Some buildings are on the Open House list every year and I always mean to go but never do. So this year I did two of them.
Open House:Royal Geographical Society Follow Exhibition Road right to the end, past the Natural History and Science Museums, and you'll reach Kensington Gore. At number 1, overlooking Hyde Park, is Lowther House, since 1913 the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society. The RGS is rather older than that, born out of gentlemen's dining clubs, for the advancement of geographical learning. Many a global expedition has been planned here, including the first successful assault on Everest, although modern patrons are more likely to surf to the Himalayas than actually visit. Anyone can enter the exhibition pavilion out front (currently home to an excellent display of People in London). But to walk in off the street and explore beyond requires booking an event, membership, or waiting for the third weekend in September. [3 photos]
Many great discoveries have been announced in the lecture theatre, although the current version is a relatively recent sponsored revamp and a little gloomy. The names of various organisations and luminaries have been carved into the staircase to balcony level, including the last but one President Michael Palin CBE. Climb a little further to discover the Members' Room, whose bookshelves and alcoves are named after the continents and regions of the world, but whose contents turned out to be two centuries of geographical journals. More interesting is the ground floor Map Room, a treasure trove of globes and portraits, plus a scale model of the Everest massif - alas not a Hillary original. In common with many delicate artefacts at the RGS this is emblazoned with officious messages warning bystanders not to touch, or in this case not to place their canapés and wine glasses on the Khumbu Icefall.
I've often thought that if I was ever going to join a London-based organisation the Royal Geographical Society might be for me. I used to subscribe to their monthly Geographical magazine as a sixth former, and there were current copies lying around as freebies for Open Housers to purloin. But a visit reminded me that the RGS is as much about mud hut villages as oxbow lakes, and aligned more towards adventure than armchair travel, so the £127 annual membership subscription probably wouldn't be worthwhile. Maybe. Oh we'll see.
Open House:The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
Despite sounding like it ought to have been around for centuries, the UK's Supreme Court is barely five years old. It was established out of the Constitutional Reform Act which split parliament and the judiciary, creaming off a dozen Law Lords to arbitrate in the trickiest cases in the land. They never sentence, only decide, and thus far only one of the twelve is a Lady. And the court's location could hardly be better, poised between church and state on the corner of Parliament Square opposite Westminster Abbey. This is the former MiddlesexGuildhall, completed in 1913, the seat of government for London's lost county. Much of the interior was ripped out when the building was redesigned, but the surviving remainder looks a lot older than it is thanks to its art nouveau gothic styling. Queue for the security patdown on Open House Open Day and you'll be given pretty much free rein to roam inside. [6 photos]
First up beyond the lobby is the main library, a stunningtriple-height space stacked with legal tomes. And then there are three court rooms, the largest of which is on the top floor. This was originally the main council chamber, now with less adversarial seating, beneath an impressive hammerbeam roof. Court 2 is rather more plain and modern, with an Eleanor Roosevelt quote etched into the glass facing into, and away from, the main corridor. Both courts strongly feature the court's logo, a quartered circle featuring stylised versions of the national symbols of the four Home Nations. It's simple but very attractive, and I fear most of the carpets in the building would have had to have been torn out had Scotland voted for independence last week. Or perhaps cases would have shifted to Court 3, where commonwealth and dependency cases are heard, be that for the Bahamas, the Falklands or the Isle of Man.
Members of the public are welcome to visit the building during opening hours, and to sit at the back of the courts when a case is in session. Tours are available for a fiver, or you can simply go get a drink from the cafe at the foot of the lightwell, and maybe buy some Supreme Court souvenirs while you're there. I resisted the mug, the notebook and the cuddly teddy bear, but I suspect victorious claimants may be more easily tempted.