I’ve wanted to visit Canada House for a while, but the tours were always booked up, until I got lucky and ended up on the website just as the new dates were announced. When the day arrived I made my way to Trafalgar Square and queued up with the others to go inside. You have to show photo ID and put your bag through an airport-style scanner; security is important here, though once you get in the atmosphere is much more relaxed.
The building dates back to 1824, when construction first began. It’s the oldest building on Trafalgar Square, with the exception of the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Originally two buildings, used by the Union Club and the Royal College of Physicians, it became Canada House in 1923, officially opened in 1925 by King George V.
On display on the ground floor is the throne King George used, as well as a number of ceremonial keys. The various rooms of the house are named after either Canadian provinces or notable Canadian figures, and are often rented out to various groups for events. The rooms are full of Canadian art and it’s for this reason that the tours are really run; there are many impressive pieces to look at.
We started on the ground floor and made our way up floor by floor; I absolutely loved the dramatic chandelier that dominates the staircase.
Along the way we saw some incredible artworks, carpets and sculptures, all with a Canadian connection. Finally, we ended up right at the top of the building.
Beehives are kept on the roof and honey is collected from the bees who live here. We were able to go out onto the roof and experience a fantastic view of Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery.
Canada House is an amazing place to visit and I’d recommend a tour to anyone, whether or not you have a specific interest in Canada.
As part of the Open House London weekend I visited Lancaster House, a private palace now managed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For many years known as Stafford House, it was the London home of the Dukes of Sutherland between 1830 and 1911, before the lease was bought by Lord Leverhulme. As a Lancastrian, he gave it its present name, and presented it to the nation: first as a home for the London Museum, then as a centre for Government hospitality.
The House began as York House, home of the Duke of York, brother of George IV. It was begun by architect Benjamin Dean Wyatt, but the Duke soon died and the lease was sold to the second Marquess of Stafford. The Marquess himself, then the Duke of Sutherland, died only a few years later, and the second Duke decided to expand the house to accommodate his growing family. He employed architect Sir Robert Smirke, but Wyatt was still involved with the decoration of the state rooms, leading to a somewhat awkward situation. The decoration was eventually completed by Charles Barry.
During the nineteenth century Stafford House was a centre of political life, playing the same role to the Whigs as Apsley House (residence of the Duke of Wellington) did to the Tories. The second Duchess, Harriet, was a friend of Queen Victoria and her Mistress of the Robes. Several famous people stayed in the house, notably Garibaldi in 1864, and Chopin in 1848. Nowadays, the house is often let out for filming; it makes a good stand-in for Buckingham Palace, as in Downton Abbey and The King’s Speech.
I spent some time in the grand entrance hall before the tour began. We were taken around the house, beginning upstairs and later heading to the downstairs rooms. The rooms are ornately decorated and very grand, an appropriate setting for the national and international political meetings that often take place here. Downstairs, I was particularly excited by the library and its built-in bookshelves.
Touring Lancaster House was a fascinating experience, and I’m glad I got the chance to do so.
Not so long ago I found out that you could book tours of the Supreme Court, which take place on Friday afternoons. I had some holiday to use up, so I booked the day off and booked myself onto a tour. I arrived at Parliament Square in plenty of time, and got through security in time to have a look around the exhibition before going off on my tour.
I’d assumed that the Supreme Court had been around for ages, but that isn’t the case at all: in fact, it’s a fairly modern institution. It was established in 2009, taking over judicial authority from the House of Lords. It is the final court of appeal for all United Kingdom civil cases, and criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The most famous case in its short history occurred last year, when Gina Miller and other campaigners challenged the government, arguing that Parliament should have a vote on Article 50. The public are able to watch cases as they are heard; this particular case was the busiest ever, with queues forming outside the building.
The Supreme Court is housed in what was once the Middlesex Guildhall, designed by J. S. Gibson in 1912-1913. It is Grade II* listed, but has been renovated to fit in with what it’s now used for.
This is housed in the basement, in an area which used to be taken up by prisoners’ cells when the building was a Crown Court. It has information about the history and role of the Supreme Court, as well as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and how the two courts fit into the legal systems of the countries they serve.
The tour took us round all three courtrooms and the library. The first courtroom is the largest and in some ways the grandest; it still has many of the original features. The second is very different, with a much more modern appearance. Curtains and carpets have been designed specially for the building, showcasing the emblem which is displayed on the wall. This reflects the four nations which make up the United Kingdom: a rose for England, a thistle for Scotland, leek leaves for Wales and a flax flower for Northern Ireland.
The third courtroom is generally reserved for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which is the highest court of appeal for many independent Commonwealth nations or Crown dependencies which are too small to have their own.
