The Charterhouse

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Almost hidden away in the centre of London lies what must be one of the city’s most intriguing historic private sites. The site on which the Charterhouse stands, on the northern side of Charterhouse Square, is usually inaccessible to the public, except for irregular private tours and – right now – for the duration of the Philanthropy: The City Story exhibition. This sizeable site can trace its history back to the 14th century and contains remnants of both medieval and Tudor times.

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Charterhouse’s history has a number of phases, which start with the building of a Carthusian monastery on the site in 1371, next to a massive plague pit in Charterhouse Square. After a number of the monks were dragged through the streets and executed or starved to death during the bloody dissolution of the monasteries, the site was partially rebuilt as a Tudor mansion. Sir Edward North lived here, followed by Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, also later executed. The next owner, Thomas Sutton, set up a charitable foundation and left money and this land to set up a school and almshouse. Today, the school has moved to Surrey but 45 ‘brothers’ still live in this amazing complex; in fact, there have been brothers in residence here since 1611.

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The Charterhouse is, appropriately enough, holding an exhibition on philanthropy in the City, curated by the Museum of London, which runs until November 30th (you can read an excellent review of it on London Historians’ blog). On Thursday through Sunday at 3pm you can join a tour of the site led by one of the brothers. In addition to the chapel, which you can see via the exhibition, you will get to go well behind the scenes and visit the Tudor Great Hall, the Old Library (sans books, sadly), the rather spectacular Norfolk Cloister, the Great Chamber, the Master’s Cloister, Wash House Court (my favourite) and Preacher’s Court.

Wondering what you’ll see? Here are some of the highlights:

Tudor Great Hall (featuring what was described as one of the finest minstrel galleries in the UK; the brothers still dine here today):

IMG_4876Norfolk Cloister (has been both an enclosed and open cloister during its history; the monk’s cells were lined up along here, the door of one is still present today):

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The Great Chamber (James I held court here in 1603; later, following bomb damage, it was enlarged, joining together what had once been two separate rooms. The ceiling is original).

IMG_4906The Master’s Cloister (though the Master now lives in the Master’s House, near the Gate House):

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The beautiful Wash House Court (still includes a laundry today – no doubt London’s prettiest):

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And finally, the exit towards the Gate House (you can see why the Charterhouse is popular with film crews):

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The current set of tours run Thursday-Sunday at 3pm, until 30 November – the exhibition is free and the tour is £10 (cash only). I would suggest turning up a little early as they are proving very popular.
The brothers do run irregular tours of the Charterhouse, usually from April to September, and it seems likely these will be expanded in 2014. Email tours@thecharterhouse.org to book.
The good news is that a museum is planned for the site, to be opened in 2016. This will be a great step forward in making what is a very important heritage site more accessible to – and more widely known amongst – the public.

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Art Deco Bloomsbury

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It may not be particularly fashionable in architectural circles, but I’ve long had a rather large soft spot for Art Deco buildings. So when I heard that Yannick Pucci (aka @ypldn) was running the first of his new Art Deco walking tours as part of the annual Bloomsbury Festival it went straight into the diary. I don’t want to give away all of Yannick’s secrets here, so this will be more of a pictorial post. And the buildings shown here are by no means all of the ones included on the walk – yet more deco delights await you in Bloomsbury.

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Having said that, I do want to write just a little about my favourite stop on the walk: 7-11 Herbrand Street. This stunning white, black and green example of Art Deco started life as a Daimler car hire garage and also did time as a car park – the circular section on the right was the ramp for cars. Built in 1931 by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners (who were also the architects behind Perivale’s Hoover Building and the Victoria Coach Station), this structure has a little bit of everything for the art deco fan (zigzags! tiles! patterns! circular motifs!) and really is worthy of its own blog post. Today it is home to advertising giant McCann London.

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UCL School of Pharmacy (detail), Brunswick Square – (Herbert Rowse, 1937-60, delay due to war):

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Clare Court, Judd Street (TP Bennett & Son, 1920s):

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Tavistock Court (detail), Tavistock Square (circa 1934-5):

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Gower Mews (1930s) – the first Art Deco mews street I have seen – the other side is Victorian, which makes for quite a contrast:

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And last but most certainly not least, the magnificent Senate House, University of London. Designed by Charles Holden (the architect of over 50 tube stations, and much more besides), this 19-storey mammoth was indeed London’s first skyscraper. It was taken over by the Ministry of Information during World War II and famously inspired George Orwell’s vision of the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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The good news is that Yannick will be running more Art Deco treks around Bloomsbury in the future. He has just added new dates in November (the 2nd and the 30th); also keep an eye on the Art Deco walk page on his blog. This fabulous tour also covers other significant architectural sites in Bloomsbury in passing, so is highly recommended for all lovers of London’s architecture.

