Heritage Open Days – part two

As much as I love history and architecture, there’s some other loves that can sometimes distract me from my weekend plans – sleep, coffee and blogs by other people who enjoy exploring places and whose writing is far more accomplished than mine. This morning after waking up late, I did as I usually do on a weekend morning put on some filter coffee and start up my laptop and open up some of my favourite websites. Suddenly, the next thing you know it’s nearly midday and you’ve done nothing useful, although I suppose relaxing on a day off is the whole point of having them really. But on to where I did get to…

Horn Handle Works, Club Garden Road, Little Sheffield

Horn Handle Works, Club Garden Road, Sheffield

Starting where I left off the previous day, I began this morning with a trip to another local factory, but unlike Portland Works this one is no longer used for its original purpose. It got off to a slightly flat start with rain, low clouds, a venue that was difficult to park near (it turned out it wasn’t but the pay and display behind the building wasn’t obvious) and a destination that was deserted when I arrived. Having wandered round an empty building I was about to leave when I stumbled on someone outside doing a tour with a small group. I tagged on the end and he started the tour again shortly after.

Horn Handle Works started off life as Hill Brothers who made the handles for umbrellas and walking sticks largely out of stag horn unlike other local companies who imported ivory and other rare bones from abroad. Next door was a small separate factory next door that made the umbrellas themselves. Although the company closed in the 1970s the building survived and has now been taken over by Regather, a local co-operative that is using the small building for a host of community activities and events. When I visited they were in the middle of preparing food for an event tonight, the smell of which made me very hungry.

Despite the lacklustre start and despite the history of the building still in the process of being uncovered by volunteers, the brief tour was interesting and the man who did it was pretty engaging. You really needed the tour though as this was about the history of the building and the wider Little Sheffield area rather than what there was to look at in the building itself which was fairly limited. What’s clear is that they’re still at the beginning of developing something bigger in a little known bit of the city and their next event – Little Sheffield Feast (based on a real festival that used to happen in the area) – is a sign that in future there will be much more to take part in.

Christ Church, Pitsmoor Road, Pitsmoor

Christ Church, Pitsmoor, Sheffield

My experience of Heritage Open Days is starting to look like it’s all about the factories and churches, but this visit was for another reason – my family history. Both my great grandparents George Wakefield and Sarah Jane Woolhouse and my great great grandparents (on a different side of the family) John Radley and Thirza Chapman, were married at this church within three years of each other. Having driven past lots of times this was a good opportunity to see inside.

What was beginning to concern me at this point however was that this was my second visit of the day, and there still no coffee and cake! But this place had a very local charm about it. Greeted by the vicar I was asked the standard question at all Heritage Open Days – “so are you visiting for any particular reason?” – and I was then pointed towards parish registers (which sadly didn’t cover the 1880s when my family were there) and a random large collection of photographs, news clippings, parish magazines and other items that the church had clearly dug out of a cupboard somewhere and piled up on the tables. That sounds critical, but really it’s not meant to be, and they’d produced some posters that explained a bit about the history of the building. Consequently there were a lot of “ooh that’s such and such a person” from local residents perusing the photographs.

For me though, most of all it was great to stand in the spot where my ancestors did and which ultimately resulted in me being born just under a century later.

Wincobank Hill Fort, Jenkin Road, Wincobank
and Wincobank Undenominational Chapel, Wincobank Avenue, Wincobank

This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. In a city that dines out on its industrial heritage, it all too often forgets about its much earlier history and that included the brigantine fort at Wincobank.

Wincobank Undenominational Chapel, Wincobank, Sheffield

This visit started off at Wincobank Undenominational Chapel which was built in 1841 by the sisters Mary Ann Rawson and Emily Read of Wincobank Hall. The chapel has a definite oldie worldy charm dominated by a huge (and apparently unique) organ, but the most interesting thing from visiting the chapel was discovering the story of these two phenomenal sisters who were leading lights in the campaign to abolish slavery, supported a variety freedom fighters and missionaries, who were benefactors to many local causes, and who should probably be much better known.

