It's not every day that a new heritage attraction opens in London. New attraction maybe, but not the opening to the public of something old and lovely. So come one and all to the Westminster riverside, to the neo-Gothic mansion called Two Temple Place. And then maybe, like me, you'll go "blimey, wow, I never realised all this was here, blimey, wow."
Two Temple Place was formerly called Astor House, built in 1895 for the American social climbers Lord and Lady Astor. They wanted a central London property to show off, so took advantage of reclaimed land beside the new Thames Embankment and built a Gothic pile from scratch. No expense was too great, no flight of fancy too grand, and the end result is an over-embellished house with a gasp around every corner. When you've got Hever Castle, Cliveden and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at your disposal, you can afford to make your townhouse very special.
Since the Astors sold it on, Two Temple Place has been home to Sun Life of Canada, the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors and (for the last 50 years) medical conglomerate Smith & Nephew. The latest owners are the Bulldog Trust, a philanthropic body who "embrace the spirit of resourceful giving", and who opened up the building for the first time at the end of last month. They plan to host a series of exhibitions showcasing works from non-central-London galleries, and have kicked off by inviting Walthamstow's William Morris Gallery (currently closed for redevelopment) to put on a show. The result is "William Morris: Story, Memory, Myth" = a collection of the designer's creations with a literary bent. And it's a tricky choice to decide which is more splendid - Morris's artwork or the house in which they're displayed.
Just off the Embankment, between Temple station and the Inns of Temple, that's where Astor's house is tucked. It could be an Oxbridge college, or a small country mansion, or any other whimsical pile with a golden galleon weathervane on the roof. Approach via the front courtyard, beneath further nautical touches on the lampstands, and up the steps to the main entrance. No, really, the lady on the front desk will tell you, entrance is free. And have a free copy of the official 72-page show catalogue to take round with you and read, then perhaps buy your own copy in the shop later. Ready for a look round, sir? Not that way yet, that's the cafe. Try the gallery through there.
Morris and his associate Edward Burne-Jones commissioned many works based on Arthurian legend and Chaucerian tales, including the tapestries hung here. Some are very long, in muted shades, and quite exquisite. Chivalrous knights lead white-clad maidens through enchanted rose gardens, that sort of thing. Upstairs in the LongGallery are much taller tapestries, still with a romantic hue, if a King turned into a woodpecker by a spurned Greek goddess can be described as romance. There are wallpaper samples too, as you'd expect with Morris, plus block-cut illustrated poems from the Kelmscot Press. All are presented with a concise burst of background information, enough to make you feel like you've learned something. And if this is the quality of stuff we'll be seeing in E17 next summer, bring it on.
Meanwhile, it's hard to stop staring at the house. Those ceiling-high stained glass windows, they're not Morris, they're some verdant Swiss lakeside the Astors installed. That doorway out to the landing, it's entirely coincidental that's covered in gilt panels depicting Arthurian heroines. And the landing itself, an oak-panelled ascent to a pillared gallery where a brass candelabra hangs from a stained glass ceiling, that's as entirely as over-the-top as it sounds. Just for once it's Wikipedia which has the most useful photos for giving potential visitors an inkling of what they'll see, although nothing quite prepares you for the 3D Astorama experience.
Two Temple Place(WC2R 3BD) » Open daily 10am-4:30pm (Sundays noon-5pm) » Closed Tuesdays (and today for a special function, sorry) » Admission free (and for all future exhibitions) » Nearest station: Temple (obviously)