The Best of Open House London – 2020 Highlights

As with most things in 2020, Open House London was a little different.

It might not have been as jam-packed, but happily I still managed to explore some hidden gems and epic London buildings!

So here are my Open House London highlights from 2020 to share with you.

Oxford House

Oxford House was built in 1891 by students from Keble College, Oxford. It was part of what became known as the Settlement Movement; kind of like a Gap Year experience.

The idea was that by living here, and coming face to face with the poverty and social issues of East London, they could better learn how to serve the local community.

There were three other university settlements in the East End, including the non-religious Toynbee House near Aldgate East Station. However, because Keble college was Anglican, they have a beautiful Victorian chapel;

Open House London Highlights 2020

The radical Settlement Movement in the 19th and early 20th century attracted attention from all over the world and amazingly Ghandi came to stay here in 1931, giving an impromptu speech to crowds from this window.

Open House London Highlights 2020

Another surprising feature is the rooftop, offering a spectacular view back over the City.

Open House London Highlights 2020

I love how the steeple of Christ Church Spitalfields stands out against the glass skyscrapers.

Today Oxford House is a cafe, arts centre and community hub for events. They also offer affordable meeting and office space and are back open regularly. Have a look at their website here.

School of Sufi Teaching

A short walk along Bethnal Green Road brought me to a similar space with an entirely different feel.

The School of Sufi Teaching  is also a community hub and provides classes, meetings and retreats. Sufism is a spiritual practice, sometime referred to as Islamic Mysticism.

Open House London Highlights 2020

We were given a tour by the architect; Nevine Nasser, who explained that the fundamental beliefs of Islam were integral to the design. The space is meant to reflect the transformative power of Sufi spiritual practice, with details like the multiple recesses in the ceiling a link with cosmology; ideas about creation and different levels of the universe.

They also have a small rooftop garden which is based around the traditional Islamic Paradise Garden; a rectangular garden split into four quarters with a pond in the centre.

Open House London Highlights 2020

It reminded me a lot of the Aga Khan centre which I visited for Open House 2018 and you can read about here. Learn more about the School of Sufi teaching and their events here.

St Mary Magdalene, Paddington

It might not seem so today, but when St Mary Magdalene’s was first built in Little Venice along the Regent’s Canal, it was an incredibly deprived area. Construction started in 1867 and was finished in 1872.

It was designed by George Edmund Street, probably most famous for the Royal Courts of Justice.

Open House London Highlights 2020

Unluckily, soon after completion, a fire tore through the new building. It destroyed the new roof and the replacement wasn’t finished until a year later with the final consecration of the church happening in 1878.

But it was worth the wait…

Open House London Highlights 2020

Unique for an English parish Church, the ceiling is covered by 72 faces of saints, males on the south side and females to the north. In 2018 conservators spent six months cleaning and brightening it and it’s simply spectacular.

But there are more renovated delights below ground..

Open House London Highlights 2020

Designed by Ninian Comper in 1893, the undercroft (officially, the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre) was a memorial to the first vicar of the church; Father Richard Temple West.

To enter the space is to feel transported into a 15th century chantry chapel and it’s no surprise that it’s a popular film location. Most recently you may recognise it as the chapel used by Hugh Jackman (playing Jean Valjean) in Les Misérables.

The Church has reopened for services and they have a cafe and community space – Grand Junction – you can visit too.

Caroline Gardens Chapel

Getting a feel for epic crumbling churches, the first stop of Sunday’s explorations was Caroline Gardens Chapel.

Open House London Highlights 2020

The Chapel is the centrepiece of the largest complex of almshouses in London. It was built between 1827-1833 and paid for by the Licensed Victuallers’ Benevolent Institution Asylum.

Although it stands on Asylum Road and is known now as the ‘Asylum’ it had nothing to do with mental health. Rather, it was established s a retirement home for former pub landlords.

Open House London Highlights 2020

Like a lot of South London, Peckham was heavily hit by bombs during the Second World War and the chapel suffered huge damage to the roof and back wall. The original owners relocated to Buckinghamshire and the  almshouses were taken over by Southwark Council in 1960.

