Sorry, you didn't think I'd finished writing about Open House, did you? Seven down, six more to go...
Open House:Trinity Hospital
The oldest building in Greenwich, Trinity Hospital can be found on the riverside past the Old Royal Naval College and the Trafalgar Tavern, beneath the tall chimneys of Greenwich Power Station. Opened in 1617 as almshouses - a function it still performs - those who've lived in Greenwich for a certain time and are of a certain age might one day be allowed to move in. But you won't be allowed through its locked gate unless you happen to be passing on Open House Saturday, which is the only day of the year that a top-hatted warden stands and positively urges you inside. Do not pass by, take him up on his offer, to view the gorgeous enclave beyond the clocktower and the suite of rooms that surround. A fountain gushes placidly at the centre of the courtyard, florally bedecked and with golden fish wriggling within. To one side is a large gothic chapel, still used by residents every Thursday when the vicar of St Alfege's comes to lead a service. Upstairs is a wood panelled courtroom that's only unlocked twice a year, the other occasion being the Monday after Trinity Sunday when the City's Mercers cloak up and pay a ceremonial visit. The most fortunate residents live in ten refitted apartments surrounding the courtyard, but there are also thirty flats more in a more modern building alongside, surrounding larger gardens. With so much life experience in one place it's no surprise that residents bake a great cake, and you should use this fact as an excuse to stop for tea and linger longer. And then next time you pass the bright castellated frontage on the Thames Path you'll know the secrets of what lies behind, and probably be more than a little jealous. [7 photos]
Open House:The Seager Distillery Tower
It didn't look like the most exciting venue in the Open House brochure. A housing development beside Deptford Bridge DLR, built on the site of something historic, including refurbished 19th century buildings you'd not be able to get inside. But there was one key phrase which piqued my interest, which was the identity of the only part of the development on the tour. "Entry: 27th floor viewing gallery." And I couldn't turn that down. The developers, Galliard Homes, hadn't gone out of their way to advertise their two-day opening to anybody local, so it took a while to find the right way in. But yes, the concierge confirmed that this was the place, and one lengthy lift ride later I was in a glass box in the sky. Not a big box, more like two small chambers linked by a brief passage, but with high glass windows affording a most excellent view. To one side the City, viewed across lowrise Southwark, swinging round to the surprisingly prominent heights of Dulwich. And from the other side Greenwich (and its observatory) up close, and the end of Deptford Creek, and the Docklands skyscraper wall. Various families who'd come to visit were trying to spot their home ("oh my, there's our washing!") and determine which of the verdant lumps to the south was Hilly Fields. I love a lofty panorama, and Open House always delivers what I most crave, but even so I hung around far longer than I'd expected. I was particularly thrilled by the unobstructedness of the view, because normally when you go up something there's another tall building in the way. Instead the Distillery Tower stands alone, which is great for penthouse residents but not for low level localpeople who hate this lone eyesore for sticking out like a sore thumb. On any other weekend of the year I'd side with them. [7 views]
Open House:Limehouse Town Hall
Local government reorganisation hit this grand civic building hard. Opened in 1881, Limehouse Town Hall lasted as an administrative hub for less than 20 years before the Borough of Stepney absorbed Limehouse Vestry, and since then it's muddled on the best it can. Edwardian East End families came for weddings, bazaars and ‘cinematograph’ showings, after which the building's been an Infant Welfare Centre, a doctor's surgery and even (from 1975 to 1986) the National Museum of Labour History. Harold Wilson turned up specially to open the latter, and I'd like to imagine that Margaret Thatcher turned up to close it down. A deeply communal vibe remains, overseen by the Limehouse Town Hall Consortium Trust who welcome all sorts of hands-on projects and charities to thrive under their roof. On my visit the Tower Hamlets Wheelers were holding their monthly bike surgery in the main hall, tending to spokes and upturned chains while the occasional OH visitor wandered through. I took the opportunity to enjoy the Town Hall's audio tour, which was more atmosphere than fact, but brought the crumbling fabric of this great survivor to life. Long may it thrive, and all those who inspire from within. [2 photos]
Open House:Thames River Police Museum
Where is the world's oldest police force based? On the waterfront at Wapping, of course, where a band of lawmen was assembled at the end of the 18th century to reduce crime on London's lifeblood river. It made sense to merge them into the early Metropolitan Police, eventually becoming the Marine Support Unit, who continue to patrol the Thames in search of wrongdoers. They have a boathouse and private pier, complete with blue lamp, and also a small but excellent museum. This is housed in a former carpenter's workshop, its benches now piled with display cases and its walls hung with pictures and ephemera. There was a time when the Thames Police wielded cutlasses, or cracked pistols, and some of the older handcuffs don't look entirely kind. Here too are old charts and notebooks, and model ships and ensigns, and caps and epaulettes. But the main emphasis is on individual police officers and their deeds, from everyday service to something special, like rescuing passengers from the Princess Alice or the Marchioness. A stalwart group of volunteers oversee the museum and can tell you more, not just on Open House Weekend but (by appointment, in writing) throughout the year. In the absence of a proper Met Police museum, as yet, this packed heritage repository is a proper treasure. [4 photos]
Open House:London Dock - Pennington Street Warehouses
200 years ago much of the land between Wapping and Shadwell was carved out to create the London Docks, a network of deep basins for trading high-value commodities. They survived in business until the 1960s, eventually ending up in the hands of the London Docklands Development Corporation who filled in the huge Western Docks to create a non-council housing estate. Along the northern edge Rupert Murdoch built Fortress Wapping as News International's HQ, but now they've moved out there's a huge demolition site awaiting redevelopment. What's not being removed is a (very) long chain of brick vaults, these once used to store rum and spices (and more recently printer's ink), stretching most of the length of one side of Pennington Street. Site developers St George allowed access at the weekend, allowing the curious a) to stare from one end to the other b) to read lots of information boards about what's planned. And what's planned is stacks of flats, which if you believed the architect's hyped excitement on the video will be nothing short of amazing, but I was wholly unimpressed. The artist's impressions he was enthusing over could have been built anywhere, and all his spiel about how they reflect the site's maritime history seemed little more than empty bluster. Instead this is yet another exercise in cramming in as much luxury housing as possible, while the dock vaults will at least be restored for use as boutiques, bars and creative arts spaces. You'll like those, when they open, but perhaps give the rest of the "world class public realm" a miss. [photo]
Open House:St Georgs Deutsche Lutherische Kirche
It wasn't in the Open House Guide and it wasn't on the website, indeed it's possible they simply stuck a leftover poster outside the door and hoped passers-by would notice. And I'd never have noticed if the Overground was running, but there I was walking up to Aldgate, and there they were, so in I went. St George's is the oldest German church in the UK, opened 250 years ago by a community of expat sugar-boilers, this being a key local industry at the time. A place of worship until 1996, it was subsequently rescued and restored by the Historic Chapels Trust, and is now used mostly for recitals, concerts and lectures. Very few box-pew chapels survive, let alone double-decker pulpits, and its Georgian altar decorations are also a sight to see. Visit on the first Tuesday lunchtime of the month to enjoy an organ recital on the restored Walcker. What shone through here, even more than at other venues over the weekend, was the dedication of a band of volunteers who've striven to keep the place alive, and really wanted you to stay for tea and biscuits so they could tell you more. And if that's the true spirit of Open House, long may it remain.