19 Princelet Street

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19 Princelet Street seems a fitting place for an immigration museum given its layers of history that follow patterns of immigration in the local area. Last week the house held two rare open days – due to its fragile nature it is not yet able to be open to the public on a more regular basis. Funding is desperately required for repairs to the Grade II listed property so that its Museum of Immigration and Diversity can be fully realised. The Londonphile attended the second opening, and the queue stretching all the way back to Wilkes Street would suggest that number 19 has a bright future.

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Originally built in 1719, this five-storey building was home to the Ogier family, French Huguenot silk weavers. A metal bobbin hangs outside the building today as a lasting reminder of the weavers’ presence in the house. After a number of years housing various workshops and lodgings, 19 Princelet Street underwent its most significant change with the building of a synagogue in 1870 by a group of mainly Polish Jews, working together under the banner of ‘Loyal United Friends Friendly Society’ to create a community centre. While the synagogue now comprises the major part of the building, this part of the structure was in fact where the Ogiers’ garden once stood.

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Metal vents in the synagogue floor allow glimpses down to the meeting room built below the synagogue – this downstairs area was also open, along with a kitchen underneath the original house. Upstairs we had access to some of the the women’s gallery in the synagogue, with its lovely views across the space. The floor above that was closed to visitors but now functions as a staff area, while the attic room of mysterious scholar/recluse David Rodinsky – made famous by artist Rachel Lichtenstein’s 1999 book Rodinsky’s Room – is well out of bounds due to structural issues. One of the volunteers told me she had been involved with the charity for ten years and still hadn’t seen it.

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Due to the property’s no-photography rule you will have to imagine the crumbling beauty of its interior for yourself. But it is beautiful, and hopefully the Spitalfields Centre charity will be able to generate the funds needed to preserve and restore this lovely building and turn it into the museum of their vision.

And the best news is that more open days are already planned for March 2013: on Sundays 17th & 24th March, 2-4pm, and what is sure to be a lovely evening opening on Thursday 21st March, 5-8pm. For more details visit 19 Princelet Street’s website.

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Eel Pie Island

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Just twice a year Twickenham’s Eel Pie Island opens its doors to the general public when the normally private island holds open studio weekends for its artists. I availed myself of the the opportunity to visit last weekend for the pre-Christmas opening and crossed the bridge to this most exclusive island, which boasts 26 artists’ studios, only 50 or so houses and around 120 residents.

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It’s thought that the island was originally in three parts and may have once been connected to Twickenham by a prehistoric causeway. The footbridge which now connects the island to the mainland was only built in 1957. Once across and on dry land again, one main walkway (pictured above) runs much of the length of this very narrow island, with houses, studios and boathouses along either side. Housing styles vary immensely – from the cute and rustic to the surprisingly modern – and there was even a new house in the process of construction and one to let in case you’re tempted to move in. Despite its extremely narrow nature, views were only available back across the Twickenham side of the river (see below) during the open studios as private houses line the other side.

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Eel Pie Island has a long history as a place of leisure and entertainment – its name derives from the pies once served there to visiting boating parties and day trippers. Sadly this taste sensation died out on the island along with its eel population. The Eel Pie Island Hotel was long a top musical destination – particularly for jazz and blues – and also saw one David Jones play there before metamorphosing into David Bowie. The hotel closed in 1967 when the owner was unable to afford necessary repairs – squatters moved in and it has been claimed that by 1970 it had become the largest hippie commune in the UK. The hotel burnt down in mysterious circumstances in 1971 while it was being demolished.

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The island is also home to both the Richmond Yacht Club and the Twickenham Rowing Club as well as working boatyards. In keeping with this boating theme, several of the artists studios are housed in old boats, including one with a fantastic roof terrace composed of the old ship’s deck. There are nature reserves at both ends of the island, including a bird sanctuary, but these are not accessible to the public.

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Open Studios events are held twice a year, generally once in summer and in the lead up to Christmas. Keep an eye on the Eel Pie Island Artists website for future events. They’re free but do bring some cash as the artists don’t have credit/debit card facilities.

For more historical detail and images see Twickenham Museum’s Eel Pie Island page.

2013 update: another open weekend will be held on Saturday 22nd & Sunday 23rd June from 11am until 6pm.

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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.

The Old Operating Theatre Museum

I’m willing to wager that the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is the only museum in the world that you enter via a 32-step spiral staircase designed for bell-ringers, and which features a main attraction that was hidden for almost a century in the roof of a church. Two things are for certain: what you will be seeing here is Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre and one of London’s most unusual museums.

