Painted Hall conservation tours

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Last week the Londonphile had a superb day out getting up close and personal to the Old Royal Naval College’s Painted Hall. Right now this Baroque gem is getting a bit of a clean-up, with conservators tackling 50-plus years of accumulated grime. They’re working on the west wall first, with a deadline of the end of April. So while normal visitors to the Painted Hall will find that area covered over (with a very realistic-looking copy of the painting), those booked onto the conservation tours the ORNC is currently running can go behind the scenes, meet the conservators and get a truly bird’s eye view of James Thornhill’s masterpiece.

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The Painted Hall was designed by Wren and Hawksmoor in 1698 and was originally intended to be a dining room for the naval veterans who lived here at the Royal Hospital for Seamen. Thornhill took a staggering 19 years to complete the elaborate painting of its interior. It was soon decided that the hall was much too grand for its original purpose and it quickly turned into one of London’s first paying tourist attractions. Today you can visit the hall for free – and I personally believe that it is one of London’s most under-appreciated gems.

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Stepping behind the cover hiding the west wall on a Meet the Conservators tour, you first encounter the very large – and high – scaffolding which the conservators are using to restore this massive work. Work began on December 3rd – this is actually the tenth restoration of the hall, the first being just five years after it originally opened. The most recent restoration was undertaken in 1957 and saw 15 layers of varnish removed. The work was conducted to such a high quality that the thinly-applied varnish layer from that time will now be retained, while a thorough cleaning is undertaken, primarily using cotton wool swabs and water.

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It’s quite a thing to ascend the scaffolding and see the west wall up close. We first climbed six metres to the first visitor viewing platform, where we had a talk from a conservator and watched another at work at close hand. We then moved to the second platform, at ten metres high, which was almost within touching distance of the Painted Hall’s ceiling (see below). These tours provide such a unique opportunity – it’s hard to imagine when visitors will have another chance to see the hall from such a viewpoint. And they’re free!

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This is the first phase of the restoration only, with the hall’s main ceiling the next major area in line for a clean-up. So far the process has discovered all manner of dirt attached to the walls, including various pollutants, grease, dust, debris – and even some gravy. Ultimately, a new lighting scheme will also be installed in the hall, enabling a clearer view of Thornhill’s work. In the meantime, the ORNC is offering three types of conservation on selected dates until mid-April – Meet the Conservators (Fridays), Open Scaffolding Sessions (Tuesdays and Thursdays), and Conservation in Action (Saturdays and Sundays). All are free but require pre-booking on 020 8269 4799 or via boxoffice@ornc.org 

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Old Royal Naval College

Painted Hall

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Tower Bridge Engineering Tour

Control cabin

Control cabin

I announced at the start of the year that the Londonphile would be one of the lucky participants on a Tower Bridge behind-the-scenes Engineering Tour. Well just last Sunday was my day to enter the belly of the beast that is London’s prettiest bridge and, as promised, here are some pictures from the big day. Although the tour started and finished like a standard Tower Bridge visit (up on the walkways and down in the engine rooms), we had our own guide and gained access into off-limits areas, where a Senior Technical Officer was subjected to much grilling about the bridge’s mechanics.

It turns out that Tower Bridge is also a fine spot for a bit of photography, especially if your tastes run to taking pictures of industrial/Victorian settings. I took plenty of pictures on the day, but will focus on ones from the restricted areas in this post. If you’d like to see the whole set you can find them on the Londonphile’s Flickr stream at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thelondonphile/sets/72157629529321039/

The old steam hydraulic machinery

The old hydraulic machinery - powered by steam.

Accumulator

The image at the very top of this post was taken in the first of the off-limits areas we visited: the south east Control Cabin (no longer in use), where the levers for lifting the bridge were once activated. These days it’s all done at the touch of a button. Next stop was the machinery rooms, where the old steam hydraulic machinery (pictured above) sits literally side by side with the modern oil and electric hydraulic machinery now used to lift the bridge. A frighteningly high staircase then took us past one of the accumulators (pictured right), where the steam used to lift the bascules would collect until it was required for use.

Next was the highlight of the tour: we visited one of the huge bascule chambers underneath the river bed – where the counterweights that balance the bridge swing down when the bascules are opened. We first viewed it from above through a doorway from the machinery room, before descending into the chamber itself. It is truly massive in size  – so large it’s hard to capture it in the one photograph. It’s also a little awe inspiring – truly an amazing feat of Victorian engineering – though not surprisingly also a little cold and damp.

Bascule chamber - viewed from above.