Today it’s used as an event space and for concerts, exhibition and even weddings, having been partially refurbished in 2010. I found the whole space, with its remnants of stained glass and memorial tablets utterly wonderful.

Trellick Tower

From Peckham I travelled across London to something entirely different; a 1970s Brutalist icon.

It’s hard to miss Trellick Tower in Notting Hill. It looms over Goldborne Road, provoking admiration from some and disgust from others. I personally quite like a bit of Brutalism, but can sympathise with those that don’t.

Open House London Highlights 2020

Built in 1972 to the designs of Ernö Goldfinger, the Trellick commission came just after he had completed his Balfron Tower in Poplar. It was intended to help relieve London’s post-war housing crisis but it was quickly plagued by violent crime and anti-social behaviour, thanks to the high density and single corridors providing the only lift access. It was eventually dubbed ‘Terror Tower‘.

In the 1980s the situation improved with the formation of a residents association, spurred by tenants buying their homes through ‘right to buy’. Later a concierge was hired and security measures were installed. Chatting with a couple of residents they said they felt lucky to live here and it was a nice mix of occupants (although one mentioned the service charge was a painful addition to rents or mortgage payments!)

But whatever you think about it from the outside, I was here to get inside and preferably high. Thankfully, the charming Crispin had agreed to open his flat to visitors for the weekend and we were free to have a look;

Open House London Highlights 2020

High-rise living might not be for everyone, but the views were definitely jaw-dropping.

Open House London Highlights 2020

Benjamin Franklin’s House

For the final stop of the weekend, I took the chance to revisit a quirky London museum that I hadn’t been to in years.

36 Craven Street (original No.7) was built in c.1730. Its most famous resident; Benjamin Franklin, planned to rent a room here for 6 months in the 1760s but ended up staying on-and-off for 16 years!

Open House London Highlights 2020

While living in Craven Street Franklin – along with his landlady’s son-in-law – ran an Anatomy School and somewhat sinisterly they found 1,200 bones during structural repairs in the basement in 1998.

Today the original rooms are left bare, letting the walls, flooring and architectural features speak for themselves. This was a conscious decision by the house as there were no detailed records of furnishings.

It’s nice because it allows you to appreciate the details of the Georgian home, especially the original banister which was one of the main reasons the house secured Grade I listed status.

Open House London Highlights 2020

Benjamin Franklin House have reopened and are now offering architectural tours on Fridays and Saturdays. Find out more here.

I hope you now have some inspiring London places to add to your to-do list.

Did you see anything you’d recommend for next year’s Open House weekend? Or maybe you enjoyed the virtual offerings instead?! Let me know in the comments.

Support Open House London

Like many Arts Organisations, it’s been tough for Open House to keep going and what they managed to put on this year – I think – is nothing short of remarkable. If, like me, you’d like to see them continue for years to come you might like to sign up to support them. I joined as a friend and you might like to as well. This isn’t an ad and I don’t gain anything from sharing this, but If you enjoyed Open House you can find out more about support them here.

More London Inspiration

  • 10 Best Spiral Staircases in London

    If you're on the hunt for things to literally look up to, you can do no wrong with these beautiful sights. How many have you visited?...

  • Things to do in London

    10 Reasons Londoners Should Visit Parliament

    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....

  • Unusual Gardens and Open Spaces in London

    10 Unusual Gardens and Open Spaces in London

    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....

  • ondon doors

    15 London Doors With History Behind Them

    Whether it's a colour-pop Kensington townhouse or a dilapidated one in Shoreditch, they always seem to hint they've got some more to tell you....

  • London City Churches

    15 Unusual Things You Can Find In London City Churches

    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......

  • 5 Unmissable Objects at the Imperial War Museum

    It's tough curating a museum of death and destruction. Here are my highlights from an introductory tour...

16 Comments

  • Ian Johnson

    Reply

    That’s a great and varied selection of places you visited there Katie. I’d love to visit Trellick Tower in particular one day. Whilst I didn’t have a lot of available time I did get to go on a guided tour of Shoreditch Town Hall which was excellent. Saw so much inside from the grand theatre room right down to all the nooks and crannies down below. It’s great that Open House was still able to arrange quite a few tours. Did you get the book they published about all the boroughs? I did and it’s a great read.