The library is impressive, with a large array of books and walls covered with quotes relevant to law.
I really enjoyed my tour, and would definitely recommend it.
Address: Parliament Square, Little George Street, Westminster, London, SW1P 3BD
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, we gathered in the foyer and headed upstairs to the Mayor’s Parlour, the Council Chamber and the beautiful restored 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.
We also saw some hidden steps, the original 1865 steps that were covered over at the time of the 1904 extension.
We stumbled upon some theatre crew putting together a set for a new production, then headed outside to check out the 1930s 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We continued on the south bank, stopping at the final poetry stone with a quote from TS Eliot, before returning to the Poetry Library.
I had an interesting experience yesterday evening: I took part in a tour of the Futuro House, located at Central Saint Martins near King’s Cross. The house, which is on loan to CSM for the summer, is located on a upper terrace of the Granary Building. We met at the ground floor reception and were taken upstairs to view the house; once inside, we were treated to a talk by the owner, Craig Barnes, who explained the story behind these houses, told us how he ended up with this one, and gave us a potted history of what has happened to it since he took it over.
The Futuro House was designed in the 1960s by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen. It was last seen in London sailing down the Thames on a ferry, as part of the houses’ launch at a FinnFocus trade exhibition. It was designed to be a skiing lodge or weekend retreat: personally, I feel that the oval windows that go all the way around the house make it ideal for making the most of stunning views, while the lack of curtains mean that it only really works when placed in a reasonably remote location.
Described as “the holiday home of the future”, the house was one of several prefabricated designs made in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, despite the initial popularity of such designs, the Futuro was not a commercial success: possibly because of the growing price of oil, which made it much more expensive to produce.
Today, only around 65 Futuro Houses are known to exist. Craig Barnes found this one in South Africa: he used to love visiting the “spaceship house” as a child, and when he grew older managed to buy it, disassemble it and ship it back to the UK. Over the course of many months he worked on it, with the assistance of friends, family and colleagues, until it once again became a viable piece of architecture. He has tried as far as possible to restore the original design, but there is much still to do.
The house is on loan to CSM for the summer, and as well as public tours, which take place every month, it is freely bookable by CSM staff and students for meetings and other activities. Barnes is glad that it is being used and enjoyed, but admits there are no firm plans for the house beyond September – it may go back into storage, at least temporarily, but he hopes that it will have a future life (and so do I).
If you would like to visit this incredible house, you can book a tour on the first Wednesday of every month, which costs £5.
After visiting Hornsey Town Hall in Crouch End for a show last year, I became interested in this beautiful building, and was keen to explore it in more depth. I signed up for a tour, organised by Crouch End Walks, to learn more.
We met in the building’s foyer at 2pm and our guide began the tour by taking us outside to observe the front of the building and its beautiful façade, which harks back to the area’s rural past. Inside, we admired the modernist style of the foyer, which still has the original ticket desks and glass panels designed for function rather than form. The building was designed by R. H. Uren, a New Zealand-born architect who was only twenty-seven at the time of the design in 1933. It was influenced by European modernist architecture and radically broke away from the traditional Victorian design of previous town halls.
We were taken through the building, starting with the ground floor space currently being used as a cafe, into the large hall which has been used for concerts, dances and shows. The Kinks were one of the bands who played here in their early days. Our guide told us of her own memories attending a pantomime here as a small child. Today, the hall is very cold and clearly needs work done to it, but it’s easy to see that with a bit of TLC it could be a lovely space once again.
The open staircase and foyer spaces of the building are lovely, being ornate but spacious, well lit and stylish. The Art Deco influence is particularly strong here. We were able to see inside the former Mayor’s parlour, a very comfortable-looking room indeed.
Along the corridor, we found ourselves in a large space with a fine view over the front of the town hall. This room can be divided into three, or left as one large space. We also got to see inside the council chamber, which still has the original (very comfortable) seats.
The future of the Hall is uncertain: it is currently used by a variety of arts organisations, but whether it continues to be used for performances and events or sold off to be converted into luxury flats, only time will tell. It would be a shame if it stopped being a public building, as it is beautiful and unique, a valuable community asset for the people of Crouch End and beyond.
I’m a librarian, and recently I went on a visit to the British Library organised by a group I’m a member of. The visit comprised a library tour, which really interested me because although I have visited the BL several times, it’s always been as a visitor to the exhibitions: I’m not a member and I’ve never been in the reading rooms or behind the scenes.
The British Library, which is a relatively new institution that only came into being during the second half of the twentieth century, is the national library of the UK and the largest library in the world in terms of items catalogued. The building holds around 170 million items from numerous countries and in every language in the world. Information is held in multiple formats: print books and ebooks, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, audiovisual recordings, playscripts, patents, databases, maps, prints and drawings. The collections include around 14 million books, and the Library holds ancient historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC.
