The Best of Open House London – 2017 Highlights
If you’ve never been part of Open House London before, then mark 22-23 September 2018 in your diary now. Over 800 buildings are open for the public – for free – to snoop around and last weekend I did the usual rushing across the city to try and see as much as possible!
These were my favourite Open House discoveries this year.
Foreign and Commonweath Office
A firm favourite of Open House each year, The FCO was voted no.8 of Open House highlights from the last 25 years.
The Foreign Office as a job has existed since 1782 but the current offices on Whitehall were completed in stages in the late 19th century. As well as the history and proximity to power, people mostly queue for…
The Stunning Interiors
The Durbar Court, heart of the former India Office and built in 1866 by M D Wyatt. If you’re thinking the roof looks familiar, Wyatt also worked on St Paddington Station, in fact he was a big fan of trains;
Instead of swinging open, the windows slide on ‘train’ wheels!
The Grand Lorcano Reception Room, used as the Cabinet Room since the late 19th century. It’s recently undergone a huge renovation project after the elaborately patterned ceiling was painted over in the 1920s.
The Grand Staircase fits the building’s description as ‘a kind of national palace, or drawing room for the nation’.
For me it was The Muses Stair was the real showstopper. Portland stone Goddesses of plenty support an octagonal glass lantern, leading visitors up to the former Office of the Secretary for India.
An if none of that appeals, perhaps you’ll be interested in the other highlight.
A Famous Cat
No visit is complete without catching sight of Palmerston, the official Foreign Office cat. Though he doesn’t look it here, Palmerston has swept the floor with his rival Larry (at neighbouring 10 Downing Street) killing over 30 mice since he moved here in 2016. Larry apparently prefers to play with the mice then let them go.
Politically thrilling stuff!
Inigo Jones’ classical masterpiece wasn’t actually on my list to visit this year, but finding myself on Whitehall was a spare 30 minutes meant a quick visit to one of London’s best ceilings.
It was once part of Whitehall Palace – the largest in Europe with over 1500 rooms! The Banqueting House is the only survivor of a huge fire in 1698 and used to host Court masques, State receptions and entertainments.
The panels are by Peter Paul Rubens and are the only surviving in-situ ceiling paintings by him. They were installed in 1636 but had to be drastically altered after they discovered Belgium and England had very different measurements for a ‘foot’, thankfully, you could never guess now!
Banqueting house is open for visitors all year round and tickets are £6.50 (£5.50 concessions). Find out more here.
House of St Barnabas
I pre-booked a tour of ‘The House of Charity’ back in August, with no idea what to expect. But I had always wondered about this brick building on the corner of Soho Square.
The listed Georgian Townhouse is today a private members club, with a stunning mix of authentic interiors and contemporary art.
Old and New
In this room the 18th century details are complemented by paintings inspired by Crossrail, whose tunnels pass straight under this house. Thought, thankfully, they haven’t disturbed its fragile frame!
Not something you expect to find in crowded Soho, this delightfully peaceful garden is walled off from the surrounding noise. A true oasis in the heart of London!
Another pre-booked tour I would highly recommend was a visit this former palace on The Mall.
Appearing rather plain from outside, the interior is a whole other story…
Owned by succession of wealthy aristocratic families, Lancaster House is today owned by the Foreign Office and used for government hospitality – events, conferences etc – but also lots of filming.
It regularly used as a stand-in for Buckingham Palace on film, so if it looks familiar you may have seen it in The Kings Speech or either of the current TV series; Victoria and The Crown.
Sadly, they don’t arrange regular tours – put it on your list for next September! The building can be hired for events. I’m guessing it’s not that affordable though…
The Royal Society
A nearby gem that I didn’t have to prebook was another townhouse overlooking The Mall, a building that was once the German Embassy.
Founded in 1662, and given a charter by Charles II, the society supported scientists; sponsoring expeditions, funding experiments and publishing research. They moved to this address; 6-9 Carlton House Terrace in 1967.
They host occasional events which you can find out about on their website here. But I have to admit I was a bit distracted by their wonderful ceiling!
Abbey Mills Pumping Station
My last stop of the day was somewhere that’s been on my list for ages.
Having visited Crossness Pumping Station last year (read about that ‘Cathedral of Sewage’ here) I was determined to visit Abbey Mills, near me in Stratford.
The sewage pumping station in Newham, didn’t have to be this pretty.
It was part of the London sewerage system developed by Joseph Bazalgette in the mid-19 century. This particular plant had the job of ‘lifting’ the sewage from low-lying streets (usually the pipes are helped via gravity). This station along with one in Chelsea are the only two on the network that do the job.
In Victorian times, building for an industrial purpose didn’t mean you had to scrimp on style. Abbey Mills was designed by Charles Driver, who specialised in railways.
It’s created with a mix of six different architectural styles, ranging from Italian venetian, Celtic and French Gothic.
The phrase, ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ comes to mind…
As it’s a working site, visits to the pumping station are few and far between. Other than pre-booking for Open House, Thames Water also host London Sewer Week (yes, it’s a thing).
I’m afraid the bad news is, when I contacted their press team they said the last one in May just gone had a TWO YEAR waiting list and they don’t really advertise it any more. Who would’ve thought rubbish would be so popular?!
More London Inspiration
The oldest democracy in the world, based in a building with parts from the 11th century. If only those walls could talk. Thankfully, with the help of a Parliament guide they sort of do. Here's 10 things I learned from a guided tour of Parliament....
Often listed as one of the greenest cities in the world, London is blessed with 8 Royal Parks and surrounded by woodland. However, I've made a list of the more esoteric green places to visit in central London, spots with an interesting tale or simply in an unexpected place....
Concerned by Hanging Sword Alley in EC4? Intrigued by Knightrider Street? Or tempted by Wardrobe Place? There are the best street names in the city and they each have a story to tell....
There's 47 churches within London's square mile. Each with their own history and often some special quirk up their sleeve. From ancient relics to pop-up gardens and cutting edge sculpture to 17th century shoes, there's plenty of surprises to be found......
Londoners are very proud of their 150+ year old subterranean network. Sure, we can complain about it, but we love it really. The main reason I love the tube is the little quirks you find at every new station....