diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 12, 2021

Open House normally lasts just one weekend, so to be able to go out for a Day Three is a treat. It could have been Day Eight, given that a handful of properties also opened midweek, but slogging through the website to find three Saturday properties proved challenging enough. My trio of buildings included one from a nursery rhyme, one with a 9th floor roof terrace and one offering a free courgette to every visitor. Nothing outstanding, but still very much par for the course.

1) St Dunstan's
This has been on my OH list for years but I've never visited because there's always been somewhere better to go than Stepney. St Dunstan's is the oldest church in the East End, established by the aforementioned Bishop of London in the year 952. The current building's not quite that old but does boast a 10th century rood cross, a 13th century chancel and a 15th century tower. The Red Ensign flies from the flagpole because the Port of London once lay in the parish, so St Dunstan's was often known as the "Church of the High Seas" (and is where centuries of deaths at sea were registered). What with 16th century tombs, 19th century bells and 20th century glass, exploring the interior is like a full-on history lesson.



One of the most striking features is the stained glass window behind the altar which depicts a suspiciously blond Christ, mid-crucifixion, high above the ruined streets of wartime Stepney. I also liked the Mercer's Map, an embroidered historical perspective of the parish stitched by local ladies, and a full list of St Dunstan's rectors starting in 1233 and only recently overflowing onto a second plaque. This month the church is hosting an exhibition by local artists, dominated by four particularly evocative portraits of homeless men strung around pillars down the nave. Regular users of the food bank might like to know that current stocks include a heck of a lot of bottles of vegan mayo and packets of Uncle Ben's rice. And yes, this is indeed the building from the nursery rhyme... "When will that be, say the bells of Stepney."

2) Republic London
After the East India Docks were filled in, late eighties, the LDDC turned the Export Dock into an administrative estate. Tower Hamlets built their new town hall at one end, some of the UK's key data centres opened at the other, and inbetween arose some impressively bland postmodern office blocks. In 2015 plans were developed to knock them down and replace them with flats, but the developers instead chose a carbon-friendlier path by keeping the shells and renovating the interior. The end result was Republic, a "mixed use next generation office campus", conveniently located where the A12 meets the A13. The walkways now boast jazzed-up ponds overlooked by wooden gazebos that stream nightmarish musak, most of the ground floor retail units are yet to be occupied, and were it not for council employees and gymgoers the whole space would feel impressively dead. Pandemicwise, flats might have been by far the better choice.



For Open House we were welcomed inside the Import Building, inasmuch as a signless entrance and a terse security guard are welcoming. No photos of the interior were permitted, although I can confirm that the timber-frame inserted into the atrium looks very much like the official pictures on the website (except the cherry wasn't in flower). While waiting for our guides to arrive I peered into the "curated amenity offering", i.e. coffee shop, and noted that the so-called library was essentially 100 arty books arranged on the shelves by colour. A security issue affects visitor passes and the turnstiles, but I won't elucidate further because HM Government rent an office upstairs.



Our invitation to "Explore the Import Building" turned out to be just a chat in the atrium and a trip in the lift to the 9th floor. That said, an ascent to a roof terrace is an Open House staple that never gets tired, and the unobstructed parts of the view were rather splendid. The Dome and Thames were clearly visible behind East India DLR, the heart of Docklands resembled a fortress of blue and brown building blocks, and right up close was the 'On' button logo on the front of Global Switch's IT megahub. Canary Wharf will however disappear when one of Republic's four buildings is replaced by flats and student accommodation, which does suggest economics have finally overtaken carbon-friendliness in the owner's list of priorities.

3) St Mary of Eton Church Mixed Use Development
St Mary's is actually in Hackney Wick, but was indeed founded by a mission based in Eton when the public school sought to support a marginalised corner of the Victorian East End. The church is huge and Gothic, as befitted the congregation at the time, but a few years ago was suddenly hemmed in by a burst of flats in garish variegated brick which I have never taken to. Open House provided the ideal opportunity to go inside and find out why, and hopefully to appreciate the building a little better. And yes, the extra millions from selling off the churchyard and tower have gone to help St Mary's survive the future and retain some relevance, so now I detest the exterior a little less.



As part of the revamp half the church essentially became its church hall, with facilities deftly shielded behind timber shutters. The remaining chunk of nave behind the decorated screen is perfectly adequate for current levels of worship, its seats neatly laid out for today's Trinitytide service and with a Whitechapel Foundry bell hanging in one corner. I hung around for tea and Tunnocks and conversation, confirming the friendliness of the current set-up, and was honoured to be present at the precise moment when Reverend Sue suddenly discovered her church had a basement. She was keen I took a courgette from the table when I left because these donated vegetables wouldn't last, but courgettes are very much not my favourite squash so I had to disappoint her. If you're local, they're probably still up for grabs today.


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