London’s Open House Weekend 2012

Open House Weekend, a history geek’s dream & if you happen to be visiting London that weekend you’ve hit a bargain.

Being able to get inside some of London’s most loved buildings that normally we only can only gaze at from the outside, such as the Gherkin, St Pancras Hotel Lloyds of London, & the Guildhall (to name a few) as well as a whole host of smaller buildings, is a dream. It’s also a fascinating opportunity to see the inner workings of some of London’s greatest systems and landmarks… as I discovered.

So here’s a little review of my Open House Weekend 2012 experiences…

Old, new and a few surprises.

Old

Despite my intense OHW preparations, I missed a few minor details, like when I forced my sister out of bed at an unearthly hour on a Saturday morning to go and see a building that wasn’t even open until the Sunday (whoops). I also failed to read the description of the Roman Baths in too much depth, so my ‘Old’ became my disappointment. I was surprised and curious to  see some Roman baths listed in an area not particularly famous for its Roman remains. So  I was quite eager to see this one. But the Roman Bath hidden underneath a Kings College building just off the Strand turned out instead to be a ‘Tudor Bath’, with a quirky list of famous visitors  including the Dutch Queen and Charles Dickens (well David Copperfield, but I’m going to assume Mr Dickens visited for inspiration). There wasn’t a great deal else to see there admittedly,  but what stood out for me was the beautiful original Dutch tiling in the entrance hall, which I’m sure would have be very much to the Queen’s taste.

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I’ve recently been reading a lot about Mr John Nash and his contribution to shaping the London we know and love today. So I was quite keen to get to see inside Carlton Terrace down by Pall Mall. It’s another of those easily missed stunning London buildings (as is Senate House as you will discover if you read to the end 😉 Overlooking St James’s Park and the Mall its most impressive side (the beautiful columned frontage) is hidden well by the trees.  Carlton House (6-9)

Built by Nash as the end of his very long ‘New Street’ (currently Great Portland Street/Regents Street) it was built  for the Prince Regent to rent out to the very best of society, the elite of England.   These days its still owned by the Crown, and  houses among others The Royal Society.

Nash also designed the interior, so I was excited to see this as well. As with pretty much every building in London, the insides have been updated a great deal to meet 20th century tastes and technological criteria  this one still contains some quirky features of it’s original design  as well as that of its more recent inhabitants. 

You get the gist of what it would be like to be an elite tenant from the impressive lay out. There is a nice view of the park (great spot to watch the Olympics, looking out on to Horse Guards Parade – well it would if not for those pesky trees the swamping the view). 

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It has an spectacular library, done in a Italian renaissance style, by a previous Argentinean millionaire tenant, as well  as a stunning stairwell with a glamorous gold and black Tudor style ceiling.

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There’ is not much of Nash’s handiwork left on display, but I was lucky enough to be taken into a ‘staff only’ area on the tour, which was pure unadulterated Nash. It was also another great display of what it would be like to live there, (see the pictures).The Royal Society moved in in 1967 (having previously been housed in both the amazing Somerset house and Burlington House). They bought with them an impressive collection of portrait paintings 
including a young Einstein (his hair was still messy even then) and some quirky artifacts including Isaac Newton’s death mask!

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Another highlight of this visit was a painting over the grand staircase. During the year they moved into Carlton Terrace they had their first Australian President. A relative of Mr Florey gifted them with this impressive painting (about two stories high) which takes pride of place over the staircase. It’s size is impressive but also its content. It depicts the beautiful Burlington House overlooking a stunning London Skyline under (& I love this) an ‘Australian night sky’. Those are three of my favourite things 🙂 

 

London Skyline Painting 

Unfortunately my bag (albeit big) was not quite big enough to smuggle the picture out.

I would recommend a visit to Royal Society, they are open to the public during the week and here’s a shhhtopsecretlondon secret – the impressive library (overlooking St James’ Park) is open to the public during the week … study in style!

Surprise

Next on our tour was a building I’ve always loved from the outside, in fact if you’ve ever watched the news you’ve seen it. The Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, the national court of appeal. Those live news feeds, however, never show it in all it’s glory.  

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This beautiful Victorian Gothic building was built by Mr Edmund Street better known for his many Gothic churches across England. However stunning this is on the outside its also particularly stunning inside, but what I found more interesting were all the little surprises in store for Open House visitors

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When the prison guard asked me if I wanted to be locked in I thought he was joking, until I heard the cell door across the way slam shut. Yes, on this little tour you could run riot through every nook and cranny of the justice system, from being locked in the cells, to trying out the prison van (yes we’ve all seen the Serco vans wooshing by) or trying out the riot gear. 

