In September 2023, I explored London’s hidden corners at the Open House Festival, an annual event that unveils the city’s usually closed spaces. From architectural wonders to historical nooks, London laid bare its secrets, and I was there to capture my fleeting impressions.
Convoys Wharf, nestled along the Thames, has a rich tapestry of history. Once home to a royal shipyard and a picturesque garden, it later transformed into a cattle market and military storage. However, the 1980s saw Rupert Murdoch take over, demolishing its historic structures and selling the land to a Hong Kong billionaire. For a decade and a half, the site remained dormant. But recently, construction of houses has commenced on this expansive land.
I enjoyed meeting Roo and Vanessa from the Sayes Court Garden organisation during my visit. They’re trying to revive a fragment of the site’s legacy by reintroducing vegetable gardens.
Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera House’s tour felt more like a teaser trailer for their premium experiences. They did showcase the royal box with chairs that Diana and Charles considered too uncomfortable.
International Maritime Organization
The lobby of the International Maritime Organization is a global showcase adorned with gifts from various nations. Nigeria presented an equestrian statue, India graced the space with a bust of Gandhi, while Russia contributed a model of a nuclear icebreaker. Above, a rooftop garden flourishes with birch trees, offering a view of the Palace of Westminster.
The Old Deanery
The Old Deanery, just a whisper away from St. Paul’s Cathedral, serves as the residence of the Bishop of London. Currently occupied by Bishop Sarah Mullally, the first woman to hold the title, the premises reflect her unique passion for clay modelling, as evidenced by the intriguing masks adorning the garden walls. I can’t help but chuckle at the thought of future archaeologists stumbling upon them and being utterly baffled.
Lancaster House has a tale as grand as its architecture. One of its previous owners faced financial ruin, sold its exquisite candelabra, and then the mansion itself. The generous buyer then gifted it to the government, which entrusted it to the Foreign Office. Today, it’s a venue for high-profile summits, lavish weddings, and film shoots, including The King’s Speech. Our tour was enriched by stories from the head butler, who once served burgers to Barack Obama.
Two Temple Place, Carpenters’ Hall and Coopers’ Hall
While there might not be much to say about them, some of London’s landmarks speak volumes through their understated elegance. Two Temple Place, once William Waldorf Astor’s residence, is a cosy mansion reflecting neo-Gothic opulence. At the same time, Carpenters’ Hall, with walls showcasing a diverse range of woods, and Coopers’ Hall represent the City’s historic guilds, each bearing the marks of their respective crafts.
Mansion House serves as the official residence of the Lord Mayor of the City of London. With its Palladian design and opulent interiors, this grand edifice has witnessed countless ceremonies and events. Here’s a quirky tidbit: the ceremonial mace of the Lord Mayor, a symbol of authority, weighs a hefty 30 pounds. Recognising its impracticality for travel, a lightweight, collapsible version was crafted, ensuring the Lord Mayor could conveniently tuck it into their hand luggage—quite the blend of tradition and modernity.
Southwark Integrated Waste Management Facility
The Southwark Integrated Waste Management Facility was a surprising highlight of the festival. While it might appear more modest than similar facilities in countries like Finland, its importance in London’s waste management infrastructure cannot be understated. The facility juggles recycling, composting, and even turning trash into energy. Unfortunately, the UK government’s take on waste segregation suggests they might prefer their trash undisturbed, like a fine wine collection. Who knew garbage could be so politically charged?
Guildhall masterfully blends contrasting elements with vaulted ceilings coexisting with the beautiful modernist West Wing. In the Great Hall, the mythological guardians Gog and Magog stand near Winston Churchill’s sculpture, merging ancient myths with historical figures. Following the Mansion House tour, my visit to Guildhall offered a cohesive view of London’s ceremonial and civic traditions, intertwining tales from different eras of the city’s rich history.
The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple
Tucked away by the Thames, the Middle Temple feels almost like a secret retreat where barristers can hide away from the world. In a city bustling with life, it’s a quiet corner where the guardians of the law seem to seclude themselves amidst the glow of stained glass.
Benjamin Franklin House
Nestled in the heart of London, this unassuming Georgian building on Craven Street was once the residence of Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Although Franklin himself walked these very floors, today, the house stands as an empty shell, devoid of his possessions.
This magnificent structure, a remnant of the lost Palace of Whitehall, stands out for its grandeur and architectural significance. Designed by Inigo Jones in the 17th century, it’s a pioneering example of Palladian architecture in England. Its main hall is adorned with a breathtaking ceiling painted by Peter Paul Rubens. Walking beneath it, I couldn’t help but reflect on the dramatic history that unfolded here, including the execution of Charles I, which took place outside.
The Royal Society
My final destination during the Open House Festival was The Royal Society, a globally renowned institution for scientific advancement. However, the building’s history has an intriguing twist. Before it became the home of The Royal Society, it served a dramatically different purpose in the 1930s: it was the embassy of Nazi Germany.
As I walked through the same spaces that once facilitated the diplomatic activities of the evil regime, I was struck by the profound transformations this building has witnessed. From a hub of political intrigue to a beacon of science, its journey mirrors the dynamic and often surprising nature of London’s historical landscape.
The Old Deanery illustration: Elia Kabanov feat. Midjourney.