The bit I was most looking forward to with this visit was the guided tour of Wincobank Hill Fort. Led by a very knowledgeable geeky long-haired local guy in Brigantine costume complete with fake sword, and accompanied by two other local ‘friends’ of the fort, our small group of visitors were led past the dumped sofas on the street next door up to the woodland around the fort. The route that we took was actually well thought out as it led us along the hillside and up to the fort from below giving you a really good sense of the outer banks, ditches and ramparts and how sizeable the structure is. Reaching the top what was then really dramatically striking was its position. The views from the fort were dramatic, not only across the Don Valley but also across the Blackburn Valley towards Keppel’s Column and over northern Sheffield. Only by visiting the fort do you truly understand why it was built where it was and its strategic significance as you can see for miles.

The tour around the site was interesting, although there were moments when the main guide’s enthusiasm for the era needed reining in a bit as I got lost with all the detail of the people, the battles and the moments of Romano-British history that impacted on the site. It made me want to learn more about that time however. The walking tour over an hour and a half but it did give you a real sense of the significance of the place that you wouldn’t get from visiting on your own.

Wincobank Hill Fort, Wincobank, Sheffield

Wincobank Hill Fort is probably one the most significant historic monuments in Sheffield, if not the region, and yet it is little explored. What this visit really did was remind me how little we cherish our pre-industrial heritage with houses encroaching so closely to the fort that they felt as though they’d been built within the fort itself. Perhaps there is much more potential for the city to make more of this time in our history.

There ended my visits as part of Heritage Open Days. I’m looking forward to next year already.

Photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015

All of my photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015 on Flickr

Heritage Open Days – part one

Heritage Open Days is one of those things that’s always put in to my diary early, as soon as I know the date.  But sadly, it’s often ended up clashing with work commitments so with it this year falling on a clear weekend, and an already scheduled day off, it was obvious I had to plan a weekend of heritage, architecture and exploring Sheffield.  So here’s part one of my visits:

St. Catherine of Siena Church, Richmond Road, Woodthorpe

St. Catherine of Siena Church, Sheffield

Built in 1959 this is one of Sheffield’s most modern listed buildings as grade II, but most significantly it’s one of two churches in the city designed by Basil Spence of Coventry Cathedral fame.  The church was constructed for the new Richmond parish to serve the residents of the new Woodthorpe Estate that had grown up behind the church.

One thing I learnt straight away today was that the fall back fundraiser at Heritage Open Days is coffee and cake, as every place I visited had them offer.  However with no signs outside indicating that St. Catherine’s was part of Heritage Open Days I did feel ever so slightly as if I was intruding on a coffee morning. Despite this I pressed on in to the church.  It’s a fairly small and simply designed church, with little natural light and as an anglo-catholic church a strong smell of incense.  It also had slightly surreally music that started playing as you entered although this did however create a sense of calm and atmosphere that was pretty pleasant.

On the way out the priest appeared and pointed out a nice painting in a small hall behind the church proper which intriguingly shows the building the opposite way round from how it was built.  After a very short look around I went to examine the bell tower which personally I think is the best bit as it makes a fairly low key building stand out.

St. Paul Church, Wordsworth Avenue, Parson Cross

St. Paul's Church, Wordsworth Avenue, Sheffield

Having visited one of Basil Spence’s Sheffield churches I thought I’d go and explore his other one which as a grade II* is his Sheffield masterpiece.  Like St. Catherine’s, St. Paul’s was built in 1959 to serve a new housing estate which when built outside the Sheffield boundaries was unnamed and so unusually the parish church was named after the road it was on.

This building was more wholeheartedly in to the Heritage Open Day experience, with signs, information guides, people greeting you and telling you about the building, along with the usual coffee and cake.  However what it also had was a young enthusiastic trainee priest who wanted to discuss my faith. As it was a church I suppose I can’t really object but I always feel uncomfortable when ‘on their patch’ and asked to discuss my views on the church and whether I have any ‘spirituality’ with someone who so clearly wholeheartedly believes in something that I absolutely do not.  What was interesting though was discovering from him that the Archbishop of York has decided to use the opening of churches to the public over this weekend to go and engage more with the public in his province who don’t normally attend church, and Sheffield is this year’s focus for their efforts. With enthusiastic priests such as the one I spoke to I’m sure some of their churches will at least have a good future. During our conversation and after saying what I do for a living he did however also turn out to be one of the biggest Tim Farron fans I’ve met with the words “Wow, I can’t believe you know Tim Farron” being repeated several times during our conversation.

