Archaeology, Archaeology Conferences

Open House 2009

East window of Mary le Bow
East window of Mary le Bow

Open House is a weekend event, running once a year, which occurs across the country. The idea is to celebrate architecture, both modern and ancient, by opening up houses and buildings you wouldn’t normally get to visit.

The weekend used to be organised under the auspices of the Civic Trust, but that folded about three months ago and English Heritage took over. London, being awkward, does Open House on a different weekend to the rest of the country.

Highlights of this year include Spitalfields’ medieval Charnel House (most elaborate medieval bone-shed I’ve ever seen!), the Law Courts, the new London Parliament building, the Gerkin, Lloyds, and all that jazz. But I really hate queuing, so I decided to hit some of the calmer buildings – churches!

The tower of St Bride, Fleet Street

The idea came about specifically because the City of London (that area controlled by the Corporation of London and roughly related to the bounds of Roman London) has a unique group of churches, often described as one of the finest collections of religious buildings in Europe. Firstly they have the density of the medieval city landscape (cf Norwich) with one on almost every city block, and secondly almost all of them were rebuilt in the late 17th or early 18th century. The blame for the later lies in the Great Fire which destroyed a good number of them, and a certain Christopher Wren, who was responsible for the rebuilding of almost all of them – and who inspired the rebuilding of even those undamaged by fire.

Now, I’m not a massive fan of Wren – as far as I can see he created a bunch of churches that all look like the same crazy wedding-cake confections with very little individuality. But as I haven’t actually visited many of the churches, I thought I should probably do so with an open mind.

So, fortified by coffee and toast I set off around 11:30am on Saturday with my trusty London: The City Churches by Simon Bradley and Nikolaus Pevsner in hand. It’s a great book from the Buildings of England series and unlike the mammoth London series, is lovely and portable.

The roof, looking east, at St Mary Aldermary
The roof, looking east, at St Mary Aldermary

The plan was to see  twelve churches, and I tried to get a good variation (well, as much as is possible) in the buildings and sneak in a few non-Wren buildings (like St Barts the Greater)!

Five hours later I’d seen ten of the twelve, but at least four had been closed. So much for ‘Open House’ ! I guess this was my own fault for not double checking every one on the Open House website, but I was suckered in by the claim in the brochure: ‘47 churches… the vast majority of which will be open’.

However there were some real treasures which I can only recommend, including St Barts Greater and Lesser churches, St Brides, All Hallows Barking and St Mary Aldermary (just check out that roof on the left!). I took a lot of photographs, so I’ll probably do a post each on the better churches later.

In general the Open House weekend is absolutely awesome, and well worth getting involved in. But the best stuff needs booking, and well in advance, so the chances of marshaling friends round anything is limited. Glossy brochures aside, occasionally you run into problems of things not being open when you expect them. But largely it’s failsafe, and run by volunteers who deserve praise for their hard work. Personally I should send congratulations to all the Friends of the City Churches, who provided wardens to a large number of the churches and to all the individual churches which were open.

If you’ve any interest in historic buildings, archaeology, or you want to know about secret London or pick up some intriguing and exciting bits of history, give Open House a go. After all, it’s free, so what’s stopping you?

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