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.
London Thing 397 of 1000: Be a nosy neighbour for Open House London.
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, 2015 and 2016, and with Open House London 2017 coming up this weekend, here’s a look at the best I’ve seen so far.
These abandoned flour mills greet arrivals into London City Airport and stand 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 six-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, Rayleigh Rd, London, E16 1UR. DLR Pontoon Dock. Pre-book only.
Dollis Hill Underground Bunker
I’m often delighted by the venues that make it on to the Open House London list in health-and-safety-conscious England. You can spot the good ones by the requirements to wear hard hats and certain footwear, and when we were warned that there could be an inch of water of stagnant, chemical-filled water at this bunker, I knew we were in for a good one.
As the spectre of World War II loomed nearer, plans were made to move the central government out of London and into its suburbs if anything were to happen in the city. Secret excavations started on code name ‘Paddock’, an underground bunker in the bog-standard neighbourhood of Dollis Hill, and plans were kept so private that to this day, the purpose of some of the rooms still isn’t known. Bread trucks were brought in to remove the dirt from the construction site so the neighbours wouldn’t know either.
Winston Churchill hated the idea of leaving central London, and once the Blitz started, he toured Dollis Hill to see the new war headquarters, but told his aides and wrote in his memoir that he thought it was a dump (!) and didn’t want to stay there. The war room was tested out twice, including when Churchill chaired a full meeting of the cabinet, but Paddock was never used for its intended purpose and was essentially left to disintegrate.
Today, the underground bunker reeks of diesel and has more asbestos warning stickers than you might care to see in such an enclosed space. Years ago, water broke through a waterproof seal above the facility, so stalactites are forming on the ceiling, there’s about an inch of water on the floors of some of the rooms, and the roof is starting to collapse.
Will it even be around to see next year? Get to it now while you still can.
Visit: Paddock Bunker, 109 Brook Rd, London, NW2 7DZ. Tube Dollis Hill. Pre-book only.
The Isokon Building, a Grade I-listed apartment block, is one of London’s greatest examples of modernist architecture. This modernist stunner, originally built as an ambitious social experiment in minimalist urban living, is incongruously set on a leafy street of Victorian terraced houses in Hampstead. The door to the penthouse flat gets unlocked during Open House, but even if you miss it, the Isokon Gallery is worth a visit any weekend.
Read my full review of the Isokon Building here.
Visit: Isokon Gallery, Lawn Rd, London, NW3 2XD. Tube Belsize Park. Saturday and Sunday, 11.30am-3pm.
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. Pre-book only.
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 this weekend too.
Visit: Foreign & Commonwealth Office, King Charles St, Whitehall, London, SW1A 2AH. Tube Westminster. Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm.
The City of London has been the headquarters of trade guilds since medieval times, and the ancient meeting halls of these wealthy unions are a sight to see, a number of which are open for viewing during Open House London.
If you only get around to one city livery hall, make it this one, the headquarters of the Worshipful Company of Drapers, formerly the people who bought and sold woollen cloth in the City of London. I’m a total sucker for over-the-top Victorian gaudiness, so the Drapers’ Hall stole my heart.
Read my full review of Drapers’ Hall, as well as some of the other city livery halls (Cutlers’ Hall, Apothecaries’ Hall and Stationers’ Hall), here, all of which are open for Open House London.
Visit: Drapers’ Hall, Throgmorton Ave, London, EC2N 2DQ. Tube Bank or Liverpool Street. Sunday 10am-4pm.
Alexandra Road Estate
The Alexandra Road Estate was not even on my radar, but I’m so glad we decided to stumble in. I had no idea what to expect of this place and then all of a sudden you turn a corner, and all of a sudden, you’re on one of the perfectly symmetrical streets of the estate.
This modernist, brutalist gem that looks like a ‘Barbican Lite’ might not appeal to all, but its concrete architecture harks back to that era of space-age optimism and tight-knit community. Alexandra Road Estate was one of the last big council estate projects London ever saw, and each of the flats has a garden and faces out onto one of three pedestrianised ‘main streets’ to encourage neighbourly interaction.
Some of the flats might be open for a peek, but if not, a walk down the street is eye candy enough.
Visit: Alexandra Road Estate, Rowley Way, London NW8 0SN. Tube Swiss Cottage or rail South Hampstead. Saturday only, 11am-6pm.
A foreboding building in the heart of London’s members-only ‘Clubland’, the Reform Club’s headquarters opened in 1841 for those who supported the Great Reform Act of 1832 (hence the name), and it became the political base for the Liberal Party.
The Reform Club was build on a palatial design, and palace-like it is, with marble columns, geometric floor tiles, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and numerous frowning busts of people you won’t remember when you leave the building.
Phileas Fogg, the main character in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, is a club member and, in a bet with fellow members, wagers £20,000 that he can circle the globe in less than three months, starting and finishing at the Reform Club.
The tour guides, who are current club members, are fantastic fountains of knowledge. Fortunately, the dress code of suits and ties are relaxed for Open House London. You’re not allowed to take photos inside, so you’ll have to make do with buying a postcard (and a bottle of the wine they serve in the restaurant) from the ‘gift shop’.
Visit: Reform Club, 104 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5EW. Tube Charing Cross. Pre-book 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. Pre-book only.
Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garret
Quietly lingering in the shadow 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.
Read my full reviews of the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret (the 1000 Things book separates them, but they are the same museum) at those links. The museum is open outside of Open House London, but has an entry fee then.
Visit: Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garret, 9a St. Thomas’s St. London, SE1 9RY. Tube London Bridge. Sunday 10.30am-5pm.
The Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe)
One of the most iconic buildings making its mark on London’s skyline is the adorably disturbingly named Gherkin. Designed by Norman Foster, this building is home to insurance companies by day and a members-only bar and restaurant on the top floor by night, which you get shepherded into and out of in record time. Enjoy the grew views of neighbouring skyscrapers pretending like you have a martini in hand, though the restaurant and bar sometime open up to non-members, a much calmer time to go.
The Gherkin always has a queue, so go early (maybe an hour or two before it opens, not even joking) or be prepared to do nothing else all day.
Visit: The Gherkin, 30 St Mary Axe, London, EC3A 8EP. Tube Aldgate, Bank or Liverpool Street. Saturday and Sunday, 8am-3pm.
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.
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.
Want to get these posts by email?