It is the ship that has literally risen from the ashes. In nine days' time, (April 25) the Queen will reopen the Cutty Sark after a £50 million conservation project that has saved the world's last-remaining tea clipper.
The 143-year-old Grade-I listed vessel, which was nearly destroyed by fire in 2007, has been raised 3.3 metres off the ground to allow visitors to walk underneath and witness the dramatic contours that made it the fastest merchant sailing ship of its era.
"It's rather like that moment when you see the blue whale floating above you in the Natural History Museum," said Richard Doughty, director of the Cutty Sark Trust. "I think everyone is going to want to have their picture taken 'holding the ship up' with their finger, in the same way they have their photo taken 'holding up' the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
"This is a world-class solution for a world-class ship in a World Heritage Site. This is going to be one of Lomdon's top attractions. People are going to want to come and see what we have achieved here."
The ship, which first set sail in 1869, has its bottom half encased in a stunning glass canopy, akin to the Great Court at the British Museum. This creates the pretence of it floating upon waves, and opens up a giant visitor space under the keel. The 280ft long hull has been restored in gold-coloured muntz metal, a copper and zinc alloy. The ship will be illuminated at night, creating a Thames landmark visible from across the river at Canary Wharf.
"It just looks fantastic," Mr Doughty said. "We have got this long, narrow hull with a very sharp cutting edge. This is the most significant thing about the Cutty Sark. That is what enabled her to achieve the speed. She could do 17.5 knots fully laden with cargo. That is why they are called clippers, because they could go at a clip. She could cover over 300 miles in a day at sea."
Cutty Sark made her name bringing tea from China and wool from Australia. One voyage from Sydney to London was completed in a then record 73 days. To mark the reopening, Twinings is producing two Cutty Sark teas that will be sold in the new cafe. A "choir" of 80 replica figureheads from merchant ships lost at sea, plus Cutty Sark's own original Nannie figurehead - from the Robert Burns' poem Tam O'Shanter that gave the ship her name - has been assembled under the bow.
Interactive displays will recreate life in 1869, when the ship first set sail, and tell of its long history. Sold to Portugal in 1895, it returned to British ownership in 1922 and was first unveiled at Greenwich by the Queen in 1957. It will be hired out for private functions, from weddings to banquets for 300 people, with the aim of generating sufficient income to build a fund for the ship's future conservation.
The long battle to preserve Cutty Sark began in earnest in 2001 after the Maritime Trust failed to win Lottery backing for a separate £5 million restoration project.
The Cutty Sark Trust devised a much more ambitious £25 million conservation-led project and set about raising funds. Work began in 2006 but was hit by two major crises - a fire in 2007 and the subsequent discovery that the ship's dry dock was rotting and needed to be rebuilt. The latter delayed the reopening by a year.
The Heritage Lottery Fund agreed to increase its donation from £13 million to £25 million - the most given for a single project - while former P&O executive chairman Lord Sterling gathered donations from the great and good, such as Sammy Ofer and Alisher Usmanov, the Russian billionaire and Arsenal shareholder, who gave £3 million.
Greenwich council leader Chris Roberts was instrumental in securing about £7 million of local authority finance after realising what a boost a reborn Cutty Sark would provide to London's new royal borough. Some 250,000 paying visitors a year are now anticipated. The ship will open to the public on April 26, the day after the Queen's visit. Adult tickets cost £12. Family tickets will cost £29.
The Duke of Edinburgh, who has supported Cutty Sark since 1951, when plans were launched to bring her to Greenwich, hosted dinners for supporters at Buckingham Palace, St James's Palace and Windsor Castle.
Despite surrendering many patronages on his 90th birthday last year, Philip chose to remain president of the Cutty Sark Trust. "He has had a major role in this project," Mr Doughty said. "Most famously, he came the day after the fire. He was concerned at what had happened and what could be done to save the ship. He was also down just before the lift took place in May last year."
Surviving on-board features are clearly delineated, in white paint, from the new additions, which are painted grey. About 90 per cent of the hull has survived. Much of the deck was lost in the fire, while many teak timbers had to be restored. Some 24 iron struts link to 12 metal beams that support the superstructure of the ship, which had been collapsing in on itself as it sat rotting in the dry dock.
"This is a world first," Mr Doughty said. "There is nowhere else in the world you can walk underneath a sailing ship." The interior will smell of tea - it would typically carry enough tea leaves for 200 million cups of tea - while animations will recreate the sensation of the ship rocking on the ocean. "We want to assault the senses when you come in," Mr Doughty said.
The Queen will reopen the ship from the monkey fo'c's'le deck beside the bow, from which the full "wow factor" of its new elevated position can be appreciated - overlooking the Thames and a new public square being built by Greenwich council. Up to 300 workers a day have been working round he clock for the last six weeks to get Cutty Sark ready in time for the royal unveiling.
"Overwhelmingly, the ship has been saved by the public," Mr Doughty said. "They have done it because they have bought into the vision we had for the ship.
"We had huge numbers of donations being given after the fire, including postal orders, cheques from pensioners and children's pocket money. I still get choked by it.
"I'm really, really proud to have got to this stage. We have made compromises as we have gone along but the burning ambition we had to raise this ship, to conserve her and ensure she can stick around for the next 50 years, has been realised."