Unlocked Tour – Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

I’ve spent a lot of time at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich over the last couple of years or so, taking tours, exploring and learning more about the area. I was excited to sign up for the Unlocked tour, which promised to showcase even more of the complex.

Former governors of Greenwich Hospital

Inside the Admiral's House

Inside the Admiral's House

Table on which Nelson's body was laid out

Meeting at the Old Brewery pub, we were taken first to the Admiral’s House, with its lists of former governors of Greenwich hospital, and its rich decoration. One corner was bombed during the Second World War and has since been rebuilt, but much of it is original. One particularly fancy room was used in disciplinary cases, so wouldn’t have been too pleasing to the average sailor’s eye. The most notable artefact in this building was probably the long table which is supposed to be the table on which Nelson’s body was laid out in the Painted Hall after it was returned to England after the Battle of Trafalgar.

Undercroft

Model of Greenwich palace

Former location of disco ball

Carved faces

Next, we headed into the building now used by Trinity Laban – I’ve been here several times before for concerts, but had never noticed this particular entrance, leading into a sixteenth-century undercroft fomerly part of Greenwich Palace. Over the years it has been used as a wine cellar, a coal hole, and a bar – a hook left over in the ceiling was used to hold a disco ball in the Seventies. The creepy face carvings were originally planned to cover one of the seventeenth-century buildings, but that plan was scrapped as being too expensive, and they ended up down here, where most of them have lost their noses thanks to Navy recruits practising their swordsmanship.

Skittle Alley

Skittle Alley

Finally, we headed beneath the Chapel to the Victorian skittle alley, somewhere I’ve wanted to visit ever since I heard about it. This space used to form part of the hospital, the underground location handily muffling the cries of patients undergoing operations. In the nineteenth century, the retired sailors living here, bored with the lack of entertainment, asked permission to construct a bowling alley down here. The balls used were practice cannon balls made from extremely heavy wood; it was not unknown for sailors to make bets with people they met in the pub and get them to use a ball that was ever so slightly rugby ball-shaped, thereby ensuring that they would never hit a strike. When it came to the sailors’ turn to have a go, they knew at what angle to throw the odd-shaped ball to ensure they were successful.

Looking out onto the Thames

There ended my Unlocked tour (except for a free drink waiting back at the pub). I’d definitely recommend the tour: my guide was really friendly and knowledgeable and I was very excited to finally get the chance to see the skittle alley.

Wandsworth Prison Museum

Wandsworth Prison Museum
Wandsworth Prison Museum

One of the places I was most excited about visiting during Open House London was Wandsworth Prison Museum, as it is so rarely open. This tiny, free museum in a small garage near the museum entrance is crammed with relics and artefacts relating to the history of Wandsworth Prison.

Inside the museum
Inside the museum

These include: examples of prison officer uniforms, an ‘escape board’ listing the names of inmates thought to be an escape risk, a selection of truncheons and handcuffs, and documents relating to the prison’s history. There is a photograph of ten-year-old Robert Davey, sentenced to three months in prison in 1874 for stealing rabbits, and and an Illustrated London News article about Kate Webster, the only woman to be executed at the prison: she was hanged in 1879 for killing her elderly employer, Julia Thomas. There is an original Victorian prison door, which was only replaced in the last few years. The hangman’s noose on display is actually a film prop, but the black cap which was worn by the judge pronouncing sentence of death is the real thing.

Black cap worn by the condemning judge
Black cap worn by the condemning judge

I had also been able to sign up for an architectural tour of the prison, which was a strange experience. The prison was built in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction, laid out in a panopticon style, with wings radiating out from a central chamber. At the time it was built it was hailed as the prime example of a modern prison, designed to accommodate the increasing numbers of prisoners that the smaller London jails could not cope with. It originally held both male and female prisoners, though now it is a male-only prison. We passed the former location of the condemned cells and the gallows, a sobering experience, and also paid a visit to the prison’s medical centre, where Oscar Wilde, one of the prison’s most famous residents, spent some time. Other notorious prisoners over the years have included John Haigh, Ronnie Kray, Derek Bentley and escapee Ronnie Biggs.

Wandsworth Prison
Wandsworth Prison

The tour was unusual and worthwhile; the museum is fascinating and well worth a visit.

FACTS

Address: Heathfield Road, London, SW18 3HS

Website: capcollections.org.uk/organisation/wandsworth-prison-museum/

Opening Hours: Generally by written appointment only, but the museum sometimes opens on special weekends, such as Open House London weekend.

Prices: Free

Painted Hall Ceiling Tour – Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Painted Hall
Outside the Painted Hall

The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich is currently restoring the famous Painted Hall. The Hall is not, however, closed to visitors during this time: it is possible to book tours of the ceiling, climbing up on the scaffolding to get close to the ceiling and get a close-up view.

Inside the Hall
Inside the Hall

We put on our high-visibility jackets and hard hats in the room at the end of the hall, where we heard a little about the history. The Painted Hall is one of the most spectacular and important baroque interiors in Europe. Its ceiling and wall decorations were conceived and executed by the British artist Sir James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726, the period when the United Kingdom was created and became a dominant power in Europe. The end wall mural, which has already been restored, shows King George I and his large family, alongside symbols of wealth and plenty. The artist himself is in the bottom right corner of the painting.

Sir James Thornhill
Sir James Thornhill
Full mural
Full mural

We headed up the stairs to where a makeshift floor has been built with scaffolding, giving the appearance of a low-ceilinged room. Our guide talked us through the various murals and highlighted some of the key figures on the ceiling, as well as discussing the restoration work.

At the ceiling
On the scaffold(ing)

Among the figures represented are Greek and Roman gods, monarchs, and even one of the Greenwich pensioners, John Worley, who served at sea for 70 years. He is depicted with a long white beard and painted to represent the season of Winter. Over the past few centuries there have been several restorations, and many workers have left their mark on the ceiling, mostly in the corners where they have daubed their initials. One cheeky person, however, added his name and date right in the middle of Queen Anne’s chest. I did take a picture, but it doesn’t show up very well.

Queen Anne
Queen Anne
John Worley
John Worley

The tour is fascinating and well worth the effort. Tours can be booked online for days throughout the week and are due to continue for the duration of the building work.

All Hallow’s Eve by Lamplight – Tower Hamlets Cemetery

Hallowe’en is the perfect time to visit a cemetery; besides, I never did get to go on a proper tour of Tower Hamlets. So I was happy to book a place on the All Hallow’s Eve by Lamplight tour, run by the Cemetery Club.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery

We gathered at the entrance by the war memorial and collected some lanterns to take with us on our walk. And we needed them – there are no other lights in the cemetery, and even with the lanterns it was pretty dark. (I apologise for the poor quality of these photographs – I tried with and without flash and they were both pretty dire). Our guides escorted us round the cemetery, stopping at various points to tell us about various notable people buried here.

Towards the end of the tour we enjoyed some soul cakes of the kind eaten at Victorian Hallowe’en – they were baked to an original Victorian recipe and were yummy – spicy and delicious. We learned about nineteenth century Hallowe’en traditions and superstitions.

Finally, we were treated to an original Victorian music hall song, originally sung by Alexander Hurley, and based on a real event involving a strongman defeated by a daring rival.

Sadly I didn’t see any bats on the walk – perhaps because they were all frightened off by the fireworks. However it was a fascinating and atmospheric walk.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery

The National Archives – Open House London

The National Archives

Every year as September approaches I look forward to Open House London, when normally closed buildings open their doors to the public for free. This year I spent my Saturday down at The National Archives at Kew, somewhere I’d never yet visited.

History

The National Archives are the official archive and publisher for the UK government and they also care for over 1,000 years of national documents. They are experts and leaders in the information and records management and archive fields, and focus on ensuring the future of physical and digital records.

The National Archives was created in 2003 by combining the Public Record Office and the Historical Manuscripts Commission. The building itself was built in 1977 as an additional home for the public records then held at Chancery Lane. The site used to be a World War I hospital, and it was later used by several government departments.

NA foyer

My visit

There were a number of activities and talks taking place all day. I went on a Repository Tour, which was a fascinating journey through the document shelves behind the scenes. We saw the carts zooming past the shelves, on their way to pick up books ordered by readers, and saw the lift system that sends requested books down to the reading room. Extra-valuable items can only be viewed in a specially-constructed strongroom, where you’re only allowed out by a member of staff. I also joined a Collection Care Studio tour, which was a fascinating chance to explore the ways in which the NA look after the objects in their collection. These included the protection of fragile or unusual objects with 3D printing technology, iron gall ink and the Naval Knights of Windsor, conservation as part of the digitisation process, care of highly used documents, caring for Terence Cuneo’s war paintings, packing items for loans and collections, wax seals, x-rays and the hunt for arsenic wallpaper samples, and the emergency plan.

Afterwards I attended a couple of talks: The Public Record Office, Kew: Its place in British Architecture of the 1970s and The Changing Face of Kew. I also wandered around the public areas of the building and saw a couple of screenings of films from the archives including excerpts from Blue Peter. There were a few displays of documents about the building of the PRO at Kew and the 40th anniversary of the National Archives at Kew.

Domesday book

Finally I popped into the Keeper’s Gallery, which has a permanent exhibition about the history of the Archives and its most popular holdings, including the Domesday Book. It proved an interesting way to round off my day.

FACTS

Address: Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU

Website: nationalarchives.gov.uk

Opening Hours: Tues-Sat 9-5 (late opening Tues and Thurs)

Price: Free

Shoreditch Town Hall Tour

I’ve visited Shoreditch Town Hall several times over the last few years, as it has recently reinvented itself as an arts venue with several interesting productions. Curious to learn more about the history of the building, I signed up for a Saturday morning tour run by Crouch End Walks.

Our guide began the tour outside, and gave us a run down of the history of the building. Designed by Caesar Augustus Long, it was built in 1865 (and expanded in 1904) as the home of the Shoreditch Vestry, later Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch. A beautiful building, and the home of a progressive Council, its motto was ‘More Light, More Power’. It was also home to various entertainments, including music hall, during the Victorian era. The inquest into the murder of Mary Kelly, final victim of Jack the Ripper, was held here, and women’s suffrage campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested on the steps outside. The first ever live broadcast of boxing on British TV came from the Assembly Hall in 1955, and Oliver Reed and the Krays were regulars.

In 1965, Shoreditch, Stoke Newington and Hackney merged into the newly created London Borough of Hackney. As Council business moved to Hackney Town Hall, Shoreditch Town Hall fell into disuse and disrepair. After a brief interval as a home of raves and alternative club nights, it was placed on English Heritage’s ‘Buildings At Risk’ register in 1996. A grassroots campaign enabled an independent Trust to be formed to renovate and reopen the building. This work began in 2004 and the building was declared no longer at risk in 2006. A second phase of work began in 2012, and has succeeded in making several spaces – including the impressive Assembly Hall – available for use.

Inside the Town Hall
Inside the Town Hall

Inside, we gathered in the foyer and headed upstairs to the Mayor’s Parlour, the Council Chamber and the beautiful restored Assembly Hall.

Windows bearing the slogan, 'More Light, More Power'
Windows bearing the slogan, ‘More Light, More Power’
Mayor's Parlour
Mayor’s Parlour
Council Chamber
Council Chamber
Assembly Hall
Assembly Hall

We then headed down to the basement (also known as ‘The Ditch’, which doesn’t look quite as pretty in the bright artificial light: I’m used to seeing it open to the public, with candles and fairy lights. The strong lighting did help us see some interesting features, such as the old fireplaces, some original Victorian wallpaper, and an oven.

Basement
Basement
Victorian wallpaper
Victorian wallpaper
Oven
Oven

We also saw some hidden steps, the original 1865 steps that were covered over at the time of the 1904 extension.

Steps
Steps

We stumbled upon some theatre crew putting together a set for a new production, then headed outside to check out the 1930s extension.

Extension
Extension

I really enjoyed my tour, and the next time I attend an event at Shoreditch Town Hall I will be able to reflect on its long and impressive history.

