Forget dour. Those Victorians were a colourful lot. Pink and gold railings, 1,100 sq ft of glittering mosaics... you'll need shades when you visit the restored Albert Memorial, warns Aleks Sierz.
High above London, 200 feet up in fact, there's a view of the city that only a privileged few have ever seen: across the road is the mighty dome of the Royal Albert Hall, behind me the stately lawns and flower beds of Kensington Gardens, while beneath my feet lies a unique piece of Victorian history, risen spectacularly from the dead.
The Albert Memorial, for so it is, had for many years been dirty and unloved, barely worth a second glance. When a large chunk of it slid off in 1983, the whole thing was bandaged up in cladding and scaffolding, until Sir Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, decided to give it a makeover five years ago.
The cosmetic surgery is now complete, and after pound;11 million and the meticulous attention of 150 experts using everything from ancient crafts to state-of-the-art lasers (the first time they've been used to clean a monument), we have a memorial that tells us a surprising amount about the spirit of the Victorian age.
Just before the cladding came off last autumn, English Heritage allowed me this rare peek to see at close hand the spectacular transformation. My guide is Alasdair Glass, senior project director in charge of restoration. "Buildings are like documents," he says. "You have to learn how to read them." With an edifice as intricate as this one, you also need to decipher them. So what does it tell us about our past?
Albert, the adored consort of Queen Victoria, succumbed to typhoid fever in 1861 at the relatively young age of 42. George Gilbert Scott was the man charged with creating a suitable memorial. He rose to his task. "No one had built anything quite like it," says Glass. "It was at the cutting edge of Victorian architecture." When Queen Elizabeth removed the final wrappings last October, it was the first time in 84 years that the monument appeared as it did when Scott built it.
From these privileged close quarters, I can see the fabulous detail of the mosaic work and gilding. "The Victorians loved colour," says Glass. Our impression of a dour Albert Memorial is a result of decades of pollution and the efforts of the War Office, which in 1914 painted the statue black to avoid the attention of zeppelins.
"It would have been impractical and vastly too expensive to restore the monument exactly," says Glass. Instead, he and his team have produced a synthesis of colours and crafts to recreate the original effect without slavishly following it.
First, the spire had to be dismantled in 6,000 pieces before it could be repaired and refitted. Then, the gullies and downpipes had to be redesigned. About 150 specialists - including Cavaliere Giovanni Cucco, chief mosaicist of St Mark's in Venice, who tackled the 1,100 square feet of mosaics - were employed. For many of the younger restorers, the work was an educational experience as they learned new skills. And beneath all that grime was a riot of Victorian exuberance.
Glass says the best way to understand the memorial is to study its visual clues methodically, from the ground upwards. First there's the granite, and pink and gold railings, "very over-the-top, very colourful". Albert was a patron of the arts and sciences, and his memorial reflects the Victorian world view.
At the corners are four large statues that represent the continents. The group around a sleepy-looking elephant is Asia and illustrates the enduring Victorian fascination with all things exotic. Africa is portrayed by a sphinx and camel from Egypt, then a British colony. America is epitomised by a buffalo and native American indian. And if you are puzzled by the figure of a bull in Europe, you have to cast your mind back to the myths of Ancient Greece, when Europa was carried off by Zeus, who had transformed himself into a bull.
Four further statues that anchor the monument symbolise the industrial arts such as engineering and manufacturing. They are there to remind us that Britain was once the "workshop of the world".
Between these runs the Parnassus Frieze, a marble masterpiece that shows 169 "great men" of the arts. Scott was the only living artist to be included. "Apparently, Queen Victoria insisted on it," says Glass.
As your eyes move up, other details come into sharper focus. No, that's not just any old classic muse - it's Poetry, as you can see from her lyre. And next to her is King David, whose Psalms were seen as the start of sacred poetry. Sciences such as geometry, armed with a compass, and astronomy, who wears a band of stars,also appear.
As you look higher, human virtues and angels float into view. Faith, Hope, Charity and Humility - the Victorian way of teaching morals - are joined by killjoy statues such as Prudence and Temperance. Finally, the religious education is complete with the figures of angels, some waving farewell to life, others reaching up to heaven.
The Albert Memorial would make an excellent self-contained teaching resource. All its statues are full of symbolic detail and loaded with messages about what the Victorians thought about themselves and about their priorities and values.
"We wanted to build a permanent visitors' centre in the vaults beneath the memorial," says Glass, "but we didn't get the Lottery funding." Until a new application is made, teachers will have to use Chris Brooks's, The Albert Memorial, published by English Heritage and the Victorian Society.
When it comes to savouring a monument as complex as the Albert Memorial, education remains of prime importance. Glass says: "If the memorial is understood, it can be appreciated, and if it is appreciated, it won't be allowed to fall into decay again."
'The Albert Memorial' by Chris Brooks, pound;4.95 from English Heritage postal sales, tel: 01604 781163 (quote code FB9922). For a teacher's leaflet 'On the Trail of Albert', phone English Heritage education service, tel: 0171 973 3434
* VIVA VICTORIANA!
Victoria and Albert Museum London Began in 1857 by a team led by Royal Engineer Capt Francis Fowke. The foundation stone of the Cromwell Road block was laid by Queen Victoria in1900 - her last public appearance. Tel: 0171 938 8638.
Osborne House Isle of White. Queen Victoria's residence after the death of her husband. Built in 1845-52 by Thomas Cubitt, it's a beautiful, private summer palace. Tel: 01983 200022.
SS Great Britain Bristol. The first iron-hulled ship, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1843. Tel: 0117 929 1843.
Houses of Parliament, London. Built in 1840-60 by Charles Barry and decorated by Pugin, the "Mother of Parliaments" is a neo-Gothic `` masterpiece.Tel: 0171 219 2105.
Broadsworth Hall Yorkshire, Home of the The llusson banking family, on whose legal wrangles Charles Dickens based his novel 'Bleak House'. It was built in 1861 by Chevalier Casentini. Tel: 01302 722598.
National Railway Museum York. Great for the magnificentrailway heritage of the Victorians, including George and Robert Stephenson's Rocket.Tel: 01904 621261.
The Town Hall Manchester. The pride of the industrial north, where King Cotton ruled, the town hall is a soaring 1870s neo-gothic pile, built by Alfred Waterhouse, which oozes civic pride from every brick. Tel: 0161 234 3157.
Cardiff Castle Cardiff. Between 1868 and 1900, the third Marquess of Bute and William Bruges decorated this Norman castle with colourful fantasy landscapes illustrating such popular themes as "time".Tel: 01222 878100.
St George's Hall Liverpool. Built in 1842-55 by Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, this neo-classical edifice symbolises the great trading wealth and middle-class entrepreneurship of Liverpool. Tel: 0151 707 2391.
Royal Courts of Justice London. Edward Street's imposing neo-gothic palace was opened by Queen Victoria in 1882. Tel: 0171 936 6