Cutty Sark restoration: a clucking, Grade A, Bernard Matthews-class turkey

Aground in a giant greenhouse: the new, sexed-up Cutty Sark
New lift tower and air-conditioning plant as it will look when scaffolding removed

Today’s Weekend cover story in the printed paper is my take on the heartbreaking vandalism of the Cutty Sark, and Greenwich in general, in the name of witless, bungled, and unneccessary “restoration.”

Here’s the full text:

According to the chairman of the Cutty Sark Trust, Maldwin Drummond, visitors to the newly restored 19th–century tea clipper – to be opened by the Queen next Wednesday – will see the ship as she was in her heyday, “as though for some unexplained reason the crew had gone ashore”.

Odd: I didn’t realise they had shopping–centre–style glass lifts in their ships in 1869. The new Cutty Sark has three. One entire side of the vessel is now dominated by a 30–foot high steel tower to hold two of the lifts, rearing up above the ship’s open main deck like a small block of flats. The tower also contains an air–conditioning plant. In another conspicuous nod to the mall experience, the Cutty Sark will be the first Victorian sailing vessel in the history of the world to be fully air–conditioned. The new “steelwork lower deck, of contemporary design, incorporating an amphitheatre feature” in the main hold might come as a surprise to 19th–century seafarers, too.

Then there’s the glass pod that’s been plonked, quite clearly visible, on the open main deck to accommodate a staircase. The old stairwells were of wood, but that’s so 19th–century. There’s yet a third glass lift, cutting right through the ship itself, popping up on that open deck with a glass pod of its own. The lower end of this lift is the first thing you see when you enter the Cutty Sark, along with a bright new fir ceiling that looks like my kitchen table. All the decks, indeed, are new – the main deck is plywood, with a thin teak veneer on top. A new zinc and copper coating – a copy of the original material – has been placed on the hull to add extra bling for visitors.

But the key change is even more dramatic. Twentyeight steel girders have been attached to the sides of the ship, bolted to modern thick, grey steel braces which run across and along the decks. The ship’s original planks and metalwork are essentially stuck on to this modern frame. The new Cutty Sark dangles from the girders, 11 feet off the ground, to create what the Trust calls “a corporate hospitality venue to rival Tate Modern” underneath.

All the way around the hull, extending about halfway up it and several feet outwards in each direction, sweeps a giant new smoked glass cushion, utterly obliterating the ship’s thrilling lines. From outside, at least in the daytime, you can’t see the shape of the Cutty Sark’s hull anymore. You can’t see her prow. Her wonderful, gilded stern is almost totally obscured from casual view by the glass surround. To get any real sense of the ship, you must pay up your £12 and go inside.

In her years of cutting ribbons, Her Majesty has had to smile politely at many brave new mistakes. But few can compete with this clucking, Grade A, Bernard Matthews–class turkey. One of Britain’s most precious maritime treasures now looks like it has run aground in a giant greenhouse.

“It reminds me of a funfair ride,” said Steffan Meyric Hughes, news editor of Classic Boat magazine. “Just about everybody [in the historic ship world] is agreed that the ship should not be on legs. It is undignified, as well as being structurally inadvisable.” English Heritage has condemned the lift tower; the Greenwich Foundation, which runs the Old Royal Naval College next door, called it “very disappointing… a significant visual intrusion”.

The project was supposed to take three years, and cost £25million. It has ended up taking six years, and costing £50million. The contractors and the project managers have been sacked. The Heritage Lottery Fund, which is paying most of the bills, suspended funding for almost a year amid “serious concerns” over the operation’s “governance and financial controls”. Mr Drummond admitted that his Cutty Sark Trust issued misleading statements about the project, at variance with what the trust has said in internal documents.

But what is worst of all is that for many experts, including the Cutty Sark’s own former chief engineer, Professor Peter Mason, the new Disney Sark actually puts the very survival of the ship in danger. Professor Mason resigned from the project in 2009 after computer simulations showed that hanging it from the steel girders would put unacceptable strains on the vessel. “The lifting support system will do damage to the fabric of the ship,” he said. “It will have quite an impact on it. They should not lift up the ship.”

Julian Harrap, the naval architect behind the restoration of Brunel’s SS Great Britain, said: “They are putting the artefact itself at risk, and that’s a fundamental issue.” Martyn Heighton, director of National Historic Ships, the maritime equivalent of English Heritage, said: “This is an extremely delicate object; we did not believe she should be lifted, and you don’t try out something new on the Cutty Sark.”

Some of the ship was, of course, destroyed in a terrible fire in 2007. But that fire was avoidable; and most of the new damage seems deliberate.

