Open House London is unmistakably one of the city’s best weekends. More than 700 usually off-limits buildings let us have a peek inside for two days only every September.
Open House London is one 48-hour time period that you’ll want to plan as meticulously as a holiday. How many of the 700-plus buildings can you squeeze into two days? I managed to devour quite a few on the weekends that I went in 2014 and 2015, and with Open House London 2016 coming up this weekend, here’s a look at the best I’ve seen so far.
The most diminutive but fascinating building in a cluster of skyscrapers in the City, Lloyd’s is also known as the ‘Inside-Out Building’ because its exposed lifts, pipes and wires were relegated to the great outdoors in an architectural style marvellously called Bowellism. The Inside-Out Building is home to Lloyd’s of London, a specialist insurance market that has insured insane things like Bob Dylan’s vocal chords and a comedy group against the risk of someone in the audience dying laughing (seriously).
This futuristic building is the youngest ever to receive a Grade I listing, and the glass interior is a hollow, vertigo-inducing centrepiece. From the outside windows, stunning London views call from every direction.
Visit: Unfortunately, Lloyd’s isn’t included in the list this year, but you could start queuing now to make sure you get in next time, or befriend someone who works there for a free tour.
Foreign & Commonwealth Office
One of the grand government buildings parading along Whitehall, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will melt your eyes with gaudy Victorian splendour. Completed in 1868, this Italianate-style building provided space for the Brits to manage their empire (have a look at the country names that no longer exist in the dome), but was slated for demolition just 100 years later. Public outcry saved the building, and you’ll see that it’s one of the most-loved on the list for Open House London.
And who knows, maybe Boris Johnson will be wandering these halls on Sunday too.
Visit: Foreign & Commonwealth Office, King Charles St, Whitehall, London, SW1A 2AH. Tube Westminster. Open Sunday only.
St Pancras Chambers & Clock Tower
St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, one of London’s most jaw-dropping Gothic buildings, hides a number of secrets behind its intimidating exterior. The first is that people actually get to live in this stunner, including in a small pad in the 82-metre-high clock tower. The second is that you can roam around somewhat freely on the ground floor, from peering up at the constellations on the ceiling above George Gilbert Scott’s Grand Staircase to finding yourself with a cocktail in hand at the plush Booking Office bar.
Visit: St Pancras Chambers & Clock Tower, Euston Rd, London, NW1 2AR. Tube Kings Cross St Pancras. Entry during Open House London by prebooking only.
Victoria Station Roof
It’s not really Open House London unless you’ve donned high vis, and Victoria Station has a special place in my heart for being my first. The Victorian Grade II-listed glass roof was refurbished a few years ago, and Network Rail wanted to show off their good work. Although this area of London doesn’t have any skyscrapers, you feel like the short kid in primary school even though you’re as high as you can be. Stretching up around you are the tower of Westminster Cathedral and the smokestacks of Battersea Power Station. Cranes and construction sites surround the station, leaving me wondering how soon it will be like standing in a great forest of glass and concrete.
Visit: Sadly, Victoria Station has not made a reappearance on the Open House London list since, but our tour guide said that Network Rail hoped to make roof climbs a regular feature of this station, and maybe even a few others. Keep an ear out.
Abbey Mills Pumping Station
The Cathedral of Sewage, as the pumping station is also known, was the Google HQ of its day, and its Victorian builders spared no expense in decorating their high-tech campus of poo. Abbey Mills Pumping Station might not have office slides like Google, but the vintage instruments and sumptuous interiors of what we’d relegate to a boring municipal building today are more than enough of a treat.
Visit: Abbey Mills Pumping Station, Abbey Lane, London, E15 2RW. Tube Bromley-by-Bow. Entry during Open House London by prebooking only.
These abandoned flour mills greet arrivals into London City Airport and stood guard over one of the last bits of the old Docklands to remain derelict. But now the area of Silvertown has been infused with a £3.5 billion redevelopment project that’s sure to breathe a little life into the faded industrial grandeur. Built in 1905, Millennium Mills had its guts ripped out 110 years later, leaving behind 6-storey-tall gashes where milling machinery used to be. One wrong step during this tour, and you’d be as powdered as the flour that used to be there.
Millennium Mills is hands down the best Open House London visit I’ve done, and not just because it involved high vis, steel-toed boots and the tour guide bragging about how they had just finished removing 500 tons of asbestos the week before. Excellent.
Visit: Millennium Mills were on the Open House London list for one year only, but check back when the building reopens as a hub for startups, which hopefully has a cocktail bar with that rooftop view.
Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garret
Quietly lingering in the shadows of Europe’s tallest building, the Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garret in the attic of St Thomas’s Church near London Bridge stored the dried flowers and plants used for medicine before the days of packages of paracetamol. To enter, pull yourself along the worn rope that snakes up the steep, creaking spiral staircase to find the space where Victorian medical students learned how to perform amputations, a hidden spot rediscovered only 58 years ago.
I’ve written about these conjoined places previously. Click the links above for my full reviews.
Visit: Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garret, 9a St. Thomas’s St. London, SE1 9RY. Tube London Bridge. Open on Sunday.
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