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Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse

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Tucked away in the basement of the most unprepossessing 1960s office block at 101 Lower Thames Street are the remains of a Roman house and baths dating from the 2nd-3rd century AD. The Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse site is only open to the public a couple of times a year – I took the opportunity to visit last weekend as part of the Museum of London’s Festival of Archaeology.

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These remains were uncovered in 1848 during the construction of the Coal Exchange on the site. Our guide shared a lovely story of the Victorians who discovered it building a spiral staircase (now long gone) down to access the ruins, which strikes me as a particularly lovely piece of Victoriana…The site was to become the first designated protected heritage site in London, forming part of the first Ancient Monuments Act of 1882.

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In fact, we are lucky to have it at all. As our guide also explained, the Saxons were more than a little fond of ‘recycling’ old Roman materials. Luckily, those making up the Billingsgate Bathhouse site were saved in part because the area was later covered by a wash of black dirt (some of which can still be seen today on the northern part of the site, pictured above), and also partly by the otherwise destructive force of the Great Fire of 1666, which saw the site further buried under debris pushed down from the hill above.

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The baths themselves were thought to be attached to hotel or inn – or possibly a private residence, though no mosaics (usually a sign of an elite residence) have been found to date. These buildings would have faced directly on to the Thames itself. While the ruins today – which feature part of the bathhouse and part of the East Wing of the Roman house – are indeed quite crumbly, parts of the flues for underfloor heating of the house (seen above), and segments of the bathhouse, in particular the hot room (seen below), are clearly evident.

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Interestingly, I learnt that a much larger public bathhouse – the Huggin Hill Bath House – still remains preserved, but unaccessible, in a shallow basement on nearby Upper Thames Street. It is possible that future redevelopment of that site might allow for public access. Similarly, it is also possible that the 1967 building directly above the Billingsgate Bathhouse site may be demolished, allowing for a better display of these remains, which are currently punctuated by 1960s concrete columns.

In the meantime, the Billingsgate Roman Bathhouse will be open to the public again for the Open House weekend, on Sunday 22nd September 2013.

You may also like to check out David Fletcher’s amazing 3D model of the site – which you can see online here, along with plenty more photos of the site.

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Museum of the Order of St John

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Anyone who has walked through the Tudor gate on St John’s Lane in Clerkenwell must have wondered just what it is and what treasures it might house. The answer is that – following a number of different incarnations over the years – it is now home to the Museum of the Order of St John and is the property of that order, whose history on this site can be traced back to the eleventh century. And if you visit the museum on a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday at 11am or 2:30pm and take a guided tour, you can gain admittance to the upper chambers and see for yourself what lies above.

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The tours are a must as they also gain you entry into the Norman crypt and priory church across Clerkenwell Road – once part of the monastery that was locked away behind this entrance gate. Once upstairs in the gatehouse you get a good look around the Chapter Hall (pictured below), the Old Chancery and the Council Chamber (which sits in the middle of the gate), before descending a lovely Tudor spiral staircase to the Malta Room.

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Not to take anything away from the fascinating history of the Order of St John, but I was personally more interested in the gate’s (relatively) more recent history and its literary connections. Following the dissolution of the monasteries it served time as Henry VIII’s personal storage unit before becoming the office of the Master of the Revels in the sixteenth century. As no less than 30 of Shakespeare’s plays were licensed here it’s likely that the Great Bard himself was a frequent visitor.

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In the eighteenth century the gatehouse was transformed into a rather idiosyncratic coffee house run by one Richard Hogarth, father of William. His Latin-only rule probably accounts for its fairly swift demise. The gateway also played home to The Gentleman’s Magazine – which gave a young Dr Johnson his first taste of employment – and by the nineteenth century had become the somewhat disreputable Old Jerusalem Tavern, frequented by one Charles Dickens.

