Draper's Hall

London’s Hidden Treasures at Open House

Once a year London lets us into its hidden treasures, the many fine buildings which we usually can only see from the outside. Open House weekend is when it happens and it’s one of my favourite times to be exploring London.  Some of the buildings are accessible all year,  some only for an entry fee but during Open House weekend, a huge list of buildings are there for us to enjoy and it’s all free!

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Peeking behind the closed doors in London’s Open House weekend

Once a year we get the chance to peek behind some normally closed doors, and some that normally charge entrance fees, when Open House weekend rolls around again. 

I’ve been enjoying these weekends for many years now and there is always somewhere  new to visit. There are so many places on offer it’s a challenge to see how many you can get to and it’s fun to see the other Open House fans, easily identified clutching their green guide books and a map of London. 

The trusty Open House guide book

This year we managed just 5 properties on the Saturday but were incredibly lucky with the sunny weather as the Sunday saw a massive storm sweep over the country and drench London.  The highlight was undoubtedly the Royal Courts of Justice due to the grand scale of the building inside and outside and the stories about what happens in the courts themselves.Built in 1870 in unmistakable Victorian Gothic style it is a huge building and full of interest. Once through the security screening we could wander all around the building and a few of the actual courts were open for visiting (but not for photographing). In the Lord Chief Justice’s Court we were treated to a brilliant talk by one of the top Ushers and the Tipstaff about their work and the work of the Courts. It was fascinating, full of history and information about how the courts work today and their position in our legal system and how many common phrases came into being such as ‘called to the bar’ and ‘taking silk’. The Tipstaff was in full elaborate uniform and described his ceremonial role but also his work in child abduction overseas cases, merging the traditional and the modern responsibilities.  The seriousness of this court was highlighted by the very solid looking bars on the dock!

Magnificent main hall, Royal Courts of Justice


We were allowed access to the cells and hopefully that will be my only visit especially as we made the daunting walk from the cells to the Police vans waiting outside to take prisoners in locked units away to prison.  It made me shudder and I was pleased to be back in the main building and outside in my freedom!

Hope you never have to enter the cells!
Imposing exterior of the Royal Courts of Justice
On our busy day we also visited Puskin House, Dr Johnson’s House, the chapel in King’s College, the Roman Bath and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The College Chapel was designed by George Gilbert Scott who was given the job when the college decided their previous chapel was not worthy of their status! Recent refurbishments have revealed the decoration behind the whitewash that covered walls and pillars after the Second World War and new wonderful stained glass windows replace the plain glass put in after the originals were destroyed by bombing. The glass looks traditional in content but has great nods to the present day and the various schools of the college as they feature a DNA helix, a woman (more radical than it sounds!), a lawyers wig and scientific instruments.

The Roman Bath is neither Roman nor built as a Bath! It seems it was originally a cistern built in 1620 to feed a fountain in nearby Somerset House and is filled by a cold stream. It fell into disrepair and became part of a public bath in 1776 and was in use as a cold plunge bath until the end of the 19th century. The ‘Roman’ description may well have been an advertising gimmick – so nothing new there!  It is down a hidden side alley and is now part of the National Trust so if you pick the right day members can pop their heads in but no bathing allowed now…..

The ‘Roman Bath’

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is housed in a fabulous art deco building in an area of wonderful art deco public buildings which includes the impressive Senate House.Opened in 1929 it has all the angles and geometry you would associate with art deco style and although the exterior is unchanged, expansion has required them to build a new wing within a glass atrium which blends in really well. In these grand surroundings they are world leaders in research and the fight against killing diseases. The school’s founder, Sir Patrick Manson, made the first link between mosquito bites and malaria and one of its teaching staff, Dame Claire Bertschinger  was interviewed by Michael Buerk on the Ethiopian famine which led to the setting up of Live Aid – so LSHTM has some pretty important events to its name.

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Senate House

Dr Johnson’s House is a rare surviving city dwelling dating from the end of the 17th century, although the upper floor and roof were destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. It is amazing that the house survived at all given the amount of wood in the house but it is great that it is still here to visit. The house has some very interesting architectural features and I especially liked the swing doors enable one large room to be divided into three small ones – very practical and good use of space which is always of interest to a city dweller like me!  They have a copy of Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary, compiled in this house over the course of 9 years,  6 more than he originally claimed he needed! The house was very busy so photos were not easy to take – have a look at their website instead: http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org/

More from London very soon.

