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When the Cutty Sark went up in flames in May 2007, it looked like the end of the adventurous life of one of London s best-loved landmarks.
Permanently berthed in a purpose-built dry dock beside the Thames at Greenwich, she d been enjoying a useful retirement as a popular tourist attraction after a working life that began in 1870, crossing the world s oceans with cargos of tea, wine, spirits, beer, coal, jute, wool and castor oil. Sailing clippers were gradually put out of business by the arrival of steamships but the Cutty Sark hung on until 1922, the last of her breed to ply the waves.
The damage resulting from the conflagration, caused by an industrial vacuum that overheated, was extensive but, as it turned out, things could have been much worse.
As the ship was closed for conservation when the disaster occurred, many parts, including the masts, deckhouses, saloon and planking, had already been removed for storage at Chatham Historic Dockyard, so the ship was not after all, sunk. Five years later, in April 2012, she reopened to the public, splendidly restored. The Queen, who opened the Cutty Sark in 1957, gave a repeat performance, along with the Duke of Edinburgh, who back in the 50s, was instrumental in bringing the ship to Greenwich.
The reopening of the Cutty Sark marked the start of a high-profile summer for Greenwich, which will host the Olympic and Paralympic Equestrian competitions as well as the combined running and shooting event of the Modern Pentathlon.
Earlier this year the area was granted Royal Borough status and a number of local attractions the Cutty Sark included are now clustered proudly under the new appellation Royal Museums Greenwich.
That devastating fire had its compensations. The Cutty Sark s restoration programme, financed through a £25 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, augmented by support from other bodies including Greenwich Council and private donations, was far more extensive and innovative than was originally planned.
As well as preserving a substantial portion of the ship s original fabric, the scheme has raised the Cutty Sark 11 feet off the ground, allowing visitors to walk underneath and admire the elegant go-faster lines of her hull the secret of the clipper s success in the days when the tea trade involved reckless races from China to London, with the captain of the swiftest vessel in line for a substantial additional payout for delivering the first tea of the year.
The space beneath the ship has also made it possible to display the Cutty Sark s collection of more than 80 merchant navy figureheads in its entirety for the first time.
The carved wooden figures were positioned on the prow of sailing ships for decoration and to aid identification. Sailors, famously superstitious, took loving care of the figures, believing they represented the spirit of the vessel and protected her crew.
The collection was donated to the Cutty Sark Preservation Society in 1953 by a London businessman, Sydney Cumbers. Known as Captain Long John Silver on account of his eye patch, Cumbers liked to refer to his wife as the mate and kept the figureheads at his second home in Gravesend. The house, fitted out to resemble a ship, sheltered this motley crew of wooden characters from history, legend and literature, and this is why §Florence Nightingale, William Wilberforce, Hiawatha and Sir Lancelot are among those who, having escaped the flames in 2007, are now waiting to welcome visitors aboard.