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The gateway was bought back by the Order of St John in the late nineteenth century and restored to its former glory. The museum benefitted from a major restoration on 2010. Its new galleries (which are on the ground floor and can be visited for free Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm) are well designed and blend in nicely with the old structure. I highly recommend timing your visit to coincide with one of the guided tours, which are also free though a donation of £5 is suggested.

Museum of the Order of St John

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St Paul’s Triforium Tour

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Did you know that you can take a special behind the scenes tour of St Paul’s Cathedral, in which you visit its triforium area? After being whisked like a VIP through a locked door in the staircase that ascends the main dome, you will enter the triforium – an arched gallery that stands above the nave. This area includes a number of interesting sights not normally accessible to the public, including St Paul’s Library, the Geometric Staircase and Wren’s Great Model.

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But first the triforium leads down past some fascinating stone remains of the old St Paul’s – destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. These were excavated in the nineteenth century; their shelves boast unique labels, declaring ‘Norman’, ‘Gothic’ and so on. Next stop is St Paul’s Library, a wonderfully evocative old room, with its wooden bookcases full of beautiful old books. The library dates from 1709, although it was largely empty in its earliest days as most of the collection was lost in the Great Fire. Its holdings focus on theology, church history, classics and medical books (used to help the priests treat illnesses). You can contact the librarian if you wish to arrange to conduct research in these topics in this wonderful environment.

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The tour then takes in the Geometric Staircase, which will be familiar to film fans having featured in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the 2009 version of Sherlock Holmes. Next is the superb view down the nave from the west balcony – the very same as used by BBC camera operators on special occasions. The final stop is the Trophy Room, where you can see Wren’s Great Model of his favoured plan for the cathedral. This massive model was made in 1673-4 from oak and plaster at a cost of around £600 – which would have bought you a good house in London at the time. If you take the Friday tour you might also catch a glimpse of the cathedral’s seamstresses toiling away in their room next door.

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Tours also include entry to the rest of the cathedral, including the crypt and galleries. They are held on Mondays and Tuesdays at 11:30am and 2pm, and Fridays at 2pm, and cost £20. Given that full price tickets bought on-site cost £15, this seems a good deal. Tours must be booked in advanced and are for groups of five or more only, so round up a few friends. To book contact 020 7246 8357 or email admissions@stpaulscathedral.org.uk

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St Bride Foundation

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In the shadow of St Bride’s Church lies a gem of London’s printing history – the St Bride Foundation. The Foundation started life as an educational, social and cultural centre for local printers and students – and it would be hard to imagine a more fitting location given its proximity to Fleet Street. The 1894 red-brick Victorian building tucked away down St Bride Lane – no stranger to transformations while still retaining its print-based heritage, as we shall see – now contains a print workshop, library and theatre.

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As the door to today’s print workshop opens, you are swiftly transported back to the days of the dominance of the printing presses via the strong smell of ink that permeates the space. This is a most atmospheric place – once the Foundation’s gymnasium – with its old presses lining the room. The oldest is a Common Press machine, whose frame possibly dates back as far as the 16th century. A compositor’s case from Oxford University Press in the corner dates from 1668, the extensions attached to its legs a testament to the ever-growing height of the human race.

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Classes in traditional printing techniques are held regularly in this room, including in letterpress (Monday nights), wood engraving (Thursday nights) and the Adana platen press. The Saint Bride Foundation Institute Printing School later evolved into the London College of Printing, now the London College of Communication – today its students return to St Bride to learn the traditional forms.

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Upstairs, the St Bride Library’s storage area is a treasure trove of printing goodness. Surprisingly beautiful wood blocks and the Caslon Collection of type punches share shelf space with broadsheets, books and journals. The Library holds over 50,000 books, and specialises in printing, graphic arts and related fields. They also have a strong events programme. The Library’s small reading room, once the lithographic printing room, is open to the public each Wednesday, and individual appointments can be arranged on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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A number of other rooms – including the lovely old Printing Library – are now available for events and conferences. Bridewell Theatre was built over the swimming pool – believed to be the first public pool in the area – which remains in situ today underneath the wooden flooring. Its towel laundry was converted into the bar. Other such transformations continue apace today, with a new book binding workshop and exhibition space currently being created near the print workshop.

