The Cutty Sark in Greenwich, London is the world’s only surviving tea clipper. Back in the 19th Century, the tall, elegant ship was designed to swoop through the seas between England and China. These days, it’s a popular visitor attraction. Brought back from the brink of destruction in the Cutty Sark fire of 2007, the ship’s been transformed into a museum, where visitors can find out about life on board. And they can also partake of that 19th Century English custom, dreamt up by the 7th Duchess of Bedford: afternoon tea. To those who want it, a Cutty Sark Afternoon Tea is served in the museum café, underneath the ship’s copper-plated hull.
This is advertorial content. Royal Museums Greenwich invited me on a tour of the Cutty Sark, and to try out the Cutty Sark Afternoon Tea. I was compensated for my time, but they had no editorial control over this feature. All views are my own.
Why the Cutty Sark in Greenwich was important in the history of tea
The Cutty Sark was known as the fastest ship of her time. She was built in 1869. Between 1870 and 1878, she carried almost 10 million lbs of tea from China to England. This is all the more staggering when you consider that she only transported tea from China eight times. On her maiden voyage alone, she carried around 1,305,812 lbs of tea back to waiting enthusiasts in Britain.
Where was the Cutty Sark built?
The Cutty Sark tea clipper was built in 1869 in Dumbarton, Scotland. The Scottish link was kept via the ship’s figurehead, Nannie the Cutty Sark witch. Nannie was named after a character in a poem called Tam O’Shanter by Scottish poet Robert Burns. In the poem, farmer Tam spots Nannie at a witches’ party. She’s wearing a ‘cutty sark’, the archaic name for a casual white shift dress. Attracted by her alluring dancing, Tam shouts out ‘Weel done cutty sark’. Nannie doesn’t take kindly to this heckling. She chases him to the river, which she can’t cross (witches are unable to cross water). As he rides away, Nannie grabs the tail of his horse, which comes away in her hand.
The Cutty Sark’s Nannie figurehead can be seen, clutching Tam’s horse’s tail, near the café. Clustered around her is the world’s largest collection of Marchant Navy figureheads, donated to the Cutty Sark museum by collector Sydney Cumbers. Figureheads used to sit at the prow of a ship, and were seen as ship’s spirit. In a storm, sailors sometimes took them down, so they wouldn’t be damaged. A damaged soul means a damaged ship. The Cutty Sark collection is fascinating, with colourful busts featuring characters like Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, Benjamin Disraeli and Sir Lancelot. If you go to see it, expect a lot of bare breasts and piercing eyes.
Cutty Sark history
The Cutty Sark Greenwich is laid out for visitors to be able to explore its history. Just past the entrance, tea chests are heaped up, and ranged along the floor. Video screens along the visitor trail give more information, and visitors can use the complementary audio guide, or book a tour guide if they’re coming in a larger group. Interactive displays help keep children amused, and during peak hours, characters like Nannie the witch and Captain Woodget act out their part in the ship’s history.
And a fascinating history it is, too. Captain Woodget was one of several charismatic leaders to navigate the ship and its crew through the seas. Under Woodget’s tenure, the Cutty Sark transported wool from Australia. When not on duty, Woodget would use his spare time to learn to roller skate, and practice cycling on deck. Items and relics from the ship’s past are laid out in the ‘Tween Deck. Look out for the ship’s bell, and an incredibly detailed ship in a bottle made by a member of the crew.
The top Deck gives excellent views out over the Thames, and the Canary Wharf financial district of London. It’s where pigs and chickens would have been kept to help feed the ship’s crew, who ranged from a fourteen year old apprentice to a fifty-six year old sail maker. As well as gazing upwards at the tall masts of the ship, visitors can go inside the cramped crew’s quarters and try out one of their bunkbeds.
Cutty Sark Afternoon Tea
Cutty Sark Afternoon Tea is served in the museum café. This lies in The Dock, the light, airy space underneath the ship’s copper hull. At one end of The Dock is the collection of figureheads, all gathered together as though they’re ready for a party. At the other end, the real-life eating, drinking and genteel merriment happens.
It’s always a ceremonial moment when a 3-tier cake stand for afternoon tea arrives at a table. But before the food came the tea: served in a rotund teapot decorated with a jade-coloured willow pattern. English Breakfast was the choice, or coffee, if we preferred.
The food to accompany our tea wasn’t too heavy and stodgy. But it was still satisfyingly filling. I always think the best afternoon teas are ones where you emerge feeling as though you won’t need more than an apple or a packet of crisps for dinner. First we ate a selection of finger sandwiches: free-range British egg mayonnaise and mustard cress; cucumber and cream cheese; smoked salmon and chive crème fraîche; and ham and Swiss cheese baguette. The bread was fresh, and the fillings tasty without being overpowering.
It’s the cakes that really make an afternoon tea. The ones we ate on the Cutty Sark had a pleasing range of different tastes and textures, from the nutty brownie and mini macaron to the millionaire shortbread and lemon drizzle. I had a delicious double dose of lemon, as my macaron was filled with a tangy lemon curd. The scones were the winners, though. Infused with earl grey tea and smothered with Devon clotted cream and strawberry jam, they were light and crumbly, with just the right amount of butteriness. Perfect for an afternoon cream tea.
Is afternoon tea on the Cutty Sark child-friendly?
Cutty Sark Afternoon Tea follows a rather traditional formula, with teatime staples on the menu. This makes it rather more child-friendly than some. A more quirky afternoon tea might include exotic ingredients, which some children might turn their noses up at. The Cutty Sark café is a relaxed setting, with plenty of space under the ship’s hull for youngsters to have a runaround after eating their cakes, without turning any heads. Some interactive displays nearby would help keep little hands occupied while the adults relaxed over their tea.
Affordable afternoon tea, London
The Cutty Sark Afternoon Tea was affordable. It cost £28.35 when booked online. This included Cutty Sark tickets, so when you consider that Cutty Sark admission is usually £13.50 per adult when booked online, the afternoon tea itself came in at a reasonable £14.85. For an extra £5.40 or £9, customers could snazz up their tea with a glass of Prosecco or English sparkling wine.
People who want Cutty Sark Afternoon Tea need to book ahead by at least three days.
Where is the Cutty Sark in Greenwich?
The Cutty Sark postcode and address is King William Walk, London SE10 9HT. Cutty Sark station is the closest rail link, and is just a couple of minutes’ walk away. Getting to Cutty Sark via public transport is easy. As well as Cutty Sark, Maze Hill and Greenwich stations are close by. If you wanted to arrive by boat or combine a trip to the Cutty Sark ship with a cruise down the River Thames, Greenwich Pier is directly behind the ship.
For more information see the Transport for London website.
Cutty Sark opening times are from 10am to 5pm, with the last entry being 4.15pm. Visitors should allow at least an hour to look round the Cutty Sark ship before taking afternoon tea.
Which do you think is the best afternoon tea in London? We haven’t sampled enough of them to make an informed decision. We have tried some great teas, though. As well as the Cutty Sark afternoon tea, we also enjoyed:
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