Our tour, which was delivered by a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide, began in the foyer where we learned about the library’s beginnings. The BL originally started out at the British Museum: the famous Round Reading Room is where people including Marx used to study. The British Library Act of 1972 enabled the BL to be established in 1973, although materials were dispersed around London and around the country for several years. When deciding upon a location for the eventual library site, there wasn’t much choice available: it would have to be within walking distance of the British Museum in Bloomsbury, so that the rarest and most valuable books could be carried there by hand, as they were not permitted to be transported on vehicles. Eventually the site at Euston Road was decided upon: located next to St Pancras Station, it used to be a goods yard.
The Library is a Legal Deposit Library (the others are the Bodleian at Oxford, the University Library at Cambridge, the Trinity College Library in Dublin and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales), meaning that it receives a copy of each book produced in the United Kingdom and Ireland, including several overseas books distributed in the UK.
The Library was designed by Colin St John Wilson, and the building has met with a mixed reception (apparently Prince Charles hates it, but the Queen is a fan). Looked at from the right angle, it resembles a ship. It was made a Grade I listed building earlier this year, so it is now recognised as a landmark of design: however it is not without its problems. Wilson spent so much of the Library budget on expensive marble, containing fossils, to be laid outside on the piazza (meaning that it is extremely slippery in the rain) that there wasn’t enough left for decent shelving, resulting in some collapses as the second-hand shelves couldn’t bear the huge weight of the books.
It is impressive, however, that most of the books are stored underground: the stacks run several storeys beneath the ground, stopped only by the tube that is even further down. The Fleet River also runs nearby, so that the lowest floor does flood on occasion.
From the foyer we were taken to the Members’ Area in which you can register to become a member of the Library. Anyone can register so long as they have the appropriate ID: you don’t have to be an academic. Near here, there is a book handling system which delivers books users have ordered to the surface by means of a conveyor belt. Staff collect book requests, remove them from the shelves and send them up to the Library.
We went upstairs and were able to get a brilliant view of the King’s Library, made up of 65,000 printed volumes and numerous pamphlets, manuscripts and maps collected by George III between 1763 and 1820. The glass tower was inspired by a similar structure in the Beinecke Library in New Haven, Connecticut.
From the old to the new: our next stop was the news room where readers can view newspapers and watch a live news feed. We explored the Library considerably, taking a look at the many busy – but extremely quiet – reading rooms.
Before leaving, we had a quick look at a Library video in one of the quietest corners of the building – left “unfinished” to show off the brickwork.I really loved my tour: I learned a great deal about the British Library that I hadn’t known before. Public tours are available and I do recommend signing up.
Somerset House is one of the most interesting buildings in London, but the history of the site itself is just as fascinating. The current building was completed in 1780, but the site has a long history before that. It’s possible to go on an Old Palaces Tour to learn about the history of the site before the current building existed.
The site was a prime spot from the early days of London, being located on the banks of the Thames in between the financial heart, the City, and the centre of Government, Westminster. When the Duke of Somerset became Lord Protector on the accession of the boy-king Edward VI in 1547, he decided to build himself a palace on this very spot, even though it meant demolishing several churches and chapels that already existed on the land. A few years later, Somerset Palace – architect unknown – was complete, but the Duke was executed for treason in 1552 and it passed into the hands of the Crown. Elizabeth used the Palace on occasion, both as a Princess and later as Queen, but it was more heavily used after her death in 1603.
From then until its demolition nearly 200 years later, the Palace was most notable for being the home of three Catholic queens: Anne of Denmark, Henrietta Maria and Catherine of Braganza. Anne, wife of James I of England and VI of Scotland, renamed the building Denmark House, hosted numerous lavish masques, and commissioned elaborate extensions to the palace. A similar policy was followed by Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, and her addition of a Catholic chapel did not help improve relations between the King and his Parliament. On the outbreak of the Civil War, Henrietta Maria fled to France, Charles of course was defeated and executed, and Denmark House became the headquarters of General Fairfax, commander of the Parliamentary Army. The contents of the house were inventoried and sold – to this date only one picture remains as a record of what the interior looked like – and Inigo Jones, responsible for much of the seventeenth century redesign of the building, was fined by the Parliamentarians who viewed his work for the royal family with suspicion. He died at Somerset House, his estate confiscated. However, on Oliver Cromwell’s death – his body lying in state at Somerset House – Charles II was restored to the throne and Henrietta Maria, now Queen Dowager, returned to Somerset House.
The final Roman Catholic queen to inhabit the house was Catherine of Braganza, who moved in after the death of her husband Charles II and remained there during the reign of William and Mary, a difficult situation as the monarchs were Protestant. After Catherine left in 1693, the Palace was used by various government departments before falling gradually into disrepair. George III agreed that the building should be demolished and replaced by a new building for the purpose of government offices, on the condition that Buckingham House, further to the west, should be given to the Crown.
We were taken round the existing Somerset House during the tour and the history of the old palace was explained to us: it was fascinating considering that hardly anything of the old palace still exists and we had to rely on our imaginations. Our guide was really knowledgeable and enthusiastic and really brought the old palace to life.
After spending some time in the courtyard, we ventured downstairs to where the nineteenth-century embankment is visible as well as the level of the Thames waterline. Originally, boats could come right inside the palace, and these days one of the royal barges is installed behind a pane of glass (one of a pair, the other barge is at the National Maritime Museum).
Next we visited my favourite part of Somerset House – the Deadhouse, underneath the courtyard. When the old palace was demolished, the only bits saved from it were some of the graves from the Roman Catholic chapel, which have been installed here. They include the grave of a doctor, the wife of a gardener, and a diplomat.
Finally, we visited the Strand Lane Baths, which are located next to Somerset House. During the nineteenth century, it was widely thought that these dated back to Roman times, and there is a worn Victorian sign inside the building stating this. Indeed, the National Trust sign outside calls them the Roman Baths. However, it is now generally accepted that the baths date from no earlier than the beginning of the 17th century. An intriguing theory claims that the bath was originally the feeder cistern for a magnificent fountain in the grounds of the old Somerset House, built for James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark, in 1612. The Hidden London website has a very informative piece about this.
By the late eighteenth century, the baths were being used as a public bathing facility. Charles Dickens reportedly bathed here, and made his character David Copperfield take the plunge here as well. Whenever they date from, they are a fascinating little feature of the embankment. Apart from these tours, access is only possible on Open House Weekend or by making an appointment with Westminster Council.
I thoroughly enjoyed my Old Palaces Tour. Tours take place each Tuesday at 12.45 and 14.15. They are free, but are popular so don’t arrive too late. I turned up at a quarter to twelve and the first tour was full up, but I was the first person to register on the second. It’s definitely worth making the effort to go on this tour.
As part of Open House London 2015, I paid a visit to the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium for a Heritage and History Tour. After having visited so many cemeteries this year, I thought I might as well go for one more. I turned up on Sunday morning in time for the tour, having travelled right across London: despite the name, the Cemetery is actually located in the east, near Epping Forest. Manor Park is the nearest station.
The Cemetery was opened in 1856, as a burial place for residents of the City of London, who prior to this had been buried within their own parishes. The overcrowding issue which led to the establishment of the “Magnificent Seven” also led to the formation of this cemetery, laid out by William Haywood on land purchased from the second Duke of Wellington. The Cemetery is nearly at capacity for burials, although former plots are re-used (sensitively, and only in particular circumstances). The remains from over 30 London parish church yards were also relocated here. Today, the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium is a Grade I listed landscape, open for burial to anyone regardless of religious belief or connection to the City. There are two crematoriums, one built at the beginning of the 20th century and one constructed in 1971. There are Grade II listed chapels and catacombs, a Garden of Rest, and memorial gardens.
Our tour began with a look at some of the documents from the Cemetery’s 150-year history, including fascinating burial and cremation registers. We were then taken on a long, thorough and fascinating tour of the site. Several notable personalities are buried in the Cemetery, including Catherine Eddowes and Mary Ann Nichols (victims of Jack the Ripper), Dame Anna Neagle, and Edith Thompson (one of the last women to be hanged in the UK). However, what I was fascinated by the most was simply the heritage of the place, the mix of time periods and the story behind the burials here.
After being taken round the Cemetery, we were offered the chance to go “behind the scenes” at the Crematorium, and find out what happens when someone is cremated. While this part of the tour was entirely optional, every single person on it opted to go ahead. We were taken through the process by which bodies are cremated, the measures taken to ensure that individuals are correctly identified, how remains are turned into ashes and – most fascinatingly – the bits and pieces left over once the ashes are retrieved. These include things like metal hip and knee replacements, jewellery and anything else that is not combustible. I was hugely impressed by how hard the staff work to make sure everything runs smoothly.
My visit to the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium was one of the most fascinating and enlightening tours I have ever done. I enjoyed the tour of the Cemetery but I feel particularly privileged to have had the tour of the Crematorium, which really helped to demystify the cremation process. Death can be a taboo subject, but I honestly feel it’s important to be prepared and understand how burial and cremation work. Even without a tour, this is a lovely place to visit for a quiet walk.