Where as my Open House London Saturday excursions were based exclusively in central London, my plan for Sunday involved travelling many more miles. Crystal Palace was a long way to travel to see a disused pedestrian subway, but the length of the queue when I arrived was an indication of how much interest this curious venue had generated among the Open House faithful. Indeed, Crystal Palace Subway occupies a special place in the hearts of many locals, who have established a trust – the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway – which aims to one day open it to the public on a permanent basis. Built on the 1860s beneath Crystal Palace Parade to connect two railway stations serving the newly opened Crystal Palace, Charles Barry designed a space that could both accommodate and impress a high amount of passenger traffic. But after the Palace burned down in 1936, passenger numbers dropped dramatically, and both the stations and Barry’s subway were closed in the 1950s.
Even in its decaying form, complete with rusted light fittings with severed cables drooping down from them, the subway is a wonderful space. If anything, seeing like this, and trying to picture what it looked like when it first opened – aglow with electric light and full of excited Victorian Londoners flocking to see the Crystal Palace – added to my enjoyment of it. If find myself wondering what it could be used for, if the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway are successful in raising the kind of cash to restore it and make it fit for public use, though one thing I am sure of is that children absolute love it. I had noticed a lot of them in the queue and thought it rather odd that their parents had brought them to see an old Victorian ruin, but quickly realised the subway’s appeal once I saw them running around chasing each other, hiding behind the octagonal pillars and making full use of the echoey acoustics by yelling and screaming a lot.
Next on my list was a venue that has long been popular during Open House weekend, and which I anticipated a very long queue – the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The queue was indeed very long, but given how large the building is and how constant the flow of people entering was, I waited probably only forty or so minutes. And such was the scale and grandeur of the building, it took up most of my afternoon.
The Foreign Office have been taking part in Open House London for a number of years, and really embrace the opportunity to not just show off their premises, but educate and inform visitors as to what work the foreign office actually does. Dunbar Court, the spectacular glass-roofed courtyard built as the centrepiece of the India office, just full of foreign office staff manning information stalls, all about the various aspects of the foreign office’s role in both governing the country and selling it abroad, giving the feel of a conference. The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, kept popping up on television screen shot, welcoming in us into rooms. And visitors were even encouraged to look out for -and tweet pictures of – Palmerston, the foreign office cat. And while I myself did not see Palmerston, I spotted a number of knitted toy mice dotted about the building. There were even Palmerston mugs for sale.
From the sumptuous, palatial grand staircase and the Lecarno Suite rooms (named after the treaty that was signed in them in 1925), to the fire safety notices and smell of coffee in the corridors, I came away with the feeling I had seen the building from all angles. I can imagine what it must be like both to visit as a foreign ambassador or diplomat, and to actually work there. In this sense, at least, Open House has furnished me with an experience markedly different to visiting a museum, or a historic building usually open to the public.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is certainly the place I would recommend to any Open House goer if they haven’t already been, and I would suggest leaving aside the best part of a day to take it all in. Somehow I think the Treasury – which I fully intend to visit next year – will struggle to compete.
Come the end of my Open House Sunday, much like the day before, I was able to make an impromptu visit to a nearby building just before it closed, in this case Admiralty House. Tucked in between Horse Guard’s and the Admiralty Building, Admiralty House is very easy to miss as its Whitehall facade has a pillared screen (designed by Robert Adam, and decorated with sea creatures and ships) in front of it. Built in 1785, it served as the London home of the First Lord of the Admiralty (most famously, in two separate spells, Winston Churchill). When 10 Downing Street was extensively refurbished in the 1960s, Harold MacMillan also lived here, and it was in the music room that, on 13th July 1962 – the so-called ‘night of the long knives’ – he sacked half of his cabinet.
My quick nose around Admiralty House’s elegant suite of rooms – photography not permitted – drew my second day of Open House to a close. There probably hasn’t been a single weekend where I learnt as much as I did at my first Open House London. From buildings I never thought I would ever see the inside of, to buildings I had not even heard of, yet again London was able to surprise, delight and enthral me. I had made a list of twelve buildings I wanted to visit, and made it only to eight, but I was by no means disappointed. After all, there’s always next year. And another seven-hundred odd buildings to choose from. So I’d better start whittling it down now!