In the year Tower Bridge first opened – 1894 – there were 6,160 bridge lifts. Traffic on the Thames has reduced dramatically since then, and although the promotional material still states that there are around 900 lifts a year, the Senior Technical Officer advised us that more recently that figure is closer to 700. All bridge lifts require 24 hours written notice, and the timetable of when lifts will occur can be found on the Tower Bridge website. The bridge has had a fresh paint job to pretty itself up for this year’s Diamond Jubilee. One Tower Bridge fact which you may not be aware of is that its metalwork was originally painted in a chocolate brown colour – and was re-painted red, white and blue to mark the Silver Jubilee back in 1977. You can see examples of the original brown colour – as used on internal metalwork – in the first two photos in the Flickr set.

Competition for tickets for the Engineering Tours was fierce – as predicted – and they are now sold out. You can put your name down on a waiting list for any future tours by contacting 020 7407 9191. Alternatively, you can always view the walkways and engine rooms by attending the Tower Bridge Exhibition, which is open daily.

Tower Bridge website

The Londonphile’s Tower Bridge Flickr set

In the machinery room.

In the machinery room.

Thames archaeology walks

Not content with being a river that has inspired artists and writers and other creative types across the ages, the Thames is also an amazing archaeological site – when the tide rolls back and allows its treasures to be revealed. In fact, at low tide it becomes London’s longest open-air archaeological site. As I am also a huge Thames-phile, doing a Thames archaeology walk has been on my to-do list for some time now, so last weekend I took the opportunity to go on the Thames Discovery Programme’s Rotherhithe Winter Walk.

Elliott Wragg led us on this ramble from Rotherhithe to Bermondsey – an area that was long associated with ships and ship building. And sure enough, we were immediately able to locate a number of nautical remnants, such as anchors, rudders, and ship timbers that have been re-used to form a slipway. Sadly, due to rapidly increasing erosion more and more of these items are being revealed – good for archaeology, not such a good portent for the environment.

Elliott also taught us how to ‘read’ the various areas along the river bed. When you look closely you realise that certain areas have a preponderance of say, glass, where there would have once been a glass foundry (or maybe just a pub!), or pieces of old leather and shoes where a shoe factory was based. You can also find a large number of bricks along the foreshore in this area that are actually the remains of bomb damage from the Second World War, when the dock areas were heavily hit.

Thames Discovery also have a Putney Winter Walk coming up on Saturday 11th February, which will explore the Putney foreshore (free but donations welcome). If a spot of mudlarking (i.e. hunting for treasures along the river bed) takes your fancy, you may prefer the Thames Explorer Trust’s Millennium Bridge Walks (suitable for families and £8 for adults, £5 children), where the hunt is on for pipes and pottery (dates are currently scheduled for March and April). Alternatively, London Walks run Thames Beachcombing sessions (also guided by an archaeologist), on weekends when the tide permits (dates are currently scheduled up until the end of April, places are £8).

The Thames foreshore was almost deserted apart from our group on this fine (but admittedly rather crisp!) winter morning. In the nineteenth century the Thames was London’s premiere playground, with people piling onto boats for cruises and parties. I think it’s time we re-claimed the Thames, so come summer let the river become your own walking trail, beach  – and archaeological site. In the meantime, there are always these walks to consider:

Putney Winter Walk:
http://www.thamesdiscovery.org/events/putney-winter-walk 

Millennium Bridge Walks:
http://www.thamesdiscovery.org/events/millennium-bridge-walks

London Walks Thames Beachcombing:
http://www.walks.com/London_Walks_Home/Thames_Beachcombing_/default.aspx#20695 

Seven Noses of Soho Walk

In short, anything that Peter Berthoud doesn’t know about London (or more specifically, Westminster) probably isn’t worth knowing. He’s a trained City of Westminster Guide and the person behind the wonderful Discovering London blog and – luckily for Londoners – your personal tour guide on his Seven Noses of Soho Walk.

So just what are these mythical noses? Some time ago people started noticing plaster noses affixed to walls around London. Inevitably a number of theories regarding their origins started doing the rounds. Taxi drivers in particular are said to have promulgated many of the myths surrounding the Admiralty Arch nose, which has been variously claimed as Wellington’s, Napoleon’s, et al….Most importantly, it was said that it you could locate all of the noses, infinite wealth would be yours. Or some such.

