diamond geezer

 Monday, September 15, 2014

Harrow Heritage Open Days

Having seen how much it costs to sign up for Open House this year, the London Borough of Harrow decided to go it alone. They allied instead with the Heritage Open Days project and opened up several intriguing buildings this weekend. Here are three.

Zoroastrian Centre
The Grosvenor Cinema opened on Rayners Lane in 1936. It was designed by Ernest Bromidge - the Rio in Dalston is another one of his - and couldn't look more Thirties if it tried. A grand scrolling elephant's trunk runs up the front of the fa├žade, with a wall of curved glass to either side, apparently meant to represent reels of film. Over the years the cinema became an Odeon, then a Gaumont, then an Odeon again and finally an Ace. It closed four days after its 50th anniversary and was reopened as a bar, but that didn't thrive for long and the building slowly began to decay. It was bought up in 2000 by the Zoroastrian religion as a centre for their UK operations, and they threw money into restoring the building and its decorative interior. And it all looks rather splendid again, if a peculiar mix of Middle Eastern religion and celluloid temple. You'd have enjoyed Saturday's knowledgeable tour and a look around. [7 photos]

The foyer has a bit of a wow factor, not like the entrance to your local multiplex today. A great moulded swoosh floats along the ceiling, while at the centre is a sunken area once used as the cinema's restaurant. The current decor relates more to the building's existence as a pub, rather than a cinema, plus a sprinkling of religious portraits on top. As for the main auditorium, the rake's long gone but the ribbed swirl across the roof is quite something. The Zoroastrians now use it for functions such as weddings, and an urn rests beneath the proscenium arch upon the main stage. But to reach their sacred space you have to climb the grand staircase to balcony level, and then take your shoes off and cover your head. They worship now in the old projection box, with a congregation of chairs facing a bowl of occasional fire within a gilded cage. It's not what you'd expect to find in Harrow, but this religious takeover has helped a great old building to survive.

Harrow School
It's not Eton, but Harrow is one of the top fee-paying schools in the country, especially if you measure success in terms of Number Of Prime Ministers Educated. Its origins are humble, a small school on the hill founded by local farmer John Lyons, offering a free education to boys from Harrow village but charging those from elsewhere. That fee-paying aspect snowballed when a new school building was opened in 1615, and before long most pupils were the offspring of wealthy merchants and landowners. Amazingly the 399 year-old classroom survives, no longer used for lessons but still part of the everyday fabric of the school and occasionally opened up to visitors. It's an amazing room with rough-hewn benches and wood panelled walls, into which generations of pupils have carved their names. There's Byron, there's Peel, there's Fox-Talbot, there's Sheridan, and the rest are mostly schoolboys who never made the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.

From the symmetrical exterior the building nextdoor appears to be of a similar age but is in fact 200 years younger. This is the Old Speech Room, created for the practice of public speaking, more recently converted into a gallery for the advancement of cultural education. It's very nicely done, as you'd expect, with an emphasis on art and historical displays. When you did the Egyptians at school you probably read about them in books, whereas Harrovians have their own artefacts laid out in glass cases, quite possibly 'liberated' by old boys. You'll not get in here normally, but a small Museum of Harrow Life is open most Sunday afternoons in term time at the top of the hill down to the playing fields. With teenagers walking past in tails and rugger kit, there's something more than surreal about the road along the ridgetop, and a school both embedded into the local community and entirely distinct from it. It was good to peer inside.

West House
West House sits at the far end of Pinner Memorial Park, overlooking the culverted River Pinn. Admiral Nelson's grandson once lived here, which is the building's vague claim to fame, before the surrounding estate was handed over to Metroland developers and the house passed onto the council. It's not, to be fair, an architectural masterpiece, in part because the council decided to knock down the Tudor bit in the 1950s. The rest of the house got used for meetings and evening classes, that sort of thing, before falling into disrepair and being boarded up. The Pinner Association leapt into action and launched an appeal which sought to reopen West House as a community concern. It was all boarded up last time I was here, but reopened in 2010 and now contains a thriving cafe, that's Daisy's In The Park, and a brand new chiropractor on the top floor.

Rather more exciting are the plans to open a museum in honour of cartoonist William Heath Robinson. He lived locally in Moss Lane for several years, and the Trust have 500 original artworks of his amazing gadgets and wonderful contraptions, just nowhere to properly display them. A few are up on the walls in the small gallery beside the cafe, not that most of the tea-drinking mums have noticed, and it's here that I met the Chairman of the Trust for a chat. He told me that plans are well advanced, following two decades of fundraising and a million-plus Heritage Lottery grant. If the last hundred thousand can be found then building work can begin on the car park next spring, and a brand new Heath Robinson Museum opened in 2016. It's inspiring stuff (you can donate here), and will hopefully bring these wildly inventive works to a new generation.

The girls at St Helen's School had been duly inspired and created a Heath-Robinson-esque tea-making machine which they were demonstrating in an upstairs room. A marvellous rotating contraption with an urn on top dished up my cuppa, with just a little help from one of the girls to nudge a sugar lump down a ramp at the crucial moment. One of William's descendants was on hand nextdoor alongside a few more genuine cartoons, many of them just as witty and apposite today as they had been almost a century earlier. If you want to pop in and see the ground floor gallery and tiny shop, come along on a Wednesday or a Saturday afternoon. Or hang on a couple of years and a proper fascinating attraction should have opened in, heavens yes, Pinner.

After my visit to West House I wandered around the annual Pinner Village Show which was taking place in the park outside. I don't think I've ever seen quite so many tombolas in one place before. There were farm animals to pet, bagpipers to listen to and scouts to throw wet sponges at. And then I went to the Duckpond Market in Bridge Street Gardens, near the station, where I perused the craft stalls and treated myself to an Angus beef burger for lunch. Whatever London's listing magazines and events websites might suggest, there's a wealth of cultural life outside Zones 1 and 2 that's woefully overlooked and deserves a wider audience.

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