great explorer trail for them to follow and carry out challenges (such as hugging the masts of the ship to find out if their fingers touch!). You can also borrow a backpack full of toys and stories.
For under 5s there are weekly toddler time sessions that include storytelling sessions and free play. Booking is essential.
The meaning of the Cutty Sark
When my kids found out that Cutty Sark is a Scottish name for a short nightdress, they were both delighted and bemused!
In ancient Scottish, ‘cutty’ means short and ‘sark’ means nightdress or shirt. The name Cutty Sark comes from a famous poem by the Scottish poet Robert Burns called Tam O’Shanter.
In the poem a farmer of the same name spots witches and wizards dancing around a bonfire on his way home from the pub one night. He calls out to one witch in particular, Nannie, who is young, beautiful and wearing only a cutty sark. The witches give chase and Tam, riding his trusty stead Meg, heads for the river Doon knowing that witches can’t cross water. Just as he is about to cross, Nannie grabs Meg’s tail, which comes away in her hand.
Look closely at the photo of the Cutty Sark above and you’ll spot Nannie, the figurehead at the bow of the clipper ship.
The choice of figurehead on ships and vessels at the time were at the discretion of the ship’s owner. Some were chosen from literature or legend or to represent a popular personality of the day. Many of the crew believed that the figurehead represent the spirit of the ship and that it would help them to return home safely.
The Nannie figurehead on the bow today is a replica, made in 1957. You can spot the original Nannie in the Long John Silver figurehead collection in the dry dock below the ship.
During school holidays, activities are held in this area and Nannie has been known to make an appearance!
The amazing interactive exhibitions
Our family loves an good interactive museum and the Cutty Sark Greenwich is up there as one of the best we’ve been to in London.
The exhibitions on board the historic sailing ship have been designed for both younger children and older children – and are still interesting for parents too.
The Lower Hold tells the story of the Cutty Sark and the tea trade where you can smell tea in chests, try on the owner Jock Willis’ hat and watch videos about tea production.
The ‘Tween Deck tells the stories of the other cargoes that the Cutty Sark carried after her tea days were over. Kids can trace the routes the clipper ship sailed, try navigating their own ship, sniff various cargoes and see if he can guess what they are, sit on a moving bench that mimics the rocking motion of the sea, write a letter home as a sailor would have done and much more.
Meeting the crew
What’s the best way to bring history to life for kids?
On board the Cutty Sark it’s the chance to meet some of the characters from the ship’s sailing past.
Included with your tickets is the chance to meet some of the Cutty Sark characters who lived and worked on the clipper ship. These events take place on the main deck.
We spent time with James Robson, the colourful Cockney cook who had all the kids pretending to scrub the deck, mend the sails, salute the captain and more.
He told us about life on board the ship and showed us the menu, including his favourite pea soup, which none of the children looked terribly excited about! Tess even got the chance to deliver a tray of his infamous broth to the Captain.
Characters depend on the day and time of your visit. If you don’t meet James Robson then you might get the chance to talk with Captain Woodget, the longest serving master of the Cutty Sark, or Mrs Ray, whose young son Clarence is an apprentice on the clipper ship. Other characters include Jock Willis, the original owner, and two dockers who share tales from life on the London docks.
Life on board the Cutty Sark
From plotting a sailing course on the high seas in the Master’s Saloon to steering the ship there are plenty of fun ways for kids to learn about life on board the Cutty Sark. Kids can see where the sailors ate and slept (in rather narrow bunk beds) and see how the crew lived on board the ship.
There are only a few places where you can’t wander on this clipper ship (the First Mate’s cabin and the galley kitchen are roped off and the Cutty Sark certainly doesn’t encourage anyone climbing up to the crow’s nest!) meaning that children can really get a feel for life on board the fastest clipper ship in the world. They can even try standing behind the ship’s wheel.
The original hull of the Cutty Sark
The Cutty Sark survived storms, broken masts and a terrible fire but despite all this, the incredible copper hull structurehas survived 90% intact and you can see it when you visit the ship. The space beneath the Cutty Sark tells the tale of the clipper ship’s preservation since the 1950s.
It’s also where the Long John Silver figurehead collection is kept. This public display is the largest collection of historic figureheads in the world home to famous figurines such as Florence Nightingale, Abraham Lincoln and Hiawatha as well as some lesser-known ones. The dry dock also hosts activities during school holidays and is also where the Cutty Sark cafe is located.
Visiting the Cutty Sark
If you plan to visit the Cutty Sark in Greenwich then it’s worth buying your tickets online as you will save money.
Tickets cost £15 for adults, £7.50 for children and £10 for students and young people.
The Cutty Sark is located in Greenwich, London.
Getting to the Cutty Sark
The nearest rail stations are Greenwich and Maze Hill. Direct trains run to these stations from London Cannon Street and London Bridge.
On the London Underground, the Docklands Light Railway (DLF) takes you straight to Cutty Sark Station. Use the Citymapper app to help plan your journey. The Citymapper app will also help with bus routes.
Undoubtedly the most fun way to travel to the Cutty Sark is via the River Thames. The Uber Boat by Thames Clippers depart from all major London piers every 20 minutes. From the London Eye it takes 45 minutes to reach the Cutty Sark, 25 minutes from London Bridge Pier and 20 minutes from Tower Pier. The pier is located right next to the Cutty Sark.