Back to the church.  Whereas St Catherine’s was a little gloomy, St Paul’s has lots of light with large windows at both ends and beautiful undulating walls and warm looking modern wooden pews.  Whilst clearly struggling with major 1950s design and technology flaws, it is still a masterpiece 60 years on.  It is archetypal minimalist modernism.  Once again though I have to say a bit about the bell tower which adopts a similar approach to St. Catherine’s and makes it obvious that it’s the same architect, but this one is also linked to the church via cloister like walkways which gives a sense of entering and leaving a peaceful sanctuary despite being in the middle of a Sheffield council estate.

Grenoside Reading Room, School Lane, Grenoside

Grenoside Reading Room, Grenoside, Sheffield

Now let’s go back in time.  Grenoside Reading Room started life in 1790 as a school room but has gone through various uses until it became a community building clearly very well used by local residents.  Along with yet more coffee and cakes (and some very impressive ones at that) the main focus of their participation was to celebrate the building and showcase what it does.  It had bunting fluttering outside, posters, two vintage cars parked in front, and displays showing many of the groups and activities that meet there.  It also had an exhibition from its local history group about health in Grenoside.

Unlike the other buildings architecture wasn’t really the focus here, but it was nice to see a lovely local building still being very actively used.  I also ended up catching up with a former local councillor for the area who happened to be on duty when I was visiting, in a day that despite being off work was developing a worryingly Lib Dem theme.

Walkley Community Centre (former Walkley Reform Club), Fir Street, Walkley

Walkley Community Centre (former Walkley Reform Club), Walkley, Sheffield

Tucked away in a backstreet off Walkley’s ‘high street’ of South Road is the former Walkley Reform Club, set up by local Liberals in the early 20th century, but now serving as the community centre.  Architecturally the building is not that significant but as this is Heritage Open Days it’s about history not just architecture, and the building has long held a significant place in the local community.

For me the political history was understandably a very interesting part, and this was thoroughly embraced by the volunteers involved in the building now and it’s impossible to go around the building without noticing many plaques and displays that show this off.  I don’t know why I should be surprised about that really given it’s the original reason for the building’s existence, but given the current political situation I thought they might be a little more shy about it.  Mind you there were the odd passing comments about how the Liberals were really quite left wing you know perhaps to appease the area’s currently left-leaning local residents.  The most fascinating part of the building was the billiard hall upstairs which included four full-size billiard tables whose size makes you realise how small the ones are that you see in pubs.  At the end of this room was a lovely commemorative window for members of the Reform Club who were killed in the First World War – a result of research by local historians spurred on by the recent commemorations of the start of that conflict.

Over a coffee (yes, more of that on offer again) I spent a long time talking to various volunteers involved in the centre about local history and a lot about family history generally – there’s and mine.  It was an enjoyable discussion and I suspect might lead to this not being my last visit to the building.

Portland Works, Randall Street, Highfield

Portland Works, Randall Street, Sheffield

My final visit of the day was something very different.  The campaign to save Portland Works from a planned redevelopment in to apartments has been very high profile in the city, and resulted in a very significant (and unusual) success in that the planning application was withdrawn and a fundraising effort resulted in it being sold to a not-for-profit company who now run it and are trying preserve the building whilst retaining both its traditional use and renovating it so new tenants will move and so make it financially sustainable.

Portland Works started off as the premises of Mosley’s cutlery manufacturers and was built in 1880 in an area that at that time would have been full of other cutlery works.  This was a place that had really gone to town on making sure that it was a worthwhile experience for those of us who were visiting – clear signs outside, a small group of volunteers welcoming people and handing out a short leaflet that included a self-guided tour, and then many other volunteers stationed around the building.

The tour takes in buildings dedicated to various stages of the cutlery making process – grinding, polishing, maintenance of the machinery, plating and also the offices and showrooms.  What was especially interesting was seeing how much of the old machinery is still in place and still being used by craftsmen today to continue with the making of bespoke knives, and also other businesses in some of the newly refurbished workshops with artists and one man who appeared to make electric guitars.  To my surprise, the tour also gave you the opportunity (health and safety should look away now) to go up some fairly flimsy looking metal stairs right up on to the flat roof of one of the old buildings where there was a great view over the building and surrounding area.

