London — Open House weekend

For one weekend a year only, London throws open its doors to let you explore all kinds of buildings, most of which aren’t usually open to the public – for free, and often with guided tours thrown in.

This has been going on for fifteen years, and I can’t believe this is the first time I have actually got myself together to go and look at some!

After some serious homework with the booklet, I whittled the 600 down to 18 possibles… In the end I managed four (plus some extras), and I’m very glad I did.

On Saturday I headed for the old City of London (the ‘Square Mile’) – normally deserted at weekends apart from the odd tourists;  an amazing palimpsest of old buildings and narrow streets overlaid with new buildings in the wake of war damage (and much of the City is still an ongoing building site).  I also had the extra bonus of coinciding with the Hell’s Angels funeral for the biker who was shot on the M40 – floats piled high with flowers, several black limos, and a procession of 1500 Harleys (with hardly a helmet in sight).  When they all revved and hooted at traffic lights it was an awe-inspiring experience.

Anyway… I got to see the ancient Guildhall, seat of City government since the Middle Ages, power base for Dick Whittington and many another Lord Mayor of London. Very informative (not to say refreshingly opinionated) tour guide, too.

Also on the Guildhall site were the Clockmakers’ Company’s Museum – a fantastic unexpected treat for those like myself with a horological bent – and a magnificent (though confusingly laid out) Art Gallery which includes some really famous Victorian paintings (along with some pretty boring ones);  and, down below,  bits of the original Roman arena.

Meanwhile I was dropping en route into any City churches that happened to be open.  No room to describe them here, but all four were fascinating.

Then I searched out Doctor Johnson’s house in Gough Square, hidden down an alley off Fleet Street.  I had to queue and it was quite a crush inside, but it was well worth it (and there was a very helpful talk by a very young volunteer guide).  Wonderful insight into the home life of the great man (and his surprisingly pokey rooms), plus the attic in which his team of Scottish scribes beavered away on the Dictionary which was his life’s work.

Then on Sunday morning I headed out to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East (not to be confused with Shakespeare’s Stratford which is a long way from London!) – a gorgeous tiny jewel in dark red and gold, with three horseshoe balconies and a terrific history of memorable productions (driven by the great eccentric, Joan Littlewood), including A Taste of Honey and Oh What a Lovely War, marooned among lots of faceless concrete on the ring road of this underprivileged suburb.  (With the new Eurostar station and the Olympic site close by, perhaps it is heading for a new lease of life.)  After the backstage tour came another treat:  a talk by Murray Melvin (star of that original Taste of Honey in the 1950s), now a silver-haired gent who is the theatre’s Archivist and genius loci.  Wonderful.

That left Sunday afternoon for a dash across town to Leighton House in Holland Park – home of the hugely successful and rich Victorian society painter, Lord Leighton.  As he grew richer, he added extra wings to his house, including an outrageous ‘Arab pavilion’ with a pool in the floor, a golden dome, and genuine (purloined) antique tiles from Syria and Persia.

Sad to say, although the walls were hung with huge numbers of Victorian canvases, every time one leapt out at me as being worth a look, it turned out to be not by Frederic Leighton himself but by Burne-Jones or G F Watts (and NOT illustrated in the catalogue!).

A most satisfying weekend.  I would love to say more about all of these sites, having hardly begun to do justice to their glories.  Only 596 buildings left to do next year!

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