Open House London has become a regular fixture for many of the London historians, museum efininados, exhibition regulars and lovers of all things London whose blogs and Twitter accounts I follow. And this was the year that I finally got to join the party.
For those that don’t know, Open House London sees hundreds of buildings across the capital open their doors to the public, for free, for one weekend a year. And while many are already public buildings or museums that are open all year round, a great number are only accessible to the public for this one special event, such as the government buildings of Whitehall (with 10 Downing Street even taking part for its first Open House this year). With more than seven hundred venues to choose from – from historic townhouses to skyscrapers, from palaces to pumping stations and from warehouses to libraries – there really is something for everyone. And for those aforementioned enthusiasts, the name of the game is to try and squeeze in as many venues as possible inside the two days.
Perhaps understandably for a first-timer, I was slow getting to work in my planning for the weekend, and as such missed out on just about all of the places that required either a pre-booked tour or entry into a ballot (10 Downing St allowed in only a lucky two hundred). So I was left to make do with those venues that required only turning up on the day, and braced myself for some long queues.
I headed first for Horse Guards, joining the already considerable queue stretched out across Horse Guards Parade about twenty minutes before first entry, at 10am on Saturday morning. With groups of only twenty at a time being shown around, it was over an hour before I got in, during which time I saw many people – map and trusty Open House guide in hand – give up and dash off to their next destination. But the entertaining and informative guided tour was well worth the wait, conducted by a member of the London District of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, whose headquarters – together with the Household Cavalry – has been Horse Guards since 1904.
Before that, the building served as the Office for the Commander in Chief of the Forces. Replacing an earlier, 17th century building, it was designed by William Kent and subsequently completed, after his death, by his assistant John Vardy in 1756. For all its Georgian elegance, it’s a rather small and modestly decorated building on the inside. Mind you, I can imagine fewer offices more splendid than that of the Commander in Chief himself, with its huge window overlooking Horse Guards Parade, and the desk used by the Duke of Wellington when he held the post. My highlight, though, was the curious little room in the basement that was once used as a cock pit, and kept drunk and rowdy soldiers entertained each evening in the building’s early years.
With my hopes of reaching the Gherkin before its midday closure dashed even before my tour of Horse Guards had begun – Twitter provided a useful means of gauging how long people had been queuing – I decided to head next for Guildhall. Constructed in the fifteenth century, on the site of an earlier Saxon guildhall and an even earlier Roman amphitheatre, it is the only surviving medieval building in the City of London that isn’t a church. Once the seat of power of the Lord Mayor of London, today its serves as the headquarters of the City of London corporation, and hosts an annual banquet attended by the Prime Minister and Chancellor.
To my surprise, the original building consists not just of a magnificent great hall, but of a fabulous recently-restored crypt underneath, and later additions such as the Livery Hall and Old Library, designed by Horace Jones (of Tower Bridge and Leadenhall Market fame). The roof of the great hall, meanwhile, has been rebuilt and restored many times over. The original vaulted roof was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and replaced with a flat roof, which in turn was replaced by a new vaulted roof, designed by Horace Jones, to mimic the medieval original. But then, on the most destructive night of bombing of the Blitz, the so-called Second Great Fire of London, Guildhall’s roof was once again destroyed, before its current roof was constructed in the 1950s.
Much like Guildhall, Barnard’s Inn Hall is another of London’s great survivors, albeit considerably smaller, much less famous, and tucked away down a narrow alley where almost no tourist could find it. I arrived just in time for a lecture all about the history of both the building and the institution that is now based there, Gresham College.