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Guided tours of the Print Workshop and other parts of the Foundation are run on request on weekdays from 9am-5pm and cost £5; please book in advance for groups. Contact 020 7353 3331 or info@stbridefoundation.org

http://www.sbf.org.uk/

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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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St Bride’s Church

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St Bride’s Church – arguably best known for its wedding cake spire – is a place brimming with history – and even a rather gruesome surprise or two. There have been eight places of worship (the earliest dating from Roman times) in total on St Bride’s Fleet Street site – a location that has also made it the journalists’ church of choice; today it features an altar to fallen reporters. But 1,000 years of its history was hidden away underground until the Blitz unearthed St Bride’s secrets.

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St Bride’s was amongst a number of City churches that were destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren only to be destroyed again during the Second World War. But these bombs did indeed have a silver lining of sorts, as they exposed the crypts that had long lain beneath the church. Sealed up after parliament decreed there were to be no more burials in the City, this underground area was revealed to contain seven crypts, a medieval chapel, two charnel houses, and loads of bodies – many dating from the Great Plague of 1665 and the 1854 cholera epidemic.

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You can visit St Bride’s and most of its crypts any day of the week, but to get the full picture of its history – and full access to its underground areas – take one of their regular guided tours. These 1.5 hour tours are the only way to access St Bride’s rather ghoulish – and absolutely fascinating – charnel house and ossuary. A narrow passage past a rather prosaic kitchen and storage area leads you to these unusual last resting places.

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The medieval charnel house (pictured above) features literally piles of bones buried on top of one another in an unusual chequerboard pattern – and I’m told it goes much deeper than what is currently visible. The ossuary is decidedly more organised and contains the remains of 227 individuals all neatly packed away in numbered cardboard boxes. The bones were identified by their coffin plates – some of which can also be seen in the ossuary. Names and other data, such as cause of death, have been systematically recorded, along with drawings of each bone.

I managed to catch the last tour for 2012, but they start up again on Tuesday 8th January, and then run each fortnight at 3pm, £6 each. You can book in advance on 020 7427 0133 or info@stbrides.com or just turn up on the day.

http://www.stbrides.com/visit/guided-tours.php

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Standby cabinet war rooms

Hidden away underneath a particularly nondescript brick building in the suburbs of North London – Dollis Hill to be exact – lie the standby cabinet war rooms. These bombproof rooms would have been put into use for Churchill’s cabinet should the secret war rooms in Westminster have been damaged or destroyed. Thanks to Subterranea Britannica, the rooms are opened up a couple of times a year, providing you with an opportunity to explore their beautiful dereliction.

Plans for the standby cabinet rooms began in 1938, with war imminent, and construction commenced in 1939 below the site of the Post Office Research Station. After 13 months and at a cost of £250,000 the rooms – code-named ‘PADDOCK’ – were complete. As it turned out, they were only used for cabinet meetings on two occasions, with the more vulnerable Westminster rooms remaining unharmed. After the war the entire site reverted to use by the Post Office. They moved out in 1976 and the war rooms have been unoccupied since. Houses were developed across the site in the late 1990s, but on the agreement that the alternative war rooms remain and are opened up to the public at least twice a year.

As these photographs amply attest, the rooms’ original features are still in situ and in a high level of dereliction, with stalactites forming on the ceilings, fittings rusting away and mould blooming on walls. Our tour included the air filtration room, the lower plant room with its massive generator, the telephone exchange room and what was once the map room, which would once have had maps adorning the wall and a map table in the middle of the room. Today the maps have disappeared but you can see the tide mark from the water that had flooded the map room after it was abandoned. What we didn’t visit was the toilets, as these were amazingly left out of the design process – apparently a fire bucket or a dash to the post office buildings above had to suffice.

Last weekend’s opening was part of the London Festival of Archaeology, but the site will also be open for tours again in September as part of Open House London, and I highly recommend adding it to your list for that busy weekend.
Subterranea Britannica also has detailed information about the rooms on its website.

Balfron Tower

You could easily be excused for mistaking – as many people do – Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower for its (slightly) taller, and certainly more famous, younger sibling the Trellick Tower. Balfron Tower essentially became Goldfinger’s dry run for West London’s Trellick, and the two share a number of distinctive features. National Trust’s 2 Willow Road, Goldfinger’s Hampstead home, organised a tour to Balfron last week, so the Londonphile headed off to visit another of London’s brutalist gems.

