Cutty Sark [photo: Krzysztof Belczyński]

A Little Less Conservation, a Little More Action…

In Greenwich, London, the Cutty Sark is a popular tourist attraction. A British merchant ship, she’s a rare survivor from a vanished, glamorous age of commerce by sail.

Exceptionally sleek and skilfully constructed, it’s a shame to have to report that this beautiful ship was just about obsolete from the outset: she was launched in November 1869… the same month that the Suez Canal was completed, changing the geography of global trade forever.

As a clipper, Cutty Sark was designed for the tea trade, then a highly competitive annual race (with cargo) from China to London. The journey involved sailing around the southern tip of Africa and steering a route that would make the most of the prevailing winds. Cutty Sark employed composite construction (wooden planking over an iron frame, all sheathed in Muntz metal) to produce an elegant, streamlined hull that made her one of the fastest ships of her time. It’s worth noting that she isn’t just a vehicle that used to be a part of the global supply network, but also a product of it: British wrought iron frames and metal sheeting, American rock elm, East India teak… all assembled on the Clyde.

Fast sailing over long distances (up to 363 nautical miles or 672 km in a day) was no longer confined to clippers, sadly. The SS Agamemnon had already been in use for three years, demonstrating the advantages of a high-pressure boiler and a compound steam engine – and when the Suez Canal opened it offered a 6,100 km shortcut that was largely unsuited to sailing vessels. The days of the tea clipper were numbered.

Richard, and some faux tea chests in the hold of the Cutty Sark

Long before the standard intermodal freight container, there were tea chests. A team of Chinese stevedores could load a ship with up to 10,000 of them in 2–3 days, and on her first return voyage, Cutty Sark brought 1,305,812 pounds (592 tonnes) of tea from Shanghai. Since there was no way to return them once empty, tea chests found all kinds of secondary uses in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, becoming storage boxes, furniture and even musical instruments.

Eight times Cutty Sark sailed in the tea season, one of a dwindling number of tea clippers. In December 1877 nobody in Shanghai was prepared to entrust their cargo of tea to a mere sailing ship (insurance premiums for steamships were a lot lower) and this marked the end of sail in the tea trade. Cutty Sark and the other clippers had to change with the times: they were modified to carry a simpler, smaller arrangement of sails that reduced crewing requirements and maintenance costs, and they carried new cargoes on new routes.

Reducing manning levels in an effort to cut costs… a reaction to hard times that shipping lines still employ today. Another tactic that we see employed almost universally today is slow steaming: reducing speed in order to save fuel. It’s a good response to industry overcapacity and the high price of fuel because reducing speed by about a third can save thousands of tonnes of fuel oil… but it’s amusing to note that this has reduced modern commerce to a speed that Cutty Sark could have bettered on a good day – without spending a penny on fuel, and without producing any emissions!

When the tea trade changed to exclude clippers, Cutty Sark began to carry wool from Australia. In the 1883–1884 season, she made a journey from Australia to London in 83 days, 25 days ahead of any other vessel. In 1885 Captain Richard Woodget managed to get the time down to 73 days. Cutty Sark dominated the wool trade for a decade… until the steamships moved in on that commodity as well. In 1895 she was sold to the Portuguese firm Joaquim Antunes Ferreira, and renamed Ferreira as a result. She traded general cargoes here and there, and by 1922 she was the last clipper still operating. A spell as a cadet training ship followed, and when she was no longer needed in that role she was installed in a purpose-built dry dock in Greenwich, becoming a museum ship in the 1950s.

After decades of sitting on her keel – an unnatural position that caused a certain amount of sagging – came an extensive conservation project, beginning in 2006. It was a textbook case of poor project management, featuring cost over-runs, poor record-keeping and questionable security arrangements… punctuated by a terrible fire in May 2007 that might have destroyed the whole ship.

Cutty Sark fire of 2007

Cutty Sark is part of the National Historic Fleet, making her equivalent to a Grade 1 Listed Building: destruction by fire is not an option. Fortunately, much of the fabric of the ship had already been taken away for conservation   [photo: ITV.com]

In April 2012, Cutty Sark reopened after years of hard work. The most noticeable change is to the dry dock. In my childhood it was a simple pit where wind-blown crisp packets would tend to gather, but now it’s a glazed space, the roof appearing to be an ocean swell that the ship is riding. In the new scheme, Cutty Sark ‘sails’ some three metres above, allowing visitors a good look at her most important feature: that beautiful, streamlined hull.

Copper/zinc sheeting on the restored Cutty Sark

Visitors can now walk beneath Cutty Sark’s hull, clad in a gleaming copper/zinc alloy that’s a close match to the original Muntz metal.

The end result of Cutty Sark’s renovation is controversial. The Victorian Society described it as a misguided attempt to fit the corporate hospitality market, and Building Design magazine named it the worst new building in 2012. (The ‘anti’ camp were hoping for a restoration that would have left Cutty Sark seaworthy.) Yachting World were more appreciative, though, describing the end result as sensational.

Cutty Sark will never again be able to return to the sea, but she still formed a focus for the ceremonies that preceded the Tall Ships race of 2017. At the Sailors’ Ball on Good Friday, dancers were dressed in their best vintage sailor chic, and after champagne and fireworks on deck, I enjoyed the opportunity to explore Cutty Sark without crowds, before we went below to dance. As the band played ‘Somewhere Beyond the Sea’, I felt as if I’d become one of the denizens of Rapture, the doomed city beneath the waves in the BioShock games: even so, count me among the people who approve of the Cutty Sark in her new role. For a ship that never quite worked out as planned, she has a surprising amount to teach us.