All in all a fascinating visit to a building that I’d heard and read so much about but not actually visited before.  It also goes to show that given the opportunity, people can turn traditional buildings that might be deemed scruffy and antiquated in to a viable thriving centre for craftspeople and artists.

So there ended the first part of my Heritage Open Days weekend with more to come…

Photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015

All of my photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015 on Flickr

Open House London 2013 summing up

So a whole week after I went to Open House I’ve finally written up all the places I went to.  It may have been long and drawn out writing it up, but busy weekends full of interesting places is how I like my weekends to be and so I wanted to do each place justice.  So here’s my summing up.

I went to the following places:

Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Marlborough House
Linnean Society – Burlington House
Society of Chemistry – Burlington House
Society of Antiquaries – Burlington House
University College Hospital Macmillan Cancer Centre

Bevis Marks Synagogue
Drapers’ Hall
St. Magnus the Martyr Church
Custom House
St. George’s German Lutheran Church
One Bishops Square
Hoxton Hall

I couldn’t pick out a favourite building as they were all so different and interesting, although I think Custom House was the most disappointing.

My tips:

  • Buy the Open House London booklet as it contains masses of information which is easier to consume on paper than searching online (you can already pre-order next year’s booklet).
  • Decide a rough geographical area that you want to spend your day in as otherwise you’ll spend a lot of time travelling.
  • You have to plan your day properly well in advance as some of the really interesting unusual buildings involve booking a place.  Make sure you know exactly where you’re going to start your day (preferably at the most popular place you’re wanting to visit to make sure you don’t join a long queue late in the afternoon) and then write out a rough itinerary for the rest of the day, but don’t be too strict.  Have a few options for later in the day and write down the last entry time for each one, as you may want to vary it depending on your mood and unexpected factors.  Also, look for the ones that are open later than most other places.  And check that the place you really want to go to isn’t only open for one day.
  • Print off the special maps that have been produced for six of the areas with the most places to visit as these are really useful in working out at a glance what else there is nearby that you might not have spotted but can be fitted in to your visit.  They are also helpful in places where there are a lot of possible places to visit in a spot where the boundaries of several London boroughs meet as the official booklet lists everything by borough.  I particularly found it useful in the area where the City of London, Tower Hamlets and Hackney come together as I don’t necessarily know which borough somewhere is in.
  • Check back on the Open House website a few days before you go as there are always last minute changes.
  • A long queue doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to wait a long time as I found at both the Foreign Office and Bevis Marks Synagogue.
  • Quite a few entries in the booklet say that there is a maximum number on a tour and it’s done on a ‘first come first served’ basis.  Don’t let this put you off.  Although the Society of Antiquaries stuck rigidly to the number, most places are less strict if it’s only one or two extra and they’re a less popular building to visit.
  • Do something old and something new.
  • Do something popular and something really obscure.
  • Read blogs from seasoned Open House attendees and follow @OpenHouseLondon and #OpenHouse on Twitter for useful information on the day, such as there unexpectedly being no queue at a really popular building.  I should add with the latter though that people use #OpenHouse for other things not just this event.
  • Take a decent camera that doesn’t need a flash to work well, as most places do allow photography and you can get some amazing pictures of places people don’t see very often.  I took a lot of photos, which you can see here on Flickr, but hadn’t taken a proper camera.
  • Don’t plan to do anything else over the weekend and don’t go out late the night before.

I thoroughly enjoyed my first Open House London and I can’t wait until next year’s.  A festival of some truly amazing buildings that people have created, and a chance to see worlds very different from our own.  It’s tiring and very easy to try and fit too much in so don’t forget that there’s always next year.

Open House London 2013 – day 2, part 1

After spending most of day one in Westminster I decided to spend day two in the City of London, with slight digressions in to Tower Hamlets and Hackney, although around that bit of London you barely notice the join.  There’s a mass of interesting modern buildings to visit in the City, but as much as I’d love to go up the Gherkin I don’t want to spend all day stood in a very long queue.  A queue, which by the end of the day seemed to have become an attraction in its own right.

