The Cutty Sark will be unveiled by the Queen this week following a £50million restoration. £50million restoration. JO KESSEL is granted a sneak preview and finds the iconic clipper has benefit ....
IT WAS an awful irony.
Moments after I'd promised my then four-year-old twins that we'd visit Greenwich's famous 19th-century ship Cutty Sark, a news flash came on the television.
A fire was sweeping through the vessel with such ferocity that the resulting charred remains of this great London landmark had appeared unsalvageable.
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That was five years ago.
Mercifully only a tiny fraction of the ship's original fabric was lost in the flames and, following a £50million conservation, the 143-year-old British tea clipper is reopening to the public this Thursday.
Before visitors arrive, however, I'm privileged to be granted a look around.
It's instantly clear that this national treasure is not as she once was. Set in newly landscaped gardens, she now reigns even more supreme having been elevated 11ft off the ground.
"It's the only place in the world where you can stand underneath a ship," Richard Doughty, director of The Cutty Sark Trust tells me as we admire the copper alloy hull.
Its design was so innovative that it made her one of the speediest ships of her era, setting a record passage time of 73 days from Sydney to London in 1885. Doughty also points out an ingenious photo opportunity.
Stand beneath the bow holding up a finger and it looks as if the entire 963-ton ship is balancing on your digit.
The Cutty Sark was a working cargo ship, enduring high seas and heavy weather from 1869 until 1922.
She was built to ferry tea back from China (Twinings has created a special Cutty Sark brew) and on the lower deck there's a real taste of the Orient with bilingual English and Chinese signs, crates of tea chests and the aroma of Lapsang Souchong. "We wanted to create a multi-sensory experience," explains curator Jessica Lewis.
Interactive exhibits are set at angles, making it feel as if you're at sea and bringing to life how it was to be a sailor in Victorian times. You can see the food, try on sailors' clothes and even have a go at a simulated sailing of the ship.
Exhibits and films tell the story of the Cutty Sark's rich history and heritage. Tea wasn't her only cargo.
She carried buffalo horns, wool and whisky, visiting most major ports around the world. She negotiated icebergs. She suffered mutinies. Scars from her ordeals are visible, with buckling sections of framework and spots of corrosion but she's a hardy vessel.
"Not only is she the last ship of her kind but also what makes her so special is that you can touch and smell and feel her," adds Jessica. "She was designed to last 30 years and yet she's still here."
Stepping on to the top deck is a thrill. The three huge masts (supported by 11 miles of rigging) which make this ship such an iconic symbol, tower 152ft into the south-east London sky.
Pity the sailor who had to climb to the top, let alone those who scrubbed the shiny teak decks squeaky clean.
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let alone those who scrubbed the shiny teak decks squeaky clean. Perhaps it got too much for them.
One exhibit shows how many of them were "lost" at sea. Pushed or suicide? It's unclear but most of these young men were less than 20 years old. No such hardship for the captain.
Top deck also houses his plush living quarters, alongside more modest accommodation, including a crew cabin with tiny bunk beds and an external toilet cubicle housing its original WC.
BETTER still, the elevation of the ship means that the views from on board are even more impressive. To one side, the magnificent buildings of the Sir Christopher Wren-designed Old Royal Naval College and bustling Greenwich; to the other, the snaking Thames disappearing towards the distant, ever-evolving City of London skyline.
The Queen first unveiled Greenwich's Cutty Sark to the public back in 1957 and it seems fitting that this week, exactly 55 years to the day, Her Majesty will return to perform the honours once again.
he ship is looking serene, rightly returned to her former glory, her bottom half now encased in glass which will illuminate her at night.
Let's hope she is able to put her tumultuous past behind her, so she can survive for generations to come and so this mother can finally keep the promise made to two very patient children.
The Cutty Sark (020 8312 6608/ rmg.co.uk/cuttysark) reopens to the public on April 26.
Adults £12, children (five-15) £6.50. Family tickets from £20. Open from Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm.