Wednesday, September 22, 2010

London Open House Weekend

Have you ever wanted to get inside the Bank of England, Lloyds of London or go back stage at the National Theatre? Once a year, on the third weekend in September, London Open House weekend allows you to do just that when a huge number of public buildings - and some private ones - open their doors to the public.

Where to go this year?
In 2001, I published Frost Fair, set in London in the bitterly cold February of 1814, the date of the last Frost Fair on the Thames. I needed my hero, Noel, to live by the Thames, within reach of the fair. I put him in John Street, part of the magnificent Adelphi complex built by the Adam brothers. As it was pulled down in 1936 (an act of vandalism I find it hard to forgive) I worked from 19th century prints, old photographs and Richard Horwood's map, the updated 1813 edition, as the nearest I could get to what was once there.

Then, in the Open House booklet, I saw to my amazement that I could visit 8 John Adam St, which was built by the Adam brothers in 1774 for the RSA: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce. It was in the street behind the demolished Adelphi Royal Terrace. The booklet promised me a suite of Adam rooms, cavernous brick vaults and the Great Room, an assembly room designed by Adam for discussions and debates. I could hardly wait.

The RSA building comprises five original properties: 2, 4, 6 and 8 John Adam St, together with 18 Adam St, originally the Adelphi Tavern and later the Adelphi Hotel. In Dickens' Pickwick Papers, Emily Wardle fled from her angry father and met her lover, Mr Snodgrass at the Adelphi Hotel. I hope they had time to enjoy the ravishing Adam ceiling with its delicate plasterwork and painted panel showing Pan celebrating the feast of Bacchus.

Numbers 2 and 4 were originally private houses, like the one Noel might have lived in, and very pretty they would have been, too, with their classical Adam dimensions, elegant staircases and carved Adam fireplaces. No 4 still has its wonderful painted Adam ceiling.

What particularly interested me, though, were the brick vaults in the basement. Originally intended as warehouse storage, they ran down to the Thames foreshore. In 1814, homeless people, desperate to escape the freezing temperatures outside, huddled inside the vaults for warmth. Nowadays, it's a classy, yet intimate space for weddings, conferences and press launches, with a five star restaurant.

I was also delighted to learn about the RSA itself. Founded in 1754 as an Enlightenment response to the industrial revolution, it saw itself as a force for social progress. Impressively, men and women were admitted on equal terms from the beginning; its early members included Benjamin Franklin, Dr Johnson and Elizabeth Montagu. Nowadays, it works to create a civilized society based on a sustainable economy by stimulating debate, developing new ideas and encouraging appropriate action.

All in all, it was a most interesting visit.

Pictures courtesy of the RSA. Top: the RSA; centre, the Adelphi room ceiling; bottom, the vaults.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Joanna Waugh said...

What a fantastic tradition! Maybe we historical writers should plan our future trips to Britain to coincide with London Open House Weekend.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree, Joanna. And it's beginning to spread around the world, too. New York, Dublin, Barcelona and Tel Aviv all now have Open House weekends.


There's something very satisfying about looking around places you're normally not allowed into!

sarah mallory said...

Fascinating, Elizabeth - I love poking around places that are normally closed to the public. I shall try to organise a trip to London during that weekend next year.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Me, too! In the 2008 Open House weekend, I went round the Old Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. Wonderful Nicholas Hawksmoor buildings, and the birthplace of the Royal Artillery. It also has a great museum. I do like early military hardware.

Could I have been a soldier in a previous life - or is this just the effect of reading Georgette Heyer's 'The Spanish Bride' at an impressionable age?