Bevis Marks Synagogue

Bevis Marks SynagogueBevis Marks Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Britain and was a popular place to visit during Open House.

One place I’d decided that I particularly wanted to visit during Open House was a synagogue, and various different ones were open on the Sunday.  I’m not quite sure why I felt a particular draw to a synagogue.  I have been to one before – many years ago when I was in Scouts I went to the synagogue that has since closed on Wilson Road in Sheffield – but if you want to do a religious building in the City then a synagogue seems like an obvious choice if you don’t want to do yet another church.  Bevis Marks Synagogue was recommended to me, and so I joined the queue outside.

Bevis Marks was neither a guided tour nor a free flowing walk around the building.  Instead we were all gathered in seats and given a brief talk about the building and some of the key people connected to it.  This meant that they had to admit large groups in one go with us waiting outside on the street until it was our turn.  This was slightly off putting as it looked like a long queue, but in reality you didn’t have to wait any longer than half and hour and then the queue pretty much cleared.  With Bevis Marks being just around the corner from the Gherkin, most of the time spent in the queue was spent telling passers-by “no, this isn’t the queue for the Gherkin.”

My trip to Bevis Marks answered two questions.  One – Bevis Marks was not the name of some old Jew despite the impression the name gives, it’s actually the name of the road it’s on and the Bevis bit is a corruption of Bury St. Edmunds.  Two – it isn’t as difficult to keep a Jewish kippah on your head as you might think but you still have to be careful it doesn’t fall off.  I’ve no idea how people who wear one permanently find it, but I suppose you get used to these things.  It was an interesting visit just to see more about the country’s long Jewish heritage, but architecturally it isn’t the masterpiece that so many other buildings are.

Drapers’ Hall

This was an unplanned part of my day and came about purely through chatting to people in the queue who’d been there already and recommended it.  I’d never been to one of the City of London livery halls and so I decided this was a good place to start and in the end it showed exactly what Open House is about – something impressive that you’d never know about otherwise.

9985522625_76a6edc599_zDrapers’ Hall was behind a nice but relatively unassuming entrance on Throgmorton Avenue.  As you entered the building you went along a corridor that took you past some hidden gardens in to the heart of the hall.  Once you’d gone up the stairs that’s where you realised the impressive interior.  There’s a number of interesting rooms in Drapers’ Hall, but when you step in to the Livery Hall you’re blown away.  This is a building that from the street is just part of a terrace with shops at ground level, and then you go in to the building off it and in it you see this huge hall with high ceilings, paintings, murals, impressive columns and massive space.  It’s rare that you ever see anything like this.  What was equally strange though was the number of people just milling, chatting to each other and not really enjoying the building in the way you’d expect.

On the way out of the Livery Hall through some other impressive rooms there was a display of many ancient documents from The Drapers’ Company’s collection.  It just shows you how many interesting and important documents there are hidden away in private collections that are vital to our country’s history, but that you might not realise are there.  For a family historian like myself I tend to use whatever is there in public records, but you never think to check places such as this, and the indexes of what they hold are less well known and yet still available if you look.

This was one place I’d not planned to visit, but was pleased I had.  It wasn’t fascinating in the way that some others are because they’re important historically or because I’ve heard of them before, but it definitely was interesting for its curiosity value, unfamiliarity and surprise.

Open House London 2013 – day 1, part 4

By late Saturday afternoon I was beginning to flag.  I felt tired and my feet ached.  Yet, there was still another hour to go until most buildings closed for the day.  Plus all day I’d spent my time looking round old buildings, and as interesting as that was I felt the need to go somewhere modern and the nearest place that met the bill was the University College Hospital Macmillan Cancer Centre.

Admittedly this doesn’t sound like the most exciting building to go and look round.  After all, most of us have been in plenty of hospitals over the years.  But the photograph in the Open House booklet made it look more interesting and I find imaginative modern architecture genuinely exciting and that’s as much what Open House is about as access to older buildings.

University College Hospital Macmillan Cancer Centre

UCH Macmillan Cancer CentreThis was the quietest place I’d been all day.  As soon as I went through the doors of the building it was clear that the only thing that was happening there was Open House and so straight away I was approached by someone to sign in.  The Open House guide said that they would only take 8 people per tour and there was, much to my surprise given how quiet it was, already that number, but they didn’t seem too worried as they were hardly rushed off their feet.  In fact I didn’t see a sign there were any patients at all that day, only staff, on the whole tour.