Then just last October artist Rick Buckley outed himself in the Evening Standard as the creator of said noses, which he revealed he had placed around London (not just Soho) all the way back in 1997 as a statement against the proliferation of CCTV (get it: nosey!). The noses vary from quite realistic looking ones to much larger, inflated protuberances, though all are apparently taken from a cast of the artist’s own nose. The high placement of some certainly suggest clandestine, night-time visits with a ladder. Needless to say, the buildings’ owners were not consulted, and not all of the noses have lived to tell the tale (Buckley claims he affixed 35 in total). Many are painted the same colour as the wall to which they are attached, making spotting these noses more of a challenge. And this is where the walk comes in…

However, Peter’s tour isn’t just about the seven noses. You will also get to see a fake nose, a missing nose, an ear and some fingers. And if all these body parts aren’t enough there is also a very tall door (with a singular purpose), a delightful community garden and a surprising amount of street art. Without giving away any of Peter’s secrets, I’m fairly confident that if you do the walk on a Wednesday you will see something at a large art institution that you have probably never seen before…

One of the joys of this walk is that Peter also weaves in snippets about Soho’s history and cultural life – but in a far less dry manner than a standard historical tour – so if you’ve always wanted to know more about this fascinating area of London this could be the walk for you. Upcoming walks that still have places available are on Sundays 5th and 19th February, at the very civilised hour of 2pm. But keep an eye on Peter’s website, as more dates are sure to be added:

http://www.peterberthoud.co.uk/walks-timetable/

Keats House by candlelight


Regardless of how you feel about Valentine’s Day, one related event that you may wish to attend is the candlelight opening of Keats House, Every Truly Yours, on the evening of Friday 10th February. This Hampstead residence was the poet John Keats’ home from 1818-1820, and is where he met Fanny Brawne, the love of his life and (quite literally) the girl next door. These days it is a lovely house museum run by the City of London, with a strong series of events related to literature and Regency era history and culture.

Although film buffs may note that this was not the house used in Jane Campion’s Bright Star film about the ill-fated lovers (the celluloid version is predictably much larger and more grandiose), it has the immeasurable benefit of being the real deal. Attendees of Every Truly Yours can expect not only a candlelit tour of the house, but champagne and chocolate, and a creative writing challenge based on Keats’ letters to Miss Brawne. The event runs from 7-9pm, costs £10 (£8 concessions), and requires prior booking on keatshouse@cityoflondon.gov.uk or 020 7332 3868.

http://www.keatshouse.cityoflondon.gov.uk/

After Hours at the War Rooms

The Churchill War Rooms are opening up the bunker doors for an After Hours event on Friday February 10th. In addition to a curator-led tour of the fascinating underground war rooms, this evening event also features dance classes and live music of the time, a bar and a film screening. Visitors will also have the opportunity to have their photograph taken outside the original door from 10 Downing Street.

These secret headquarters of the War Cabinet was originally intended to be a temporary emergency government centre, but were soon commandeered by Churchill – and the hundreds of men and women who worked here during the Second World War. As staff dormitories and more luxurious bedrooms for Churchill and his wife were provided, many also slept in the War Rooms (although apparently Churchill generally slept off-site, and his wife’s room was mostly used by their daughter). You can view these sleeping arrangements – and more – at the After Hours event.

Due to the limited capacity of the secret wartime bunker, advance bookings are essential and cost £16.45. If you can’t attend this one, look out for future announcements as the War Rooms has held this event previously, and last year it was part of the Museums at Night annual event. I’ll keep an eye out too.

And if putting on your 40s finery and having a bop to the sounds of the day is just your thing, you may also be interested in The Blitz Party – semi-regular 1940s party events that are held under the railway arches in Shoreditch.

http://www.iwm.org.uk/events/after-hours-at-the-churchill-war-rooms

http://www.theblitzparty.com/

The Map Room, photograph copyright IWM.

Behind-the-scenes Tower Bridge tour

Ever wanted to see behind-the-scenes at Tower Bridge – you know, all those things mere mortals normally never get to see – and learn about how it all works? If so, the new year has rung in a real treat for you, as the good people at the bridge are opening it up for special engineering tours in January and March 2012.

Visitors will be able to see normally restricted areas, such as the bridge control room, the huge bascule chambers underneath the river bed, and the machinery room where the hydraulics that power the lifting of the bridge are found. And one lucky person will win a competition to raise the bridge at a future date (me, please).

I’m advised that the January tours have already sold out, so be quick for the March dates, which will run every Saturday and Sunday throughout the month. The tours, which will also include the normally accessible areas of the bridge, last 1.5 hours and cost £30. To arrange you must email enquiries@towerbridge.org.uk, stating your name/s, full contact and address details and preferred dates.

The Londonphile is already booked in for the 4th March, so you’ll be hearing all about it after then…

http://www.towerbridge.org.uk/TBE/EN/NewsAndEvents/Engineering+Tour.htm

Go underground at the Brunel Museum

Looking for something different to do on Christmas Eve? Well how about spending it underground. OK, maybe not the whole day, but if you head to Rotherhithe’s Brunel Museum you can be entertained in the Christmas spirit (including stories, decorations and prismatic reflectors) in the underground Entrance Hall to the old Thames Tunnel. This is a massive underground space (half the size of the Globe Theatre) that you enter via a tunnel and staircase.

