diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 21, 2003

London Open House Weekend

Every year, for a couple of days in the middle of September, the doors of about 500 of London's public and private buildings are thrown open to the public. This is London Open House weekend, a time to enjoy and celebrate the capital's varied architecture and history. From the 11th century Westminster Hall to the 21st century City Hall, you can take a peek inside buildings you'd normally only see from the outside, or maybe never even knew existed in the first place. Thanks to all the volunteers who make it all possible, and here's a list of some of the places I managed to visit this year...

insure your supertanker hereLloyd's of London: It's that dramatic futuristic building in the middle of the City, the one with twelve lifts on the outside, designed by Richard Rogers and opened in 1986. Us lucky visitors got to see their collection of old Lord Nelson ephemera, the enormous underwriting room full of hundreds of tiny desks where all the trading happens, the eleven-storey glass-windowed atrium, and the Lutine Bell that rings to bring news of lost ships (one ring bad, two rings good). Nice escalators too. Favourite fact: Edward Lloyd was never an underwriter, he merely owned Lloyd's coffee shop where the first maritime underwriters used to meet. Starbucks clearly still have a long way to go.
Tour: well-structured and impressive, 8/10. Guide: knowledgeable, friendly, 8/10.

still a place to eatBanqueting House: Not just another non-descript building down Whitehall, but an ornate Jacobean dining hall with huge painted ceiling. Many sumptuous banquests for nobles and heads of state have been held in this magnificent room. However, this weekend they'd set up a trestle table in one corner selling tea, Kit Kats, slices of swiss roll and Mr Kipling's cherry bakewells. A far cry from the building's glorious past. Favourite fact: The hall was built for King James I in 1622, but became the site of his execution in 1649.
Tour: brief and touristy, 5/10. Guide: just a video, 3/10.

the glass front bitChannel 4 Television: It's always a lottery on Open House weekend which tour guide you get. Some know their stuff inside out, while others have clearly never set foot in the property before. Here at Channel 4's HQ I got to the front of the queue just in time to miss the really well-informed guide, ending up instead with the token volunteer merely present to make up the numbers. She took us up in the scenic lift, which had nice views over, er, part of London. She told us that the C4 building had two sort of arms. She took us along the curvy walkway on the third floor behind the glass front bit, held up by the joint things. And we went out onto the terrace at the back, made of some kind of wood I think. Favourite fact: there's an ironing board in the Channel 4 boardroom, complete with iron, inbetween the flipchart and the widescreen TV.
Tour: not quite worthwhile, 4/10. Guide: wet blanket, 1/10.

John Prescott works here26 Whitehall: This morning you'd have found me queuing for an hour trying to gain entry to a tall posh building down Whitehall, otherwise known as the Ripley Building, otherwise known as the offices of the Deputy Prime Minister. This impressive Georgian building has been home to the Admiralty for nearly 300 years, and top navy men still meet to make important decisions in the wood-panelled Board Room on the first floor. John Prescott's ministerial team are now based in the building, although we were assured that the solitary Jaguar parked in the courtyard this morning wasn't his. Security was high (we're currently on 'Black Special', if you're interested) and we had to surrender our mobile phones and cameras on the way in. Favourite fact: Lord Nelson's body rested here on the night before his funeral, having been stored in a barrel of alcohol during the long voyage home from the battle of Trafalgar.
Tour: bit short given the long wait, 5/10. Three guides: one very good, one ok, one dire, average 5/10.

tower of East LondonLimehouse Accumulator Tower: If you've ever travelled on the DLR from Limehouse to Westferry, you may have seen a fifty-foot octagonal brick tower right beside the railway tracks. It's not an old signal box, it's actually pioneering Victorian technology - a tower that once provided hydraulic power for raising heavy cargo at Regent's Canal dock. The tower has recently been restored as a viewing platform, although recent housing developments at Limehouse Basin have reduced the view somewhat. Sadly the tower is only open very occasionally which is a great shame because, on a sunny day like today, the view from the top is great. Favourite fact: To reach the top requires climbing two spiral staircases, the first inside the tower and the second inside the chimney.
Tour: classic industrial archaeology, 9/10. Guide: keen engineer, 8/10.

Also visited:
Talkback Productions: award-winning big comedy, award-winning small offices.
St Pancras Midland Hotel: except there were queues round the block, so I was glad I saw it last year instead.
West India Quay Impounding Station: pumps the Thames into the Docklands docks, using original 1929 technology.
House Mill, Bow: this is one of those famous places within 15 minutes walk of my house, so I've already written about it. Surprisingly big, impressively restored.

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