    September 27, 2020 at 11:08 am
  • Tim Burt

    Reply

    From years past, I loved visiting Handle/Jimi Hendrix’s houses next to each other. I’d also love to go and see the Crystal Palace subway tunnels, they look amazing.

    September 30, 2020 at 8:33 am
  • Gary Curtis

    Reply

    My favourite place visited over Open House ever was The London Library. I had Lancaster House booked so I full expected that to be the highlight but the library really stole the show. It’s a place you can never have built now! The racks of books and the gaps in the flooring made it feel like something from a film. The whole place was steeped in history with icons of the past being members. You would never know big the place is from the small but grand frontage either.

    September 30, 2020 at 9:14 am
  • Clare Auchterlonie

    Reply

    Lancaster House last year was a highlight and a delight. As its a government house it also has been the site of many important conferences but the excellent guides explain it pays for its keep by renting it out for filming as well. I am a big fan of National Treasure movie with Nicholas Cage and it was really cool to walk around the house and learn about it. Interesting that it has stood in as Buckingham Palace for many other productions – The Crown and King’s Speech.

    The other highlight which I believe you recommended was the Foregin Office – was not expecting that decadent and beautiful staircase at the end!

    September 30, 2020 at 9:28 am
  • So far, I wasn’t lucky enough to be in London when Open House was happening, but thanks to your hint, I was able to take a peek at the Masonic temple on another date. The one in the Andaz, Liverpool Street. So that would be my recommendation: If you get a chance, people, take a look at the stunning hall. You can ask the people at the reception of the Andaz hotel. If they aren’t too busy, and you ask nicely, they will show you the temple. I was in luck, the Italian who was on duty said he loves showing it to people, because he loves to look at it himself 🙂

    September 30, 2020 at 9:29 am
  • Judith Barnett

    Reply

    Not living in London I didn’t even know there was such a thing as “open house” weekend. I only learned of it a few years ago and have yet to be able to enjoy the experience. Guess what … I was going to go this year but for COVID … travel, health and associated complications! Ah well, one day; may be even next year. I love reading about all the places available and now have a long list!

    September 30, 2020 at 11:35 am
  • Martina M.

    Reply

    I’ve only found out about this great event last year, but I certainly made the most of Open House London 2019. There were 2 places that I definitely have to mention: 1.) Leighton House – a former home and a studio to a Victorian artist named Frederic, Lord Leighton. On the outside it may not stand out from the crowd, when we compare it to the buildings in the neighbourhood. However, once you step inside you start wondering: ‘Am I still in London or have I been magically transferred to a far away property in the Middle East?’ There’s a beautiful art collection on display, including among the others a portrait by Venetian School artist Tintoretto. Knowledgeable volunteers are at hand to answer any questions and tell some amusing stories connected to this museum house. I still remember the story about the curious peacocks that made their way from nearby Holland Park to the foyer of Leighton House. Upon seeing one of their own kind (stuffed) greeting them by the stairs in the entrance hall, they made an informed decision to go back to safety of their beloved Holland Park!
    2.) Severndroog Castle in Oxleas Wood – a folly built in memory of Sir William James, back in the day the director of the British East India Company. There’s an interesting, although a bit controversial colonial history to be explored there and you can also enjoy some spectacular panoramic views of London from the viewing platform. I was thankful to find out more about the ancient (at least 8000 years old) woodlands surrounding the tower from the Friends of Oxleas Woodlands. It makes for a lovely local alternative to Greenwich Park, when you’re in the mood for more secluded/contemplative walk.

    This year was a bit different for sure, but I’m eagerly looking forward to Open House London 2021!:-)

    September 30, 2020 at 12:38 pm
  • Danielle Beamish

    Reply

    I loved the supreme court this year, such a beautiful and important building, can’t wait for open house next year, thanks for all your fabulous tips for it ❤️

    October 2, 2020 at 10:29 am

Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.