When the Thames Tunnel was first opened in 1843 it was the first tunnel in the world to travel underneath a river. It was heralded as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and over one million people payed a penny for the pleasure of walking under the river in its first ten weeks. Today it still links Rotherhithe and Wapping via the Overground network. Normally visits to the shaft are only conducted via guided tours run twice a week in partnership with London Walks, which includes a longer tour of the surrounding area.

Thames Tunnel Entrance Hall, photo courtesy of The Brunel Museum

The Underground Christmas event now has the following dates left: Sunday 18th December at 12 noon, and Saturday 24th December at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm, and the £5  ticket also includes entrance to the Museum. No bookings are required, and you can find the Museum directly behind the Rotherhithe Underground Station. The Londonphile has this in the diary for the 24th! This looks to be becoming an annual event so if you can’t make it this year maybe it’s one for 2012.

For Brunel Museum details see:
http://www.brunel-museum.org.uk/index.aspx

For details on the London Walks tour mentioned see:
http://www.walks.com/London_Walks_Home/Tuesdays_Walks/default.aspx#22895

UPDATE: This tour turned out to be a real gem. While the 2pm and 4pm sessions appeared to be quite busy, I attended the 3pm session which was composed of just four people. We were regaled with fascinating stories of the lost world of the Thames Tunnel, from its construction to its heyday and subsequent decline. My understanding of this site as the birthplace of the modern subway system (and hence the modern city) and as the world’s first underwater shopping mall (as well as a bit of a den of iniquity) has been much enhanced! Go down if you can!

And you have just been granted another opportunity to do so as there will be two openings in January 2012. On Wednesday 11th January and Sunday 15th January at 12:00 p.m. you can again descend into the chamber (without the stories this time). £5 including museum entry – no need to book, just turn up on the day.

http://www.brunel-museum.org.uk/events/greatescape.aspx

Secret Cinema announces Secret Restaurant

'The Red Shoes', February 2011

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last couple of years you would have heard about Secret Cinema and their immersive film experiences around London. These events see patrons buy tickets for a secret movie to be shown in a secret (but relevant) location; a dress code is announced and performers help create a filmic atmosphere on the nights. Fancy seeing Blade Runner in an abandoned warehouse at Canary Wharf, or The Red Shoes in a fake Covent Garden Market in Wapping’s Tobacco Dock? Then Secret Cinema is just the ticket for you…

Anyhow, today the same team has announced that – no longer content with just exploring four senses – they are now running a Secret Restaurant in conjunction with their latest film offering (which is, of course, secret). The restaurant is located in the attic of the current venue, and the menu is also kept under wraps until the night. But seeing as this is being run in conjunction with the St. John crew (they have Michelin stars, don’t you know), presumably the food will prove a pleasant surprise.

Ticketholders of the current Secret Cinema event can email bookings@secretrestaurant.org to request reservations, and a new tranche of cinema tickets that also include the dining experience have just been released for the rest of December and January. For tickets see:

http://www.wegottickets.com/location/8439

UPDATE: And on January 4th Secret Cinema announced that the final round of January tickets will be released tomorrow, Thursday the 5th, at 12:00 hours. For these hot little numbers go to:

http://www.wegottickets.com/secretcinema

'The Red Shoes', Secret Cinema, Wapping

Aldwych tube tour

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Every so often the London Transport Museum opens up the ‘non-operational’ Aldwych Underground Station for guided tours. And at the risk of sounding like a train-spotter of the first order, I was lucky enough to get tickets for the latest round of these, held over the last weekend in November and the first weekend in December.

Aldwych station, first opened in 1907 and originally known as ‘Strand’, finally closed to the general public in 1994 – though it’s hard to believe it was so recent given the state of its interior and the 1970s posters still adorning the walls. Other than transporting people from A to B, it’s other major claim to fame was as a bomb shelter in World War One and World War Two. What it also sheltered from the bombs was paintings from the National Gallery (WWI) and objects from the British Museum and the V&A (WWII). The Elgin/Parthenon Marbles spent some years languishing behind the door in the picture below (and note the tiling ‘practice’ on the right hand side).

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The station also features in a number of films (V for Vendetta, Atonement and James Bond’s Die Another Day), and is currently used for training purposes by emergency services. The tour takes in both platforms, and ladies you should leave the heels at home for this one as sensible shoes are required in case of a serious evacuation – which would involve walking down the tunnel to Holborn station. It’s a fascinating way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon and is again the sort of event that I hope to advise people of beforehand in the future! You can keep an eye out for yourself on the Transport Museum’s page below, but be quick when tickets do go on sale next time as they sell out extremely quickly.

www.ltmuseum.org