Sunday, 20 September 2009

London Open House

September is always a favourite with me, as it hides my birthday (been and gone, spent gorgeous weekend in Cornwall) and I absolutely adore autumn with its beauty in decay, encroaching darkness, and the scent of change in the air. It also helps that one weekend in September is given over to London’s Open House, where normally private buildings open their doors, and public buildings let exploring visitors in for free. This year me and good friend R donned our walking boots and got to see five buildings – rather more than the two managed last year (The Linnian Society and Marlborough House). And in 2007 I went to see Churchill's secret underground bunker, so this year it was time for something different.

We started out with the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret in Southwark. This 18th century oddity was set up in the attic of St Thomas’ Church, which served as a chapel to St Thomas’ Hospital. The hospital wanted a place to dry and cure medicinal herbs – including foxglove, myrrh, and willow bark (early answer to aspirin). The operating theatre was created in 1822, up until then ‘operations’ (and I use that word very loosely indeed – more like ‘cutting experiments’) were done on the ward itself.

After looking at some of the early implements and potions used on patients I am amazed that anyone ever lived through this pioneering time of medicine. You really wouldn’t want anything more serious than a headache back in those times – little wonder they tried every cure in the garden if the alternative was being admitted to hospital. I just love their attitude to medicine back then...

Picture a moustached doctor giving medicine to forlorn patients standing in a line.
“Willow – yes that works, nettles - yes, nightshade…”
Sound of patient hitting the floor.
"Hm, let’s rename that one deadly nightshade shall we? Right moving on…”

It is amazing that any of us are here today seeing what mothers-to-be had to go through – some of the items used to induce birth look more like giant whisks. And men don’t get off scot-free either. The wooden operating table itself had saw marks grooved into either side – and this with no anaesthetic, no antiseptic – and operations were done by men in frock coats. On the back of the wall there is a Latin inscription that says ‘Miseratione Non Mercede’ – ‘For Compassion, not for Gain’. It should have said ‘Omnem dimittite spem, o vos intrantes’ – ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here’. Most of the patients wouldn’t have understood Latin anyway; it would have been a nice little private chuckle between the surgeons.

Emerging feeling blessedly lucky to live in this day and age, we went to Borough Market for some food and ate our organic salads overlooking the Thames. After marvelling at how high the Thames is considering three weeks ago we could walk on the uncovered stones that form Bankside ‘beach’, we pressed on to the second visit of the day – The Rose, the first Elizabethan Theatre established in 1587. This is an archaeological site, and the remains of the theatre were discovered in 1989 when an office building above was demolished.

There is precious little to see. The remains were preserved mainly thanks to the marshy ground that was reclaimed from the Thames, hence uncovering it leads to problems, as the wood cracks and it would only take a little while for it to return to dust. So the site has been carefully flooded, although red lighting shows where the stage and the audience area would have been. There was an interesting talk about Elizabethan theatre, interspersed with clips from the film ‘Shakespeare in Love’, and appeals to give money to save the remains from sinking back into the past.

I cannot help but feel some things were never meant to be preserved, and yet this contradicts with how much I love the past. When things are living history (like hedgerows) and sturdy history (like Stonehenge) – then these things I feel were meant to stay the course of time. But when places need so much life support to even vaguely be seen, then I do wonder. But without the Rose, they wouldn’t have known the detail on which to base the Globe, so everything does have its role. I’m just not sure where I sit sometimes on preservation like this.

From the Rose, we crossed the Thames and paused in the shadow of St Paul’s cathedral having a chocolate break. Here and there we saw people on their own Open House trail, green booklets in hand as they scurried on to their next discovery. But we were bound for something that had eluded us last year because of the hefty queue – 120 Fleet Street, once the gorgeous Art-deco home to The Daily Express.
To my amazement there were only five people in the queue, so within minutes we were in and gawping at the shiny interior. It was as if the team from Blue Peter had carefully brushed bacofoil over the entire surface, and it was absolutely spectacular. The obvious influence was the Hollywood of the MGM Musical era, with the same style of grace as the Oscar statuette design. The building was completed in 1932 – described at its opening as ‘Britain’s most modern building for Britain’s most modern newspaper’.

The Daily Express left the building back in 1989, and how sorry they must have been to leave their flagship behind. But Fleet Street had declined, and it was time for the journalists to head for pastures new, leaving the new conglomerates of anonymous industry to take their place. It was also time for us to head to pasture new, feeling relieved we had beaten the large queue that had built up behind us.

Next on the list was Dr Johnson’s house, but the queue for this snaked all around the courtyard. Considering it costs less than a fiver to visit normally, we decided to give the hour long wait a miss and instead admired a gardening feat of a ‘living wall’ in a nearby courtyard. We then decided to head back to the river, and on the way passed the Royal Courts of Justice. The green Open House sign beckoned, and there wasn’t a queue! In we scurried.

