London Walks: Rollicking, Frolicking Fitzrovia

It’s been a while since I went on a London Walk and this one has been on my to do list for a while, but as one that isn’t a part of their regular programme it’s all come down to whether I’ve been in London on the right weekend.

I’ve always been intrigued by Fitzrovia. Despite being in the heart of London, just off Oxford Street, and surrounded by many well known areas such as Soho, Bloomsbury, Marylebone and Mayfair, it’s a place that a  lot of people haven’t heard of or at least couldn’t place on a map. The guide for this walk, Jane (a former school teacher although you could have easily seen her as the actor that she pointed out that she wasn’t at the start), got things rolling at Warren Street station making the very point about its obscurity to the surprisingly small group of eight of us. So as always, here are some of the highlights, although in not too much detail so as to not spoil the walk for others who may wish to pay their £10 to go on it:

Fitzroy Square, London

    • Fitzrovia has long been a home for a number of artists and radicals and as a result developed a bit of a bohemian reputation including some of the inevitable scandals. Big names include Virginia Woolf (and various members of the Bloomsbury Set), Louise Michel, George Bernard Shaw, Francisco de Miranda, Walter Sickert, James Whistler, Ford Madox Brown, Grayson Perry and Roger Fry. Many of them lived in and around the beautiful Fitzroy Square which takes up a decent chunk of the walk and provides a host of stories to be told.
    • BT Tower dominates the area and you can’t help feel sad that its rotating restaurant is no longer open. A popular London landmark now, but can you imagine trying to get planning permission for it in 2016!
    • Fitzrovia Play Association Mural on Goodge Place is a lovely montage of some of the various prominent figures who lived in the area, some of whom aren’t covered in the walk, and so it shows how many more stories there are to tell about the area.

Fitzrovia Play Association Mural, Goodge Place, London

    • The Cleveland Street Scandal is a fascinating story well worth reading more about and in particular in the way that this all overlaps with some of the wilder theories around Jack the Ripper, Walter Sickert, Prince Eddy and the death of Mary Kelly.
    • Charles Dickens crops up a few times as he lived in Cleveland Street and just along the road from that house continues to exist (albeit now derelict) the Strand Union Workhouse which may have inspired Oliver Twist, and nearby is Berners Street home to another legend around the ‘White Woman’ who may have become Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, and the Woman in White of Wilkie Collins.
    • The architecture varies and there are some fascinating buildings in this area which I’d not really spotted before. Apart from the BT Tower there are a host of Georgian buildings, there’s the super modern Arup Offices and the 50s built Indian YMCA on Fitzroy Street, the jumbled non-conformity of the de Walden Estate, the huge yet hidden All Saints Church on Margaret Street and the small yet hidden Fitzrovia Chapel, the unique All Souls on Langham Place and the beautiful tiling of Radiant House on Mortimer Street.

Great Titchfield Street, London

  • The BBC inevitably gets a mention, as does the Berners Street Hoax, but I also discovered (or perhaps re-remembered) that two of my favourite books Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell and Saturday by Ian McEwan have strong Fitrovia connections. It also includes one of my favourite shops The Scandinavian Kitchen on Great Titchfield Street.

This was a walk well worth doing and whilst it didn’t strike me at the time, it’s writing this up now that I remember how much I saw and what a fascinating area it is. Well worth spending some time there.

London Walks: Inside Covent Garden

A rare midweek trip to London meant that I could join another one of the regulars of the London Walks programme that I wouldn’t normally get a chance to do, the Inside Covent Garden walk.

It’s been a while since I did a walk around a part of Westminster that I felt I knew reasonable well. Of late I’ve either done themed ones or ones in a bit of non-central London that I don’t really know. I thought I knew Covent Garden and I was expecting this walk to be largely about the market, despite the blurb on the London Walks website, but it was so much more than that and absolutely fascinating.

Covent Garden Piazza, London

The guide was the most clearly thespian Simon Whitehouse, a new one on me which made a change as increasingly I’m finding I recognise most of the guides. Meeting outside Covent Garden tube station, the band of 16 walkers, all bar three of whom were overseas visitors from various countries, it soon became clear that there was going to be a constant battle against noise. No sooner did Simon start speaking then workmen started drilling in a neighbouring building, to be joined soon after by a lorry beeping to reverse around the corner. At this point the introduction was abandoned and we moved elsewhere for it instead. This was when it also became clear that one of the fellow walkers was going to be trouble. One of the group was an Italian and particularly grumpy about the noise, which was difficult at times (as we were competing against a London Poppy Day event) but as the guide pointed out “well we are outdoors” but the Italian then added to this by twice answering his phone whilst the guide was trying to speak. The introduction we eventually got did a brief overview of the history of the area, its ups and downs in the social scale and a bit about the market. But soon moved on to other things which I will as before summarise but not give much detail so as to not spoilt it for others:

  • I feel I should have realised but the grand square of Covent Garden existed long before the actual market building, and changed from being a high class area to somewhere more down market to then what it is today. It was interesting to discover that the history of Covent Garden wasn’t what I’d realised.
  • St Paul’s Church Covent Garden is known as the actors church and many of them are commemorated and/or buried there, including theatre cats. This is a lovely church and a place I’ve just walked past without realising what a little sanctuary it is both inside and out, especially when you go round to the entrance at the back of the building.
  • The history of the costermongers, and the origins of the pearly kings and queens. I’d assumed these were specifically an East End thing, I hadn’t realised they were London-wide and very much connected to the markets of the city.
  • When this walk was billed as ‘Inside’ Covent Garden, I assumed it would be inside the market, but we actually largely skirted round this. The first stop was the fascinating Simpsons-in-the-Strand restaurant next door to the Savoy Hotel. This isn’t the sort of place I’d have expected would want tourists tramping round, even if it was out of their open hours, but we saw a couple of different rooms, learnt about its history and its link to international chess. Simpsons was also the place where the Italian I mentioned managed to get trapped in the revolving door and I had to help get him out.

Rules Restaurant, Covent Garden, London

  • Rules Restaurant is a particularly historic institution, which like Simpsons I was unaware of. Another fascinating place with its connections to literature, great and the good, and with a fantastic mural of Margaret Thatcher positioned above the Argentinian ambassador’s one-time regular table.
  • We finished at the Royal Opera House with a great view over the piazza and the wider area, and now I’ve discovered it a place I expect I will return to.

This was a fascinating walk, which I largely did just because it was at a convenient time rather than because I particularly wanted to do it. But I’m glad I went on it and it was well done and Simon was a great guide.

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.