Every September, tens of thousands of Londoners are holding their breath for ‘Open House’ which hits the mean streets of the capital, flinging doors of amazing buildings open to the public, from north to south and east to west.
Indeed, over the years it's become so successful that it’s now been extended from one weekend to two, giving locals and tourists alike the opportunity to walk inside some of London’s most famous buildings, and plenty of obscure ones besides.
Even more wonderful, access to everything is free. All you need to do is just show up (although, of course, the more famous offerings, i.e. Downing Street, the Gherkin) are run by lottery, giving everyone a chance but only a lucky few the opportunity to walk inside.
As well as access to all these buildings, the festival offers a fine programme of urban tours and walks, which are an incredible way to learn about the history of the city and see just how diverse its neighbourhoods are.
So - what’s worth seeing at Open House London 2023? Here are a few of the many buildings we think are worth peeking into…
1. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Westminster
Located in the heart of Westminster, London, on King Charles street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is an imposing and striking building which attracts thousands of visitors (including the writer herself, six years ago!). It’s an wonderful chance to walk through grand room after grand room, and not just a chance to look at the art and architecture of the building but to be given a window inside the notion of government itself.
Built by George Gilbert Scott in the 1860’s, its finest inside area must be Durbar Court. Originally open to the sky, its sides are surrounded by Doric, Ionic and Coronthian columns (made of red and grey granite). It’s utterly splendid!
Afterwards, you can take a stroll in St, James’ Park, walk down to Parliament Square and the River Thames, or head up to Trafalgar Square, Soho and Covent Garden.
2. Chelsea Royal Hospital, Chelsea
One of the great glories of architecture in the UK, the Chelsea Royal Hospital is home to the famous Army veteran community known as the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’. It was founded in 1692 as an ‘almshouse’ - apparently King Charles II got the idea from Nell Gwyn (an English stage actress and also his mistress).
Inside, you can wander around the Great Hall and the Chapel (both designed by Sir Christopher Wren) and then walk through the beautiful grounds (which add up to 66 acres). Don’t miss the copper statue of the king, which was re-gilded to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. There’s also an on-site museum, where you can gaze at documents, artefacts, and soldier’s medals, caps and uniforms,
Chelsea is beautiful, fashionable and bourgeois, so make sure to take a stroll around its streets afterwards!
3. Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Temple, Wembley
This Hindu Temple (popularly referred to as the ‘Neasden Temple’) is located in north-west London and is a true masterpiece of Indian design, Even from far away, you’ll be hard pressed not to think ‘wow’ as you first catch sight of it - the white domes positively glitter in the sun. Inside, you’ll see all kinds of Mandir architecture, not to mention intricate carvings, luxurious carpets and marble stonework that will make you gasp.
This temple also has a reputation for extraordinary hospitality, so you’re guaranteed a warm welcome - the members will answer every one of your questions and take the time and trouble to really make you feel comfortable in this beautiful place of worship. They also have a good vegetarian restaurant on site, so you grab a bite afterwards.
4. The Royal College of Physician, Regents Park
Close both to the beautiful Regent’s Park and the famous Camden Market, this is one of London’s few Grade I listed post-war buildings. Designed by the renowned architect Sir Denys Ladsum, it opened in 1964 and is considered to be a modernist masterpiece.
Lasdun designed the building around a central courtyard - he envisaged there being a peaceful environment, much like the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, where physicians could meet and think. Look out for extraordinary pieces such as the rare set of anatomical tables from Padiua, Italy, which date back to the 1650’s!
5. The Old Town Hall, Richmond
Built out of red brick and stone that comes from Bath (dating back to Roman times), this ‘Elizabethan Renaissance’ style building has stood in this neighbourhood since 1756. The cost at this time was a whopping £600 (a fine sum at this time).
Look out for the beautiful chandelier, the double curving stone staircase and the Assembly Room (at its far end you will see the coat of arms of King George II). There’s also a beautiful clock, made by Messrs Potts & Sons of Leeds - its case was designed by the architect W.J. Ancell.
Richmond is a lovely place in West London to stroll by the river, enjoy a pint at one of the many pubs and meander through quiet back streets.
There’s also plenty going on in our Hampstead neighbourhood - you can visit Hampstead Friends Meeting House, St. Judes on the Hill church, the Fitzroy Park allotments and even take a tour in Hampstead Garden Suburb entitled ‘ Homes for Working Women.’ Feel free to pop in on us here at La Gaffe for a cappuccino or a glass of wine - our wine bar is a great place to sit and have a chat with locals/visiting guests and take the weight of your feet, and our hotel in Hampstead is a warm and welcoming place to stay if you're visiting the capital!