We also got inside the courts. I’ve never considered the courts before, they are strictly ‘no photo’ zones, and on TV we only ever see the ‘artist impressions’ which focus more on the criminal than the room itself.   But the many court rooms are beautiful pieces or Victorian design, and sort of cosy; lots of wood paneling  book shelves of ancient laws (which the presenter told us they still refer to on a daily basis).  The 10 year old judge on this particular day (dressed in the red judges robe, and wig) seemed to approve of the humourous presentation the retired employee gave us.   Here in the courts they had numerous presentations of what actually went on in the courts. I loved that those running and helping out for the weekend were the ones that actually worked there day in day out. It was a fascinating morning.

Art Deco & Batman

Going forward a few years into the 1930s, was a visit to one of my most favourite buildings in London, one of the unknown landmarks of London, Senate House. I love this building, it’s tall, imposing and very impressive, in its hey day it was the tallest building in London and would have stood out across the London Skyline in the same way the Shard does today. Yet strangely today it’s quite forgotten and lost, most people I know have never even heard about it.

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Built for, and still belonging to, the University of London, this building was part of a grand plan to consume Bloomsbury (had it been completed it would have been a mighty impressive, expansive building stretching from the British Museum all the way to Euston Road (massive). The plans represented a world wide prestigious seat of learning, as well providing a hub of London life, grand plans in deed. However, the grand plans proved grandly expensive and in the end only a small section was built.  Fortunately for us it the most impressive section, that of the main Senate Tower.

I’ve always been impressed and in awe of this building (I used to work opposite and walked past it every day) but what is inside in equally impressive as its imposing art deco outside. In fact you might of seen it in one of its many Hollywood appearances, most recently Batman, Dark Knight Rises, which is not surprising as this one would look very at home in Gotham.

 

Art Deco Senate House

As you walk in you’re greeted with a grand marble entrance hall with a equally grand staircase. Our tour took us up to the main Chancellor rooms on the first floor. What impressed me most of all though was the way the original features had been preserved so well, despite being updated for a 21st century techo world – in contrast to Carlton House.  But also the quality of the original features. No pennies were spared on the the quality of this one (perhaps that’s why they ran out of money so quickly, but also perhaps why it is preserved so well).  For example their heating system is still the original, and generators for the building were only replaced a few years ago.

This building also has an extensive library which fills the higher levels of the Tower and offer amazing views of London (which sadly we weren’t able to see on this tour).

The building has always and still operates as the administrative hub of the University of London, however during the war the government took it over and it was used as the headquarters for Ministry of Information. Journalists of the day and those involved would often camp out here for days on end. When it was hit by bombing the quality of the build proved its worth and the building was barely touched, and those inside barely noticed.  It was also during this time that a young George Orwell was inspired by Senate House in writing his famous Nineteen Eighty Four.

Perhaps my favourite story about Senate House (although my tour guide would not verify this one) was that during the blitz, Hilter had his eye on this building as his future UK head quarters and gave specific instructions to his bombers to steer clear of damaging this one. Strangely (& knowing what I know about Hitler and his design plans for Berlin) this one would have looked very at home in his grand building collection.

My advice is to wander over to Bloomsbury and take a look at this Senate House, it’s mighty impressive and sadly forgotten these days.

New

Probably the most interesting of my OHW experiences was this one, and despite having to queue in the pouring rain for over an hour curiosity got the better of me. A nose at the Cross Rail Bond Street site . A future and epic building project in the heart of busy London using some very old technology (Mr Brunel would have been quite impressed by it all). 

Living and working in central London  I go past many of the Cross Rail development sites every day, so I was fascinated to see exactly what’s going on underground while we go about our busy lives. This particular visit centered around the new Bond Street Station (for Cross rail). Currently they’ve built the shell of the two main station areas, which we got to look into. To be honest not much to see, just a big (organised) hole in the ground about 8 stories deep. But what was impressive was the technology of building this big hole, not entirely different to the way the Victorians did it.

The big tunneling machine, works at a slow pace (understandably, you would too if you weighed 1000 tonnes)  and Ada (yes ‘Ada’ – the machines were named by the public in a competition at the start of the project) Ada is due to reach Bond Street at Christmas – no doubt she wants to stop off and do some Christmas shopping. But I find it fascinating that all this is going on under our feet with minimal disruption to the roads and daily London life. We will have to wait until 2018 to see the finished product but I’m told that we will get an opportunity to see an update at OHW 2013.

One of the most interesting/quirky facts I learned at this visit was some of the discoveries they’ve made whilst digging, unearthing among other things a Mamouth’s jaw!! Just a reminder of the rich heritage of thousands and thousands of years that lies beneath our feet.

And Open House Weekend is another reminder of exactly this, and it gives us a great chance to explore that heritage both old and new.   But don’t forget there is ample opportunity to explore it all year round, and I hope through my blogg and tweets that you will find the opportunities and be inspired to go beyond the facades and discover all London has to offer.  

You can find out more about Open House at http://www.londonopenhouse.org/