Opinion: It’s only a boat

A tragedy of epic proportions has been unfolding before our eyes. A national treasure has been lost – a glorious piece of our maritime history – the ““Concorde of the waves” no less. A majestic ship, which for years ruled the South China Sea, as she conveyed to the nation that most essential of commodities – a nice cup of tea. But at the risk of becoming the most reviled person in the country, I have to say that I was not in the least bit upset to learn on Monday morning that the Cutty Sark had been burnt to a cinder.

Ironically, the old vessel was undergoing a “restoration” effort worth some £25 million, which seems like rather a lot of money to spend on a ship which was last sold for a mere £3,750 in 1922. Of the £25 million, £13 million came from the Heritage Lottery Fund or HLF. Since 1994, the HLF has awarded over £3.6 billion to more than 22,500 projects across Britain. Well I suppose that nobody is forcing anyone to buy a lottery ticket, but even so I thought it might be worth checking out a few items of expenditure.

Transport projects in general are well favoured by the HLF. More than £58 million has been awarded for over 70 old boats of various descriptions, including the Cutty Sark. More millions have gone on a variety of trams, trolley buses, and trains. But when I say trains, I mean more Thomas the Tank Engine rather than anything which is likely to convey you to a useful destination. Historic buildings have also been well endowed. For instance, £447,500 was awarded to conserve the Harrogate Turkish Baths – the perfect setting to unwind after a tense day at conference, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Of course churches always provide a wonderful opportunity to burn money, and so far over £392 million has been awarded for some 2,600 places of worship, including many that nobody actually wants to attend any more. But it’s good to know that they are being kept in top condition should the local community ever wish to resume ordering its life around some ancient superstition. An important recent announcement was the earmarking of £4.5 million for the conservation of Rosslyn Chapel. Fans of The Da Vinci Code will understand the cosmic significance of this site, housing as it does the secret archives of the Merovingian dynasty in a musty underground vault.

Wildlife conservation is another key beneficiary of HLF funding. Indeed some £806,000 has been awarded to help save what is possibly the most endangered species in Britain – the moth. Yes, you heard it right – the moth. Sir David Attenborough, who is heading up the campaign to save this annoying creature, has stated that unless we reverse the decline in moth population, then the consequences will be ““too dire to contemplate.” Richard Fox, also involved in the project, says, “we need people to love moths,” though he goes on to acknowledge that “currently there’s an image problem.” You bet there is. I look forward to their next campaign to save the highland midge.

Archaeology projects have benefited from some £120 million in total, including ££69 million to “interpret” archaeological sites. Wow, that sounds like a hell of a lot of interpretation. Another award to catch my eye was £990,000 to help work out where the Battle of Bosworth took place. Now I know what you’re thinking – it was at Bosworth, right? But that’’s not the point. The nigh on £1 million is going to pinpoint the precise location of the battlefield, which I’m sure is something we’ve all been dying to know for ages. Other lunacies in no particular order include £800,000 to restore Agatha Christie’s old house, £300,000 on a lighthouse, and £2 million for some allotments.

Look, I don’t want to sound like a total Philistine, and I’m sure that the Heritage Lottery Fund helps out many deserving causes, but there has to be a limit to the amount of old tat we might wish to preserve for future generations. Surely it would make sense, given how space is at such a premium, to allow a number of old buildings and churches to gently decay, before respectfully bulldozing them. And I simply cannot believe that we are seriously contemplating rebuilding the Cutty Sark even now. The mistake, surely, was to commence the exorbitant restoration process in the first place. Why did they even put out the fire? It would have been magnificent just to let it all go up in flames.

National pride has got to comprise something greater than being in possession of old ships with rigging and everything. Perhaps the sad demise of the Cutty Sark marks an appropriate moment to take stock of our collective sense of priorities, and to remind ourselves that the future is always more important than the past.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Neil Bradbury 27th May '07 - 3:07pm

    I know this is probably trying to be a bit provocative but I think the HLF does a great job. I think most people value our heritage and the amount spent by this quango is dwarfed into insignificance by the amounts spent by other lottery distributors, often much more innefficiently.

    When compared to the amount spent by developers on building new concrete boxes that are designed to be as cheap per square metre as possible this is a tiny contribution.

  • tony.ferguson 28th May '07 - 1:41am

    Their best project was the £25m spent on 87 miles of the Kennet and Avon Canal

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