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Rising from the Ashes: the rebirth of the Cutty Sark

They’re peeling the wrapping paper off of one of London’s best-loved and most iconic landmarks this week, the Cutty Sark, which was damaged almost beyond recognition in a fire five years ago and is due to rise from the dead this Wednesday, April 25, when the Queen heads down to Greenwich to cut the ribbon.

Greenwich is my manor – I was born and brought up in the neighbourhood – so the Cutty Sark has an extra resonance for me: it was the place you were taken to on school trips, and its towering masts and graceful hull were the backdrop to many a misdeed in a mis-spent youth. It’s not an ancient ship, like the Victory or Mary Rose, but the three-masted clipper ship was a state-of-the-art vessel when it was launched in 1869, built to an innovative, iron-framed design that enabled it to break all records between London and Sydney.  She was brought to Greenwich in 1954 and was in fact already being restored when the fire broke out. The good news was that a lot of original artefacts had already been removed from the ship. The bad news: they would need to raise even more money to complete the restoration and the total cost is now reckoned to be in the region of £50 million.

Now, I haven’t been on board yet, and the jury seems to be out so far on whether this was money well spent, but it’s certainly different from the Cutty Sark I once knew. Perhaps the most significant difference is the fact that the ship is now supported by a series of steel buttresses, raising it up by 3m to give access to the hull, which they have made the focus of the new glass visitor centre that surrounds the ship. This inevitably spoils the Cutty Sark’s looks from a distance – and of course is designed to entice you in rather than let you admire it from the outside. But, who knows, it may make for a more exciting interaction close-up, and for the first time you can view the collection of restored and repainted figureheads they have displayed inside. On board the ship, they have tried to make everything look utterly authentic, ‘as if the crew had just gone ashore’ – a tough task given the hi-tech lifts and staircases they’ve also installed, but I’m looking forward to getting on board and having a look for myself. Regardless of whether they really needed all the bells and whistles, at least the ship will survive for a few more generations to remember. Check out this sneak preview.