This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of what has become one of London’s hardy perennials: Open House. It’s an annual festival of architecture which gives free access to hundreds of the capital’s historically significant properties, many of which are out of reach most of the time.
Preparation is key. If possible get yourself the printed guide. Use it in conjunction with the website to work out your itinerary. Also, many sites need to be pre-booked on a time slot basis. Lots of locations are open Saturday or Sunday, not both. Check all of this carefully or disappointment awaits.
Here is my dream selection for this year comprising geographically and functionally disparate sites. I won’t get to them all, I know that: it’s an aspiration not a commitment, as the politicians would have it. But I’ll give it a good go.
Seize this opportunity to visit some of London’s wonderful town halls, lest or before they are sold off. Ealing, Hackney, Islington, Shoreditch, Woolwich and more are worthy of attention – outstanding cathedrals to civic pride from a time when that was still a thing.
Barnard’s Inn Hall, Holborn, is the home of Gresham College. A beautiful pre-Tudor hall which survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz. If you miss it this time, it’s accessible through one of the College’s free public lectures during the year.
St Bartholomew’s Hospital: This 900-year-old medical institution is very much worth a visit for the early Georgian great hall by James Gibbs and local lad William Hogarth’s grand staircase murals.
Battersea Power Station: This magnificent old wreck is finally being restored as part of a huge housing and retail regeneration project. Giles Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece has recently had its chimneys renovated and is coming back to life.
Meanwhile, the House Mill is a remarkable Georgian tidal mill on the river Lea which, if it weren’t for the Luftwaffe would probably still be operational today.
Buildings connected to all major religions are part of Open House and there are dozens of sites to choose from. I’ve picked out a few must-sees…
Lambeth Palace, London HQ of the Archbishops of Canterbury, is seriously ancient and rarely open to the public except for those on official business.
St George’s Bloomsbury, a Hawksmoor church, is wacky inside and out, while St Mary the Virgin in Perivale, a tiny wooden church dating from the 12th century, provides a delightful and peaceful interlude if you want to escape the Open House hordes.
From the ‘been-meaning-to-go-but-never-got-around-to-it’ department, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is a traditional Hindu temple which was hand-carved in India from European stone and assembled like Lego in the 1990s in Neasden.
Alms houses represent a long tradition of London philanthropy. Simple and dignified, there are a few to choose from during Open House. I’d be inclined to try those at the Geffrye Museum, Shoreditch.
Brutalism is style of architecture people either love or hate, but even the haters will surely be fascinated by Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, Kensal Town. ‘Brutal but classy: just like London’, quotes the guide.
The Oak Room, Islington, is a converted block of luxury apartments that includes a jaw-dropping room that was once the boardroom of the New River Company and is home to carvings by Grinling Gibbons.
Emery Walker’s House, Hammersmith, has very recently reopened after a restoration. Emery Walker was a printer who was the mentor of William Morris. Normal entry charge is a little steep in my opinion, therefore take this opportunity for a free mooch.
Caledonian Park Clock Tower stands proud and alone in a large park in Islington that was used as London’s cattle market from the 1850s to well into the 20th Century. It’s hard now to imagine the smell and the noise.
London is steeped in the history of flight, so where better to experience this than our first commercial airport, Airport House, in Croydon.
Remember, good preparation is essential. Do your homework and you’ll have a wonderful weekend, and, best of all, it’s all for free.
For more information about Open House London, go here
Mike Paterson is director of London Historians