Since I am now living on the other side of the world to my family and most of my friends this blog is about things I enjoy, things I notice, people I meet, people I miss, history, planning for the future, love and life in general! I guess it's about whatever pops into my head which I want to share with my friends and family... and who knows? I might make some more friends along the way!

28 September, 2008

London Open House - Part 1 Admiralty House

Last Saturday was the first of two days of the annual London Open House weekend. This is a non-profit organised event when people can visit buildings not normally open to them, with a view to learning about the architecture, and appreciating the history.

I first heard about the Open House weekend when I was exploring the city in July, and I wandered into the City Hall, on the south bank of the Thames, opposite the Tower of London. I remember being completely mesmerised with the modern architecture, which seemed to have completely shunned symmetry, straight lines and right angles. I spent over an hour in the limited public area, photographing it, taking in the exhibition on the lower ground floor, looking at the view from the public gallery on the 2nd floor and generally falling in love with London's modern architecture. At the time I was talking with a security guard about public access and he mentioned that if I came back on the weekend of 20th/21st September, the whole building, apart from offices, would be open to the public as part of 'Open House'. Intrigued I made a mental note to check this out on the net next time I was online.

Well, I went one further than that! When I checked out the website, they were looking for volunteers to act as guides and stewards at the many buildings which were open on that weekend, so I put my name down to do just that!

Saturday 20th was my stint as a steward at the former Admiralty Buildings and Admiralty House. This is a place steeped in tradition, and many significant moments in British history have occurred here. When I arrived I was given a quick tour by Charlotte Henshaw, the wonderful curator of the MOD (Ministry of Defence) who is based at 26 Whitehall (former Admiralty House) and had organised today's self-guided tours and the volunteers arrangements.

One of the highlights for me was being allowed into a couple of rooms that the public weren't allowed into! This included a small sitting room where we took our breaks and enjoyed coffee and biscuits, just as beautifully furnished as the rest of them!

I had a wonderful day, explaining about the history of the two buildings, which back onto Horse Guards Parade, and where the Admiralty has met for centuries. 26 Whitehall, which was built in 1725, contains the oldest boardroom, in continuous use, that is still used for the purpose for which it was built. It contains carvings which predate the building itself, and were rescued from the former Whitehall Palace following it's almost complete destruction by fire, and is still used today by the First Lord of the Fleet to plan marine operations. It has hosted British Government Cabinet meetings when 10 Downing Street has been renovated, and is still used by the Deputy Prime Minister for his cabinet meetings today. Incidentally, the building is no longer officially 'The Admiralty', but it does contain the offices of several Cabinet Ministers and their staff.
The dwelling and official rooms in a separate building which adjoin the older, official one, were really a treat! Built in 1785, the architect was Samuel Pepys Cockerell, and the design was inspired as it is really a very narrow building, but feels extremely spacious and light! It was squeezed into the space between the official Admiralty building and the Horse Guards, and in order to make the most of the limited space, it contains a marvellous staircase, which a split return and a lunette above to give a sense of space and light.

All throughout the buildings are works of art which are mostly of a nautical theme. Some render moments of historic sea battles, others are studies for famous works of art. There are many, many views of various famous seamen, and ships, in both sculpted form and in paint.

There is a table in the official dining room, which was roped off to the public (but which I was able to touch), which was noted by Winston Churchill to be his favourite writing surface. The Churchill's lived at Admiralty House from 1911-1913, and again from 1939-1940, both coinciding with the periods of his appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty. The Music Room which contained furninshing presented to Admiralty House by Lady Diana Cooper, was the scene of Harold McMillan's sumary sacking of 6 members of his cabinet, known now as 'The night of the long knives'.

At the end of the day I had enjoyed myself so much that I wanted to volunteer again next year! I was chatting with my fellow volunteer, Bridgette, as well as Charlotte, about my passion for history, and Bridgette suggested we wander down Whitehall to see if it was too late to visit another building she knew I would enjoy. The Banquetting Hall was only open on the Saturday of the Open House weekend, and we had missed the opportunity to see it, unfortunately.
On the upside, walking and chatting with Bridgette meant we discovered that we had some things in common, and without intending to, we ended up spending the next 3 hours together, wandering from Whitehall, via the Horse Guards and King Charles II street (near the Foreign & Commonwealth Office) to Westminster, across the bridge to the South Bank which we followed along to the Festival Hall and watched a free dance performance which Bridgette knew about. She showed me where to find out about any free or discounted activities in the Festival Hall, and shared some of her experiences as a singer, actor and photographer. Bridgette showed me where the Library of Poetry was, and I was able to aquire a free book from them! Then we headed over to the National Theatre, where she showed me more places to find out about free performances and opportunitites for special events, and through to the next building where we heard a friend of hers playing in a jazz trio, saw a terrific exhibition of theatrical photography, and a general art show, then back out to visit a food festival where I was happy to be able to shout her some food after all her time showing me the ins and outs of the theatre scene in London. One of the highlights, for me, was discovering the British Film Institue's Media Room where you can go in and book a screen for up to 2 hours and watch all manner of random things. The selection ranged from really old silent movies, to weirdly bohemian 1960 'art theatre' (the one with Germain Greer singing 'Do you Love Me?' will be burned into my memory forever!) to classic films such as 'A Room With a View' and others... commercials and shots from the cinema of the past, short documentaries and stand up comics are included in the collection, and it's all free!

After 3 hours wandering through the south bank of the Thames and reconnecting with my theatrical roots, I knew I had found a new friend! I had also found a wonderful source of food in Spice! A restaurant which had a booth in the food festival, and who's dishes were absolutely delicious! I can highly recommend them to anyone in London!

I headed home via the Merri-go-round near the London Eye, and across the Hungerford Bridge where I experimented with the settings on my Kodak camera and got some fairly decent night-photographs. I was really tired when I got home, but I had had a wonderful day! Unfortunately there was a strict no photography rule in the Buildings, which included the courtyard, but the previous week, and the next day, I took a couple of photographs of the building from the street. Such as they are, the set is here: and the rest of the day's photos are here:

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