William Edgerley, one of the Cutty Sark trustees, asserts that the ship is under far less strain now than before, when she rested on her keel in dry dock. “At the beginning of the restoration, Cutty Sark was found to be in an even worse condition than had previously been assessed,” he says. “The conservation works have included the installation of a new steel structure inside the original wrought–iron frames. This supports the original fabric and has also enabled the ship to be lifted.” The trust insists that “almost 90 per cent” of the original materials have been kept – though according to its own annual report, 30 per cent of the hull planks are new.

Professor Mason says that dozens of the original planks have had to go or be cut to take the steelwork for the lifting mechanism – and given that the two principal decks are also entirely new (the tween deck, below the main deck, was lost in the fire), it is hard to see how the 90 per cent figure has been reached. Even if it is right, the main problem with the project is what has been added, not what has been taken away.

The air–conditioned Cutty Sark is only the flagship in a fleet of heartbreaking disasters turning Greenwich, one of Britain’s finest urban set–pieces, into a showcase for witless and unnecessary heritage “improvements”. At a cost to the taxpayer of tens of millions of pounds, one of London’s only four Unesco World Heritage sites has been systematically vandalised. Between the Cutty Sark and the Thames, the Edwardian pier has been replaced with a row of production–line chain restaurants, as found in retail parks from Dingwall to Truro. Double the height of the previous structure, the new building blocks some views of the river. The upper storey is finished in that fake gilding found only in secondrate casinos. From across the Thames, the classic view of the Naval College is now complemented by a red neon sign for Frankie & Benny’s.

The foot tunnel under the river is getting an £11.5million upgrade, with the local council promising “feature lighting” to “allow colour and animation to be subtly manipulated to create different moods”. This will, apparently, “contribute to cultural life in the locality”. The glass panels in the domes housing the lifts at either end will be stripped out and replaced with well, almost identical glass panels, only these will be aligned “in clearer association with the [Greenwich] meridian, with each segment representing 30 minutes of the time dial”.

This tunnel is not, in fact, a cultural installation, but a transport one – a job it has been unable fully to perform for the past two years, since it is now closed at night for the work to be done.

The claimed objects of the refurbishment include “improved safety”and a “more welcoming environment”. That must explain why those dreary heritage features so irrelevant to safety and welcoming, the lift attendants, have been scrapped, even though the money wasted on the refurb could have paid their wages for the next 23 years. The new automatic glass lifts finally opened last month, and were vandalised within a week. The council promises that in its new, exciting foot tunnel, every journey will become “an event in itself”. Let’s hope that event’s not a mugging, shall we?

At the entrance to Greenwich Park, what was a peaceful garden surrounding the statue of William IV has been concreted over to make a new entrance to the Maritime Museum. In Greenwich town centre, the covered market, a delightful Victorian–looking ensemble of cobbles and bustling, independent shops, is being demolished for a (privately–funded) five–storey hotel (there will be a new market and shops, but the rents are likely to be at a level payable only by the likes of Starbucks, Gap and Monsoon).

And the “village” market, where you could spend a happy afternoon picking through junk, closed three years ago to make way for a much–needed giant hole in the ground. With a certain grim symmetry, this will be plugged by Greenwich University’s school of architecture, where future generations will be trained to crank out further “iconic” calamities.

In Greenwich Park itself lies perhaps the key to all the fuss: London 2012. The dominant feature here is now security fencing, with vast sections closed to build a 23,000–seat showjumping arena for the Olympics. The entire park will be surrounded by a 9–foot fence, with spotlights every 80 feet and CCTV cameras on 16 foot poles every 250 feet. The arena site, which slopes slightly, is being levelled, its topsoil stripped to a potential depth of 1.3 feet. The park will be closed for four weeks, and the grass not fully restored until 2015.

The trees of this park are among Britain’s oldest living things. There is a row of chestnuts here that were young in the Great Fire. Courting couples of the iPod age now lie beneath the same gnarled branches that sheltered King Charles II and his mistresses. In the tight spaces around these precious trees, against the wishes of the sport’s top riders, the Olympics organisers are driving an equestrian cross–country course. The organisers insist there will be no damage – though 72 of the park’s trees will, they admit, be “pruned” – but they made that promise, it turns out, before doing any arboricultural impact assessment.

Ever since the Dome, Greenwich’s curse has been the 40–watt politician, the second–rate bureaucrat, who wants to acknowledge the place’s significance. But the best way to do that would be to simply leave it alone. Before the restoration there was nothing wrong with the Cutty Sark that a bit of care and maintenance would not have cured. She was “iconic” already. The Olympics may help regenerate Stratford, but holding the horse events in Greenwich will leave no legacy: will not create a single job.

As the cuts start to bite, the default assumption is still that public spending is good. But the fate of Greenwich shows quite how destructive it can be. The Cutty Sark project, thanks to its extraordinary crassness and its endless delay, may now itself become a monument of a different kind, a last remnant of the New Labour era when history was bad, money was no object and our heritage had to be sexed up with glass lifts.

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