Right Royal Car Boot Sale

Q: What do The Greenwich Phantom and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh have in common?
A: When they went to the Historic Dockyards at Chatham they were both really only interested in seeing one thing – the bits and bobs of the Cutty Sark that are currently in storage there.

To be honest I didn’t really think they’d be in some place the public could go. And I certainly didn’t expect to see them in the open air. For some reason I just assumed that they would be being kept in a warehouse somewhere obscure, under lock and key. But on a family day out to Chatham Dockyard I just had to ask where it was.

The answer is on a very dull piece of dock, in between HMS Gannet and the submarine HMS Ocelot. All lain out on the ground, surrounded by metal fencing, like a giant car boot sale. I actually passed the stuff twice before finding it – it just looks like a pile of marine scrap – which I guess in some respects it is.

One of the orange-boiler-suited chaps who show people round, told me that the Cutty Sark guys rang round all the dockyards looking for space. Most of it’s here, but not all; it’s in various places – some’s even down in Portsmouth – which at least spreads the risk. And it is behind metal fence, and the whole site is locked at night. But somehow it just feels a bit – well – vulnerable, to me. After all, a chap in the Ropery on the same site said that a giant coil of 28″ rope that was not even useful to HMS Ark Royal got half-inched this winter – and some of the Cutty Sark’s parts are really quite small and must have ‘souvenir’ value…

But what I really find so odd about it all is that this is a museum with paying visitors – you’d think they’d make a bit more of it. There’s no sign, no note on it to say that this pile of junk is part of possibly the most famous ship in the world. You’d think they’d cash in, give it a sign and perhaps have someone dedicated to showing visitors what there is and what’s going on with it (complete with collecting box – they still have a few million to find…)

The guy (whom I had to seek out – he certainly wasn’t hanging around the stuff) told me that work has been done on it – especially the cabins (not that you’d notice it just yet) and people are interested – when The Duke of Edinburgh came to unveil a sculpture he was far more interested in making them show him round the Cutty Sark stuff (hooray – a royal patron who actually cares about their cause…)

And I really think that everyday visitors (and Phantoms, natch) would want to see it too – as it is I’d say that 99% of them will be just walking straight past this right-royal jumble sale, without even noticing it. I mean – I know the Dockyard’s being paid for it – but this isn’t the Big Yellow Self Storage Company looking after a couple of old wardrobes and some skiing gear here – they’re missing a trick. It’s all in full view – and yet somehow it’s invisible.

But whatever. The main thing is that it wasn’t on board the ship in Greenwich last May. And for that I am grateful. And there seem to be chalk markings everywhere so that the jigsaw will go back together again easily:

One other interesting thing about Chatham Royal Dockyard for Greenwich-o-philes (apart from the Chatham Chest) is that the guy also told me the giant 18th Century brick-built Dockyard Foundry (which has to be 150m in length) and which is being restored now:

will, by 2010, house the National Maritime Museum’s collection of model ships. Apparently whenever a new ship is built a model HAS to be made of it – and the NMM holds them all, currently in storage. We will be able to see them soon, thanks to a £13m lottery grant.

But don’t leave it that long – do give Chatham a visit. The guy told me (before he got called away to deal with a double-parked steam engine – I kid you not) that very sunny days like these are generally quiet because everyone goes to the coast instead…

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