South Bank Poetry Tour

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I love the Southbank Centre and I love poetry, so the Poetry Tour was an obvious choice. I went along with some friends and we met inside the Poetry Library for 6pm.

The tour was led by Chris McCabe, librarian and poet. It began beside the sculpture of Dylan Thomas’ head, situated inside the library. It is the only sculpture made from life, by Oloff de Wet, and was discovered in the basement several years ago. It was unveiled on the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death in the Poetry Library as a natural home for it. Chris read out some of Thomas’ words about the South Bank as a fitting tribute.

We headed outside, gathering by the poetry stones that were laid in the pavement when this area was constructed. These include some words from Wordsworth, who didn’t particularly like the area, preferring his native Lake District.

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We also heard about the Lion Brewery that used to occupy the site, and about the murder committed here by William Chester Minor. Minor was committed to Broadmoor, and became one of the most prolific contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary, responding to an advert asking for help – let’s face it, he had plenty of time on his hands. The creators of the dictionary had no idea that their helpful contributor was a notorious murderer.

Heading inland from the river, we heard about poet Arthur Rimbaud, who lived nearby (where the BFI Imax is now) in 1888. Stabbed by his lover Paul Verlaine after an argument, he left Camden and returned to France before coming back to London.

We were given audio headsets at this point, and listened to poet Tom Chivers as we explored the area south of the river. We walked by the Waterloo International section of the station, no longer in use, and passed under the station through a graffiti-strewn tunnel.

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Along the way we stopped at the point where the former Necropolis Railway depot still stands. This station took coffins and mourners out to Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, with first and second class carriages for both the dead and the living.

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A little further on and we were standing outside the location of William Blake’s former home in Lambeth, where he lived from 1790 to 1800. His time here was one of great personal happiness for Blake, though he was still deeply concerned about the state of the world: he created his Songs of Experience here. In a nearby tunnel are some utterly stunning mosaics, based on Blake’s poetry and illustrations. They are incredibly detailed and really show the range of his imagination.

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A short walk and we were back to the river. We stopped by Westminster Bridge, because the lion statue from the Lion Brewery is now here. The brewery was bombed during the Second World War, but the lion somehow survived.

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We continued on the south bank, stopping at the final poetry stone with a quote from TS Eliot, before returning to the Poetry Library.

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Beefeater Distillery Tour

Beefeater Distillery

When my friend came down to London to visit me we decided to do something a bit different. I’d found out about the Beefeater Distillery Tour not long before and my friend was keen on the idea, even though she’s not the world’s biggest fan of gin. Personally I love the stuff, so I was well up for the tour.

Entrance

Foyer

Museum entrance

We booked online and turned up at the venue, in Kennington in South London, with plenty of time. The first part of the tour was actually a self-guided wander around the on-site museum, which was well put together and very interesting. It covered the history of gin and the gin craze of the eighteenth century, with a large image of Hogarth’s famous “Gin Lane” picture to illustrate the drink’s reputation. I thought the exhibition did well in putting the growth of gin distilleries in its historical context, although implying that Beefeater’s founder James Burrough was on a par with the great scientists, inventors, artists and writers of the Victorian age was stretching things just a little.

Gin Lane
Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’
Early gin dispenser
Early gin dispenser

I liked the exploration of gin’s role in the cocktail craze, too, with visual demonstrations of the different drinks it can be used in. There was also a wall of old Beefeater bottles and adverts. Obviously the whole thing is a massive promo for Beefeater, but it was genuinely fascinating too.

Evolution of the cocktail

Beefeater posters

In the second part we were told all about how to make gin, and introduced to the different ingredients that make up this spirit.

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During this time we could see the stills through the plates of glass: the inner workings of the distillery. Unlike my trip to Sipsmiths, it was disappointing not to be able to get up close to the machinery, but in fairness I imagine it’s a much trickier prospect in a big place like this.

Copper stills
Copper stills

The tour concluded with a G&T which was very tasty. I was good and didn’t buy any bottles of gin (it might have looked a bit suspicious trying to get one into the theatre later that evening when we went to see Aladdin) but I’m very tempted to go back for their distillery-exclusive blend.

