diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The sheer variety of Open House venues keeps the event fresh.

Open House: SELCHP

A self-guided tour through the heart of an operational power station? Don't mind if I do. SELCHP stands for South East London Combined Heat and Power, and is a waste incineration plant tucked into the railwaylands west of Deptford. You've probably seen it from the train on the way out of London Bridge, a large industrial shed with a thin chimney rising forth - it's been tucked in opposite The Den since 1994. But I've actually been inside as part of an Open Day timed for Open House, and organised with a particular eye on enticing local residents to learn more about their neighbour. Hard hat on and goggles poised I was directed off towards the steam turbine and generator, technically the end of the process, then followed a maze of walkways and landings to the hoppers where rubbish is tipped into the belly of the machine. SELCHP was set up by three councils keen to curb their reliance on landfill, and now creates enough electricity to power 48000 homes. From the main control room we peered down into the gargantuan bunker where binbags and rags and smelly shreds accumulate, and a grinning five year-old girl was shown how to operate the giant grabber as if this were an oversized amusement arcade. The whiff worsened on the other side of the door, where each measured dose of clutched organics is dropped into the incineration grate. Yes it's fine, nodded the security guard from behind his ear protectors, go ahead and lower the handle and peer inside the furnace to watch the raging flames. From here the steam heads upwards to be treated to remove toxins, and to create the electricity, while the solid residue is cooled and sorted and shaken and dumped in ashen piles at the end. It was eerie wandering through the industrial passageways like some kind of Crystal Maze contestant, but also hugely educational concerning the process that takes place within, which was of course the intention. If you have small children to entertain and this Open Day runs again next year, which I suspect it will, you'll enjoy learning where your power comes from, and where your rubbish goes.

Open House: Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

101 Lower Thames Street is an unprepossessing City office block with an astonishing relic in its basement. First uncovered in 1848 when the Coal Exchange was being built, the remains of this 2nd century dwelling were swiftly recognised as something special and became one of Britain's first scheduled ancient monuments. Now under the care of the Museum of London, there's not much to see at what's now ground level. But follow the staircase down from the lobby and you'll enter a long low chamber left undeveloped when the 60s office block was plonked on top, save for a few concrete supports drilled down where they'd do least damage. First up are the foundations of what would have been a riverside house, back when the Thames was wider than it is now, most probably used by visitors to Londinium as the equivalent of a cheap hotel. The remains of the central heating system can still be seen, along with some extensive but crumbly-looking walls, hence visitors walk around the top on metal gangways. Better preserved, hence more impressive, are the remains of a 3rd century bolt-on bathhouse. Its shape is somewhat phallic, sorry to be frank, with one larger rectangular cold room and two smaller warm and hot rooms on opposite sides at the far end. An impressive number of towers of tiles remain in the warm room, plus several of the flagstones laid on top where decades of sweaty feet would have trodden. Curators were on hand to explain what we were seeing, but there was a touch of conveyor belt about visitor throughflow given the size of the queue waiting outside. If you missed out, or if you'd prefer longer to stare in better-informed conditions, 45 minute tours can be booked (for £8) at weekends between now and the middle of December. [3 photos]

Open House: Roman Bath

Yes, another one, although this antiquity up a sidestreet behind Aldwych station is a misnomer. A single plunge pool, curved at one end and rectangular at the other, this brick-lined cistern is of sufficient size to squeeze in a football team, in some discomfort, but not much more. It's thought to date back to 1612, at least a millennium after the decline of Empire, and started its life feeding a nearby fountain before being transformed into a public bathing facility. Even David Copperfield came to Strand Lane for a dip, or would have done had he been less Dickensian. A century ago, with memory of its origins lost, a local rector convinced himself and others it was Roman, and the bath became a public curiosity. Now under the care of the National Trust and Westminster Council it's seen little love, and lingers on in a musty chamber off a locked passageway up a dead end lane. Worth a brief look, but if all you do is peer through the window you've not missed much.

Open House: Salters' Hall

The City of London supports 110 livery companies, of which the first twelve are the most important, of which the Salters come in at number 9. They made their money when food preservation was at its most basic, and mined salt particularly expensive, before branching out later into the wider chemical trade. These days they're mostly a charitable concern, and a bastion of tradition, and are somewhat unexpectedly based in a Brutalist livery hall close to London Wall. This is the building's sixth incarnation, the fifth having been destroyed in the Blitz, and was designed by Sir Basil Spence (of Coventry Cathedral fame). A crystalline confection in hand-chipped concrete, it was opened in 1976 and for the last ten has been undergoing a refit, which is why it's not been open for Open House before. One of the architects showed us round, which is always a good sign, and generally means a longer more in-depth tour. Unusually the company's main hall is on the top floor, perched on top of five floors of office space (which are being leased out to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music). Spence's contemporary wood-panelling has been retained, overseen by an anachronistic Buglers' Gallery and a 'Ladies Dining Room' that's no longer single sex. A whopping great big salt crystal, mined in Cheshire, has pride of place in the hallway outside, and even the lights dangling in the stairwell have ornate salty shades. 2016's main addition is a lofty glass-roofed entrance lobby, sympathetically attached and facing the new Barbican-Guildhall pedestrian axis. "And if you look up there," said the architect at the end of our hour, "you'll see a new pedway under construction." New pedway? Fantastic, and all the better to see Salters' Hall from. [4 photos]

Open House: St Paul's, Bow Common

The UK's Best Modern Church is in Bow, according to the National Churches Trust and Ecclesiastical Surveyors and Architects Association. Built between 1958 and 1960, and designed by two 20 year-olds, it replaced a Victorian church destroyed in the Blitz with something that looks more like a squared-off shopping mall than a place of worship. But St Paul's exterior gives little away, and only stepping inside past the mercurial font reveals the striking use of space. The altar is positioned centrally beneath a pyramidal lantern, placing the congregation in the round rather than as a body to be preached at. Most impressive is the ring of mosaics around the upper rim - The Heavenly Host - a chain of ten blue-green angels with an elemental creature in each corner. Each Venetian tile was individually placed over a five year period by the artist Charles Lutyens, grandson of Sir Edwin, displaying an astonishing level of dedication to a single work. The overall interior effect feels somehow more Catholic than Anglican, but this is a high church establishment, the architecture springing from the wishes of the post-war congregation. What's more the modern day bunch are more than welcoming, with a better website than most, and a 347 page downloadable illustrated guide to their building's unique heritage should a quick video not suffice. [4 photos]

My Open House 2016 gallery
There are 60 photos altogether [slideshow]

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