Barnards Inn Hall is one of few surviving buildings that once made up the Inns of Chancery, which began in the Middle Ages as schools for the solicitors and barristers that went on to work in the nearby Inns of Court. Over time, the Inns of Court took over responsibility of law students’ education and accommodation, and while some of the Inns of Chancery’s buildings went on to be used as offices of the Inns of Court, most had been demolished by the early twentieth century. Barnard’s Inn managed to escape this fate thanks to it being bought by the Mercer’s Company, who established the Mercer’s School on the premises, before it finally become the home of Gresham College in 1991. It was far west enough – on the outskirts of London – to escape the Great Fire of 1666, but was badly damaged during the Gordon Riots of 1780 (a neighbouring gin distillery was set alight by rioters). And along with numerous repairs over the centuries, there were comprehensive restorations in both the Tudor period and the twentieth century. But the arched timber beams in the roof are, we were assured, original. Dating back to the fourteenth century, they were removed and put back during the most recent restoration. And there’s even a small piece of exposed old brickwork in the basement that’s thought to be from an earlier Anglo-Saxon building that once stood on the site.
Gresham College has a fascinating history all of its own, tracing its roots back to 1597 and the will of Thomas Gresham, the wealthy merchant who had founded the Royal Exchange. He left half of his considerable fortune to the foundation of an institution dedicated to free education, which began life in his mansion in Bishopsgate. Gresham College now hosts around 140 free lectures every year, and while Barnards Inn Hall is a fabulous setting if you do visit in person, the lectures are streamed live online and an extensive archive of past lectures is available on the college web site. I think Thomas Gresham would be thrilled if he knew that the lectures hosted by his college can now reach an audience of millions spanning the globe.
Next on my list was the Queen’s Chapel, adjacent to St James’s Palace (not to be confused with the Chapel Royal, located inside St James’s Palace). It may look like a typical neo-classical church, not unlike one of the great many built by Christopher Wren in the years following the Great Fire of London, but the Queen’s Palace would have looked far from typical when it was built, between 1623 and 1625. Designed by Inigo Jones, it was one of the first neo-classical buildings in Britain (along with Jones’s other creations built around the same time, the Queen’s House in Greenwich and Banqueting House in Whitehall). And it was not just the architecture that was radical. It was built as a Roman Catholic chapel for Charles I’s catholic wife, Henrietta Maria of France, even when Catholic churches were prohibited. After the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent barring of Catholics from the British throne, it became a Lutheran church known as ‘the German Chapel’, before returning to royal ownership in 1938.
No photography was permitted inside the Queen’s Chapel, or in the final building I visited that day, Marlborough House. Strangely, for such a grand house, complete with a large lawn and gardens at the rear, Marlborough House is hidden away somewhat, behind a row of buildings on Pall Mall. And instead of the long, straight driveway that you might expect, it is approached via a road that winds itself round the back of the Queen’s chapel and enters an enclosed courtyard.
Marlborough House was built by Christopher Wren in the early eighteenth century for the 1st Duke of Marlborough, who had its interior walls covered in paintings of the Battle of Blenheim. Clearly, the Duke didn’t so much as want to remind visitors of the famous victory that he led over the French – to which he owed his title and estate – but to ram it down their throats. The paintings cover whole walls, wrapping themselves around entire rooms and completely dominating the staircase. I suspect that the Duke spoke of little else but the Battle of Blenheim when entertaining his guests, regaling them with tales of his heroism whilst giving them a tour of the house. It remained the London residence of the Dukes of Marlborough for the two hundred years, before becoming the family home of Edward, Prince of Wales (future Edward VII) and his wife Alexandra (who returned to live there after her husband’s death in 1910). Their daughter-in-law Queen Mary (wife of George V) also lived there after the death of her husband. Today it serves as the office of the Commonwealth Secretariat, and hosts summits of Commonwealth heads of state. For Open House, The central meeting room had been set up to look like a summit was about to take place, complete with each country’s table cards and little flags placed around the long table.
It turns out that I had made it to Marlborough House in the nick of time, and as I made my way around as the numerous Open House volunteers were getting ready to close up. I ended up being the very last visitor to leave (number two-thousand and something, I recall a man with an electronic counter saying to me as I departed).
And so brought an end to my first day of Open-House-Londoning. What a fantastic day of exploration and discovery it had been. And the best part was, I still had Sunday to look forward to (more to follow!)