Bar

Me with gin

FACTS

Address: 20 Montford Place, Kennington, London, SE11 5DE

Website: beefeaterdistillery.com

Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 10am-6pm (tours only; it’s advisable to book online)

Prices: £12 for adults (including a complimentary G&T), free for children (no G&T, obviously)

St Pancras Chambers – Open House London

St Pancras Chambers
St Pancras Chambers

My next Open House London tour was of St Pancras Chambers – the building above St Pancras Station. The station, originally constructed in 1868, was refurbished between 2001 and 2007, the threat of demolition narrowly averted thanks to the efforts of a passionate group of people including the poet John Betjeman.

Station entrance (former goods entrance)
Station entrance (former goods entrance)

At the time of original construction, the East Midlands Railway wanted to surpass the recently built King’s Cross Station, so commissioned George Gilbert Scott to create the beautiful, opulent Gothic Revival style building. The money ran out partway through construction, leaving no money for the planned extra storey or for the statues supposed to be dotted around the building – the empty niches are still visible.

Wyvern
Wyvern

On the tour we saw some fascinating details: the theme of the wyvern (a mythical creature) runs through all of the architecture, and the materials used in the building come from the various towns and cities served by the East Midlands Railway, such as Sheffield steel and stone from Nottingham.

Former station entrance (now hotel entrance)
Former station entrance (now hotel entrance)

The original entrances to the station still exist but are now more commonly used as the entrances to the apartments and hotel. The Hansom Hall is the current name for the hotel lounge, as it was originally where travellers were dropped off outside the ticket hall.

'Spice Girls' staircase
‘Spice Girls’ staircase

We then got to go inside the building. The most exciting part for me, I must admit, was seeing the very staircase that featured in the Spice Girls’ video for “Wannabe”.

Stairwell
Stairwell

We got to go all the way up to the top floor: this part of the building has been converted into flats. You can see from the staircase that originally, the more prestigious rooms were on the lower floors: the design becomes less ornate as you go up the building. Nowadays, of course, the best flats are at the top, where it’s still possible to see the former servants’ quarters above your head (the original floor has been removed. My tour was given by the man who actually lives in one of the apartments – the one with the bell tower – so we got to look in there too – a fascinating experience.

In the corridor
In the corridor
Former servants' quarters
Former servants’ quarters
Inside the bell tower
Inside the bell tower

55 Broadway – Open House London

55 Broadway
55 Broadway

I always make a habit of visiting some interesting buildings when Open House London comes around. This year I was lucky enough to visit 55 Broadway, the former headquarters of London Underground, near St James. The Underground Group was formed from a group including the Tube railways, London General Bus company, tram operators and electrical supply companies, and in 1927 when they decided they wanted their new headquarters to reflect its bold vision of the future, they hired architects Adams, Holden and Pearson for the job.

55 Broadway
55 Broadway

It was a challenging job from the start. With its irregular shape and depth (St James’s Park station sitting just 7.3 metres below the site) Adams, Holden and Pearson’s job was a difficult one. They managed to get around it, however, by incorporating the cruciform layout into their design.

Epstein's controversial sculpture
Epstein’s controversial sculpture

Charles Holden, later known for his work on the Northern and Piccadilly Line extensions, used Portland stone and added bronze features to the building. Carvings by Eric Gill, Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein (who’s “Night and Day” caused controversy) adorn the outside of the building, which is now Grade 1 listed.

Visitor pass
Visitor pass

We started off outside, where we were introduced to the history of the building and got to see the original foundation stone.

Foundation stone
Foundation stone

The tour took us up several floors, including the seventh floor with its original management rooms, outside to see the roof gardens, and right up to the flagpole.

Map in the foyer
Map in the foyer
Lord Ashfield plaque
Lord Ashfield plaque
Roundel design in the building
Roundel design in the building
Early tube map
Early tube map
Inside the building
Inside the building
Management rooms
Management rooms
Management rooms
Management rooms
In the garden
In the garden
View from the roof
View from the roof
View from the roof
View from the roof
55 Broadway
55 Broadway