Since this is a Royal Court after all, there was security to pass through at the door, and a ton more organisation and thought had been put into receiving the visitors of Open House. There were talks in court rooms, stalls explaining legal procedures, costume galleries, and an area about probate that displayed the last will and testament of famous folk – Princess Diana, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, John Thaw, George Harrison… I found that a bit ghoulish, but it was still rather fascinating.

We poked our heads in a packed court to hear a snippet of a talk. The court room was rather small, relied heavily on wood-panelling and red velvet, and heavy books lined the walls. Iron bars caged the area where the accused stands, and the witness box is a small raised box on the opposite side. Apparently all the books in a court room, no matter how ancient-appearing, are in use, and at any time can be requested by a judge. The atmosphere was musty and dry, and I can imagine how oppressive it must feel to the accused and to witnesses.

We left the courts behind, and continued on our walk to the river. We were stopped by race marshals, who told us we couldn’t cross the road as there was a cycle race on. It was actually the Tour of Britain, on their eighth and final stage (won by Michele Merlo of Italy). Although our cycling knowledge was nil, we whooped and cheered like we knew what we were doing when the racers whizzed past us, and then crossed the road as something had caught our eye. Yes, it was a green flapping Open House banner!

We couldn’t believe our luck! It was HQS Wellington, home of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. Last year the queue for this stretched down the Embankment, but this year barely ten people were waiting for the next tour. So in line we scrambled, and only had a few minutes to wait before we were walking up the gangplank.

Formed in 1926, this is a fairly young Livery Company (the Bakers Guild, for example, is over 800 years old) and it had problems finding a Livery Hall. The solution was to have a floating Livery Hall – most appropriate for a Company of seamen – and so the HMS Wellington was converted, and moored on the Victoria Embankment as HQS Wellington (HQS meaning Headquarters Ship).

On entrance, the ship has a narrow corridor lined with portaits of past Master Mariners. It is funny how the older black and white photographs have a sense of gravitas that colour simply cannot imitate, even if the subject is suitably stern. We were soon led down into the ship, and I was amazed at the size of the interior. Three carpeted floors of intricate model ships and shipping artefacts, and various areas set aside – such as the Committee room, and the Court room. When it became clear each model ship would be lovingly explained, we decided to make our excuses and slip away. After our long day of discovery, I had no room left for anything else but dinner, and possibly a large pint of shandy.

It strikes me writing this that I should always be thankful to have this time in London, no matter if one day I settle somewhere greener. All the things we can do and see in one day – London really can be a beautiful place to wander around. I never cease to be fascinated and grateful that there is so much history within our grasp.


Kit Courteney said...

That sounds a truly fantastic day.

Great pics, too.

Rose said...

that sounds like the most perfect day! I STILL haven't done the open house weekends and I mean to every year. I am cross with myself! The Rose does sound like it will be a real battle to save it.

I was at Borough- I seem to manage to spend most of the day there- all those nice drinkies to try lead to the pub and then nothing much else seems to get done.

Law and Order said...

What a great post Jane, so well written and described. London is surely a fascinating place when you find its real treasures.

idil o. calvero said...

i really wanna do it someday. really really! it's been great to read about open house on your blog.

music obsessive said...

Sounds like a great day out. I was particularly interested in the Express Building as I love everything Art Deco and buildings especially. This is one of the truly great examples in London (and there are surprisingly few) - most of the others are cinemas and theatres long since demolished or allowed to fall into ruin. The beautiful Odeon in my home town of St Albans is little more than a building site now - such a shame.

Your picture just shows how majestic the architecture was during the 1920s. A wonderful period in history. Just mark me down as Bertie Wooster...what?

Jayne said...

Hi Kit - thank you! It was fun to explore - absolutely loved the weird old Operating theatre museum!

Rose - you were at Borough? Maybe we walked past each other?! I know what you mean about that place - it is so tempting to stay and eat, drink and be merry! And you must do Open House next year - I shall pop onto your blog and remind you about it. :)

Hi Joanne, and thank you! London never ceases to fascinate me, even though I have lived here all my life!

Jayne said...

Hi idil - glad you have enjoyed these Open House posts!

By the way - I took down the link to your blog as it said 'restricted access' or something - perhaps you have changed the settings? No worries - just let me know if you make it public again, or start a new one!

Jayne said...

Hi Martin! It was a fab day - we really managed to see an awful lot, and missed all of the queues! I too love the art-deco period of design - the Express building is truly lovely. I wonder how it must have felt to be in Fleet Street back then... especially if you worked at the Express, walking through that gorgeous foyer each day, feeling like you've arrived. Amazing.