There was another tour already underway, but the one I joined was led by Guy, University College Hospital‘s Art Curator.  Who knew such jobs existed?  I’m all in favour of there being more art outside of art galleries, but in these days of austerity it did seem a bit of a luxury for a hospital to have a member of staff dedicated to art.  Being led by Guy meant that his specialism was the art on display around the building rather than the architecture of the building, although he did know a bit about that, and medicine.  However, one person on the tour was a member of medical staff from elsewhere in UCH and so she filled in the gaps of knowledge.  The group on the tour was an eclectic bunch of people, about half of whom from looking at them I wouldn’t let wander round a hospital unescorted.

The tour started at the top of the building, where you could look out over their roof garden, which is what eventually formed the ceiling of the central atrium.  The building is one of those in many parts of London whose height is restricted due to rules about views towards St. Paul’s Cathedral and this played a large part in how the building was designed.  However one thing that was important to its design was the need to provide natural daylight as much as possible, to help improve the wellbeing and recovery time of cancer patients.  This meant that every room faced either out on to the street or in towards the central atrium, or in some cases both.  I imagine during the week when the building is presumably a lot busier it also helps to see from the walkways that surrounded the atrium people walking around and lots of business and people going about their daily lives.

University College Hospital Macmillan Cancer CentreOn each floor was a succession of different pieces of artwork.  Some of these were designs that were then placed on to the floor by each floor’s reception area and outside the lifts, and others were more conventionally displayed around the walls of each corridor.  Many of these pieces of art had been donated by the artist (including famous names such as Grayson Perry and the artist Pure Evil who I’d heard of but couldn’t place until I later remembered where I’d heard the name before) or bought through a fundraising effort.  What these managed to do was brighten up what was otherwise a normal sterile white hospital building, but in this case actually made even more plain by the constant use of glass, metal and concrete.  The centrepiece of all these artworks was Stuart Haygarth’s ‘Strand’ which consisted of an amazingly colourful installation in the main entrance as well as a cabinet showing the route he took along the coast to collect the pieces used for the installation and postcards that you could just help yourself to.  In the basement of the building was the final piece of art which was entirely different in character, and that was two old paintings from the original University College Hospital that ended up homeless when the building was demolished.  They were bought by the Wellcome Foundation, who then loaned them back to the Macmillan Cancer Centre.

This was an interesting visit, mainly to discover the work that goes on to use art to improve the wellbeing of cancer patients.  The building actually ended up playing second fiddle, and whilst it was an impressively modern medical building, and they’d clearly really thought through what makes it more comfortable for long-term patients, especially younger ones, it wasn’t so different from the hospitals that we usually see that it was worth a special visit.

Open House London 2013 – day 1, part 2

Marlborough House

Marlborough House, Pall Mall, LondonMarlborough House on Pall Mall is the HQ for The Commonwealth, and so it provided an unintended continuity with my previous visit to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

Unfortunately Marlborough House didn’t allow internal photography, one of only two places I went to that didn’t, and so the picture of the grand facade facing on to the gardens (which are separated from The Mall by a high wall), is all you’re going to get.  It was also a nice change from the Foreign Office as it was a lot quieter and there was no queue.

Marlborough House is essentially used today as offices and a meeting venue.  The focus of which is a room with one of those boat-shaped tables (like that used by the cabinet) which allows people sat round the table to see each other more clearly.  Around the table was a little flag and place marker for each of the Commonwealth countries.  It really brought home to you how this federation pretty much treats everyone as an equal whether you’re Canada or Kiribati.

The most impressive room however was the main entrance hall, which has some impressive murals.

After the imperialistic glory of the Foreign Office and the enduring but now positive legacy of our colonial past at Marlborough House, I was starting to understand how some people see this and come to a jingoistic outlook on the world.  I wasn’t quite ready to rush round the corner to UKIP’s conference underway at Westminster Central Hall, but I could see how it might happen.