Bye for now

Maps and sneaky peeking on OpenHouse weekend

I love maps and can spend hours looking at even the most ordinary ones so the chance to go to an exhibition at the British Library called Magnificent Maps was not to be missed! The British Library is not somewhere I go normally as you have to have a readers’ pass to see most of the books but I think I should go more often as this exhibition was wonderful. They also have the most amazing permanent exhibition in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery of world class treasures (as they say) and I really didn’t have enough time to do them justice on this visit.

Back to the maps, which ranged from 11th century Mappa Mundi (my favourites) and maps from the first explorers to a Grayson Perry take off and the satirical map of London called the Island from 2008. They have 80 beautiful maps from tiny psalter map from 1265 to the largest atlas in the world. They explore the themes of maps as art, as propaganda for pride and expressions of power. I was amazed at the accuracy of some of the early works and the skill of these early map makers. The British Library itself is a great modern building and they claim to have 14 million books tho’ I wonder if they are all in this building. I’ve put in a couple of photos to show you entrance to this 1997 building and courtyard with its statue of Isaac Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi and one of the wonderful interior.


London threw its doors open this weekend so we could put our noses into buildings that are normally closed to the public. The brochure arrived a week ago and was overwhelming with the amount of choice so we had to put a programme together for the day and set off this morning to see some new sights. Three highlights are shown in the photos: a synagogue in Notting Hill, an old newspaper building and a great hall. The synagogue dates from the Victorian era and is grade 11 listed with magnificent, and newly restored interior mixing a range of architectural styles. We were given a talk and we able to walk around the interior floor which is normally only open to men, to see the Torah scrolls and ceremonial items. Our next visit was to the magnificent Art Deco foyer of the former Daily Express building on Fleet Street. It was all chrome with those wonderful art deco shapes including a snake handrail and it has a striking exterior. One more to mention is the Middle Temple Hall, described as London’s finest surviving Elizabethan hall dating from 1562 and is virtually unaltered today. A bomb fell onto the building during the Second World War damaging one end which has been restored but the wooden hammer beam roof somehow came through undamaged.





A couple of restaurants worth a mention this week were Hix at the Albemarle and Khans. Hix is another Mark Hix venture this time in the luxurious surroundings of Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair. His menu majors on British fare and we really enjoyed our Kent ceps for starters and our Hix cocktail with sparking wine from Sussex. Khans on Westbourne Grove is a contrasting place with pillars which turn into palm trees, countryside scenes painted on the walls and no alcohol but they serve a great curry so well worth the visit. One more fun thing on the eating/drinking/entertainment topic was a birthday do. A local gallery was hosting the first birthday party of West London Living, lifestyle magazine and this proved a fun evening with cocktails and entertainment including from a 40s styled trio called the Scarlet Starlets. Here’s a photo of the Scarlets and from the look you can imagine the sounds.



I think that’s enough for this week so bye for now.






Open House weekend, please show me the money!

Open House weekend in London saw hundreds of properties, normally closed to the public, throw open their doors for 2 days. This is so popular that many are booked up as soon as the programme is announced and others just have huge queues all day.


I decide to brave the Bank of England as it seemed rather topical given the economic crises they have been at the heart of recently. This definitely fell into the ‘queues’ category but I stuck it out and had a fascinating tour of the rooms such as the one where they meet monthly to decide what’s happening to the base rate. It’s all so ornate that it’s hard to imagine it’s a working building. And no I didn’t get to see any money! I took a photo of the queue as it looked like there was a run on the bank….


Saturday night was comedy night as Mark Thomas was performing at the Tricycle. He’s very funny and political and this year’s tour is about coming up with a manifesto for change. The audience write out a new policy they’d like to see introduced and he bases his show on these including a vote for the best one – ours was a new law to ban MPs from lying (interesting to think that the audience assumes they won’t stop unless it’s illegal)! He’s managed to persuade the GLA (London’s governing body) to debate the top ones with him after the tour, which should be worth seeing. We bumped into him as we arrived and had a little chat – what a nice man…


We had fun at a local restaurant despite the enormous torrents of rain coming down all evening. Pix joined the Notting Hill restaurant scene and is very welcome. They are offering pintxos – Barcelona style tapas served on bread and secured with a skewer – in casual, comfortable, lively surroundings. You help yourself to skewers off the bar and they count them all up and charge you £2.50 each and they soon mount up as the food’s very tasty and the owner John has done a great job bringing us something new.


On the food and drink trail, we had a good meal at the Butler’s Wharf Chop House on the river and drinks beforehand in the cool bar at the nearby Gaucho. An added treat was a sight of Tower Bridge raised up to let a sailing boat in – see photo. I’ve only seen it raised a couple of times and it’s amazing how quickly it works so you’ve got to be ready with the camera at all times!


Bye for now,