A dance lesson, given in the space beneath Cutty Sark's Hull

Dancing the night away at the Sailors’ Ball

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Ignorance and the Divided Circle

In addition to supply chains and sustainable manufacturing, I’m quite interested in art. That’s why I came to be looking at a list of lost artworks: pieces that are known to have been destroyed or have otherwise gone missing over the years.

There is a long, long list of art that we can no longer see. The final portion of the Bayeux Tapestry, for example, or Leonardo’s Leda and the Swan. Even that tent thing that Tracey Emin created (I’m really not too bothered about the loss of that one…) Among the many items that have been burnt, blown up, stolen or simply mislaid, one piece leapt off the page at me.

Two Forms (Divided Circle) – since stolen

Stolen artwork

The piece in question was Two Forms (Divided Circle) – a bronze sculpture made by Dame Barbara Hepworth in 1969. The list of lost artworks said that it had been on display in Dulwich Park, London, and had been stolen in December 2011… yet I knew without a doubt that I’d seen it in the grounds of the University of Bolton.

Two Forms (Divided Circle) at the University of Bolton

Two Forms (Divided Circle) at the University of Bolton


OMFG,
I might have thought (but for the fact that my internal monologue doesn’t employ acronyms), I know where that one is!

Official Meeting Facilities Guide magazine

OMFG… as they say.


I was right… and I was wrong. I had indeed recognised the Barbara Hepworth piece, but it wasn’t the stolen one. Seven copies of Two Forms had been cast: the one I’d seen in front of the University of Bolton was number four, and the stolen one was number five.

Base of Barbara Hepworth's Two Forms (Divided Circle)

Sad remains of the stolen sculpture in London [photo: Press Association]

So: that was just one of the days on which I didn’t solve any major art thefts. But consider this: the metal thieves will have shared maybe £750 for the bronze that they stole, by weight – while the sculpture was insured for £500,000. Well, you know what they say:

“If you think education is expensive – try ignorance.”

Those words have been attributed to a lot of different people. Perhaps that just goes to show that it’s a popular adage, and widely held to be true. Trouble is, education has become rather expensive, nowadays. When I went to university, we still got a maintenance grant, courtesy of the Education Act 1962. (By 1990, a frozen and fairly miserly amount that saw us dressing in army surplus, and getting jobs every summer… but receiving even a small grant was better than taking out a loan.) When the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 repealed the earlier Act, grants were axed and tuition fees were introduced – perhaps surprisingly, under a Labour government.

Tuition fees are now £9,000 per year. Borrowing even a little bit of money for living expenses, it’s easy to see why a present-day student can expect to be £50,000 in debt by the time they graduate. At a time of life when they might want to get married, buy a house, start a family…

There is an alternative. Degree apprenticeships are a relatively new educational route, combining a university education with employment in a chosen profession. Work experience; a degree; employment upon graduation; no tuition fees; no debt. What’s not to like?

I had my first exposure to the degree apprenticeship system a year ago, when I gave a guest lecture at the University of Cumbria. The students were all apprentices from Sellafield Ltd., a nuclear decommissioning company. The nuclear industry was one of the first to benefit from a degree apprenticeship standard, and I was very impressed by the young people I met that day.

Again, what’s not to like? Employers get to advertise a highly desirable job, attract hundreds of candidates and choose from among the brightest and best, secure in the knowledge that the new employees are likely to stay the distance in order to complete their part-time studies – while being trained in subjects chosen by the employer, delivered at little or no real cost.

The funding mechanism is clever, and it needed to be because the UK had an appallingly high tax burden already (unless you’re Starbucks, Amazon, or Apple, obviously…) Employers in England that have a pay bill in excess of £3 million per year will pay the apprenticeship levy from now on. This is charged at an additional 0.5% on salaries – a deductible expense for Corporation Tax purposes.

Registered companies can then spend their apprenticeship levy on training, developing home-grown talent for the future needs of the business. Imagine that!

Last week, I made another visit to the University of Cumbria, and met the second batch of students on the programme. It was March 29th: the day that the UK triggered Article 50, starting a two-year countdown on our exit from the European Union. Perhaps, in the new political landscape, companies of all kinds are going to need to focus on developing home-grown talent, instead of simply assuming that people with the skills we need can be bought in.

To make the most of the opportunities that higher apprenticeships present, companies need a suitable Trailblazer: a proposal from a group of employers that defines the degree apprenticeship standard for their sector, identifying the skills, knowledge and behaviours that are sought. I’m pleased to say that I’m involved in one such project, developing an apprenticeship standard for the Supply Chain Professional: if we’re successful, employers in England will be able to spend their levy on training that’s specifically tailored to their own needs.

I think this is the most exciting, most useful thing to happen to higher education in a very long time, and it may be that you want to join the revolution, too. Have a look at supplychain.org.uk for more information.

If this doesn’t work out, and students still need to fund their supply chain studies, Plan B involves a practical “logistics exercise”… and a building where I know for a fact that they’ve left half a million quid’s worth of art at the front.

Just sayin’…