Open House London 2013 – day 1, part 1

I’ve been wanting to visit London’s Open House weekend for ages.  After all, for someone interested in architecture, London and history, what could be better.  But it’s always clashed with Liberal Democrat conference and so I’ve not been able to make it.  This year it didn’t clash and so despite desperately needing a weekend of sleep and general recuperating from my week in Glasgow, I headed off to Open House.  Never once over the weekend did I regret going.

I planned my itinerary for the weekend on the train to London, and that’s when I realised my first mistake.  You need to plan this well in advance as many of the most interesting (or smallest) buildings are book in advance only, and generally they were booked up weeks ago.  If you want to do Open House properly, planning is very much the key to the whole thing.  For a start, the number of buildings that are open is huge and so you have to be hugely selective.  Some buildings are also only open on one of the days at the weekend, some have huge queues, and often you have in mind a building you’d like to see but it’s not going to work if it’s miles away from everything else.  There’s also some last minute changes to the printed guide that you only know about if you go to their website.

One thing that I definitely recommend though is to read the advice of seasoned Open Housers.  There is a whole art, or is it a science, to doing Open House and so their advice is valuable and they will often have tips that you may not have thought about.  The two I picked up on (as I’m fans of their websites anyway) were from Diamond Geezer and Londonist but there’ll be many others.

So on with the show…

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

I’d decided that day one would start in Westminster as I wanted to do one of the ‘big’ impressive buildings that didn’t involve booking in advance.  That made the Foreign & Commonwealth Office the obvious place to start.  To be honest, had I not read Londonist‘s recommendations I would have probably turned round and gone elsewhere when I saw the queue stretching round a side and a half of King Charles Street.  But true to what I was told, the queue was pretty fast moving and I was in within 20-25 minutes.  Queues aren’t so bad when they are clearly moving quickly, and it helps that the Foreign Office is large and so it can cope with a lot of people at once.  The Open House volunteers, (which as in every building were a mixture of general volunteers and people who work in the building), kept people in the queue feeling chirpy with quiz sheets and a guide to read.  There’s also a camaraderie amongst the people in the queue, which helps.

I have to say that the Foreign Office genuinely wowed me.  Some of the rooms were spectacular, but they also had some good materials to explain what each room was.  They also did, what many of the government buildings did over the weekend, and promote the work of what they did in a “we’re nice and fluffy really, honest” kind of way as well as going to town on how green they are.  I particularly enjoyed the display demonstrating the hardships that come with being a diplomat.  I spent a whole hour there thanks to the amount there was to look at and admire and the well done pop-up display stands that told you about each room as you went in.  There was also a very good short film overview of the building’s history and architecture presented by William Hague, which was a nice touch and which probably worked better than a film from a government minister should as I think people generally like him, although it did also emphasise how oddly he speaks.

The highlight of the Foreign Office was Durbar Court, an amazing former courtyard, now roofed over that just looked stunning.    The Foreign & Commonwealth Office actually started off as separate buildings for different departments, some of which such as the India Office and the Colonial Office, no longer exist, and others such as the Home Office have moved elsewhere.  But you’d never really notice the join.  Durbar Court was once used for a reception to impress the Sultan of Turkey, and you can see how it would.  Picking out one room in the Foreign Office though is a bit pointless, as they’re all good and they all have been the host of one important or interesting event or another.  The other set of really grand rooms was the Locarno Suite where the Locarno Treaties were signed in 1925, another set of rooms that were destroyed by false ceilings and walls post-war.  Thankfully we appreciate these things better these days than we did then.

Grand Reception Room, Locarno Suite, Foreign OfficeOne thing I found myself doing was taking loads of photographs everywhere I went.  I hadn’t expected to and so I didn’t bring a decent camera and just had to make do with my phone, the quality of which I now see is worse than I realised.  But I suddenly found myself turning in to a complete and utter tourist, and snapping away all the time.  I was quite surprised that the Foreign Office were so free and easy about it, although I did see one stern looking Foreign Office official speak to a couple who looked as though they were about to photograph a fire escape plan on the wall (they weren’t, and actually if she hadn’t been passing just at that point, she’d never have known if they were).  As a result I have uploaded photos to my Flickr account as that sums up my visits in a far better way than any words can.

See my Flickr gallery of photos of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

You can also read an official history of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office building on the government website as well.