Balfron was Goldfinger’s first foray into large scale social housing. He’d long had a hankering to design taller buildings, and at 27-storeys Balfron must have really hit the spot. So high was it in fact that for years it was exceedingly popular with pirate radio stations and other illicit communicators, who would place radio masts on its rooftop. Designed in 1963 and built between 1965 and 1967, it forms part of the Brownfield Estate in East London’s Poplar. This is something of a Goldfinger fan’s vision of heaven, composed as it is of not one but two of the architect’s buildings (Balfron and Carradale House) and a third (Glenkerry House) designed slightly later by his studio. All three were named after Scottish villages, in what was apparently a homage to the area’s Scottish connections. The long, low form of Carradale House is currently under wraps (quite literally) as it is being refurbished.

Glenkerry House

Balfron is about to undergo a similar refurbishment and is currently – and somewhat controversially – slowly being “decanted” of its residents by its management group, Poplar HARCA. In the meantime, a number of artists had been invited to live and work in Balfron. One of these artists, Simon Terrill, also created an installation featuring Balfron Tower – now on show at 2 Willow Road – and organised our visit to flat 122 on the 21st floor, whose former residents had left behind more than a little of the detritus of their lives (in addition to leaving on the heating).

Balfron is entered via a concrete bridge – which has been compared to a drawbridge – to the distinctive separate service tower. This detached tower was to become a favourite design element of Goldfinger’s and one which he used again at Carradale (but placed in the middle of the building) and at Trellick (also to one side, but at a 90 degree angle). This service tower contains “all the noisy stuff”, including stairs, rubbish chutes and the two lifts that service the entire structure. One family were moving out when we visited – item by item in one of these narrow lifts; happily, Goldfinger later included an extra lift when designing Trellick. The boiler room can be seen jutting out at the very top of Balfron’s service tower (with its metal boilers reaching for the sky). Balfron has often been compared to a fortress and  – like its brutalist counterpart the Barbican Estate – contains a number of martial and castle references.

The service tower is attached to the main section of the building by seven walkways. This means that lifts do not service each floor, and entry to the flats is via every third floor. So for example, you would travel to the 12th floor to access floors 11, 12 and 13. This feature is also repeated at Carradale and Trellick. The lift foyers contain narrow rectangular windows – which have been likened to arrow slits – that create the interesting pattern on the outside of the tower and afford tantalising glimpses of Balfron’s spectacular views. The flats themselves also have three styles of entry; you might encounter a staircase going up or down immediately upon entering, or you might just enter directly on that level. Those with a staircase down to the flats, like the one we visited, once had a door in one of the bedrooms that led directly to the fire escape (these are now kept locked).

Goldfinger and his wife Ursula rather famously left the leafy confines of Hampstead and moved into Balfron for two months in 1968, primarily for Goldfinger to get feedback on his design from other residents and to give it a test run for himself. They even paid rent! They held parties in their flat – number 130 on the 25th floor – during which Goldfinger would ply his neighbours in the sky with champagne while eliciting their views on Balfron. This feedback was then applied to his design for the Trellick Tower.

Just one of the superb views – possibly to be encroached upon by the new towers in front.

The rooms within the Balfron flats (in number 122 a kitchen, lounge, two bedrooms and bathroom) are quite small and narrow. Not many of the original features survive in number 122 – with the exception of the all-metal light switches and the built-in window boxes – making the interior nothing much to write home about. But the beauty of Balfron is in its exterior, which Simon Terrill likened to a sculpture – although beauty is obviously very much the wrong term for this reinforced concrete jungle. Goldfinger’s colleague James Dunnett spoke of “delicate sense of terror” when referring to Balfron, which seems a far better phrase to apply to it.

P.S. Dear Poplar HARCA,
I have turned down some of the heaters, but I think the one in the kitchen is still on.

Original metal light switch

Should you wish to visit Balfron’s exterior the closest station is Langdon Park on the DLR line. Balfron Tower is often open as part of the Open House Weekend.

2 Willow Road
2 Willow Road are also holding a series of lates on the last Thursday of each month until October (except August). The 25th October late will feature Simon Terrill talking about his Balfron Project. 6.30-9pm, £9.

Simon Terrill

Door entry phone, thought not to be original.