The operating theatre was built in the garret of St Thomas’ Church, itself constructed in 1703 by Thomas Cartwright, and was attached (both literally and figuratively) to St Thomas’ Hospital. The theatre was created in 1822 – before the advent of anaethetics and antiseptic surgery – and contained tiered viewing areas for students of surgery to watch and learn. It was closed in 1862 when the hospital moved to Lambeth and was promptly forgotten about until researcher Raymond Russell rediscovered it in 1956 via a mention in the hospital archives. It’s rather horrifying to learn that prior to its creation, operations were carried out on patients in the ward directly next to the garret  – yes, in their own beds (although this was in fact common in the era, and more wealthy people had their surgeries conducted at home).

This is essentially a museum of two main spaces: the operating theatre and the herb garret, where medicinal herbs were prepared. The herb garret is wonderfully atmospheric; the timber-framed attic is full of old bottles and jars and the delightful smell of herbs. From an olfactory point of view, this part of the museum reminds me of the magical Dennis Severs’ House somewhat. And in case you’re concerned that the museum may be a little too gruesome for you – I think you will cope. While there are indeed organs in jars and some scarily-named surgical implements on display (scarificators! amputation saws! decapitating hook! Smellie’s perforator &c), I have a fairly low tolerance for the more gruesome side of life and was just fine.

If you visit on a Saturday at 2pm you can see a demonstration of speed surgery (maybe not for the fainthearted this), while on Sundays at the same time a talk on the museum’s history and medical heritage is held. The museum is conveniently located just around the corner from London Bridge Station, and is open every day from 10.30am-5pm; adults are £6, concessions £5. And for the record, no the patients were not dragged up the spiral staircase, but simply brought through from the ward which abutted the operating theatre.

http://www.thegarret.org.uk/

Wilton’s Music Hall

No one does faded grandeur quite like Wilton’s – not just England’s, but the world’s oldest surviving music hall. Its peeling columns, ‘barley sugar’ cast iron pillars and old Indian frieze create an unforgettable atmosphere. Like all special places it’s best seen for yourself. But although the effect is somehow glorious, this isn’t just shabby chic decor – much of the decay is real. Wilton’s has been seeking support and funding for years for much-needed renovations, and has finally just had some success on this front – so this is a story with a happy ending.

The story starts in 1858, when John Wilton had the hall constructed along the back gardens of the terraced houses that form the front area of Wilton’s. A tavern was previously found on the site – and said to be very popular with sailors from around the globe. It was often referred to as the Mahogany Bar due to its fixtures. The bar was retained as the main entrance to the original music hall, and today the name is used for the gloriously cosy drinking establishment you can still patronise at Wilton’s.

Wilton’s great initial success as a music hall was not deterred by a major fire in 1877, and it was rebuilt the following year. Music hall luminaries such as Arthur Lloyd and Champagne Charlie trod the boards here, while its patrons could chose between the ladies of the night waiting at the top of the stairs and the more respectable seats downstairs, suitable for wives and girlfriends. Supper tables were also available, as was a promenade area for standing patrons. Entertainment was of the variety show type, including dancers, magicians, burlesque, comic and a wide range of musical talent.

But the popularity of the music hall genre eventually waned and new fire regulations in 1880s were the final death knell for the hall. Ironically, it was the Methodists who ended up saving Wilton’s. They turned the music hall into a mission hall – and because its almost chapel-like interior suited them perfectly, they simply left it like it was and preached amongst it…and the rest is history. The building also provided shelter for locals during the Blitz and was a rag sorting depot for a time. Today it numbers among its patrons the rather unusual combination of Prince Charles and David Suchet (a.k.a. Poirot).

A wide yet discerning range of entertainment is now on offer, including music, theatre, cinema and comedy. And where else but Wilton’s would you attend a magic show – as the Londonphile did in December – only to discover that Marc Almond was popping by to sing several Christmas songs? It is also a popular venue for filming, and recently played host to the latest instalment in the Sherlock Holmes franchise – although keen eyes will notice that the filmmakers ‘added’ an extra floor to the hall. But Wilton’s is worth a visit in its own right. And you can always just pop by the Mahogany Bar for a drink (it’s open most weeknights – check the website) – the ornate bar itself is a left-over donated after the Sherlock filming. And on Monday nights at 6pm you can learn more about Wilton’s history and architecture on a guided tour for just £6, which I highly recommend.

And so to that happy ending. After years of courting funding and support, Wilton’s recently received £700,000 from the SITA Trust for restorations. This funding means phase 1 of the Capital Project for crucial work on the auditorium can be completed and, importantly, stands Wilton’s in better stead when applying for further money for phases 2 and 3. Another £2.2 million is still required, so pop by, have a drink for charity and check out the glorious surrounds of this magical music hall. After all, Poirot can’t be wrong!

www.wiltons.org.uk

A Room for London

Mark the 19th of January in your diaries now – that’s the date of the release of the second tranche of bookings (July to December) for London’s most amazing penthouse. The ship-like vessel that appeared on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on South Bank last week is actually a one-bed apartment with the best views in London.

Designed by David Kohn Architects in conjunction with the artist Fiona Banner, A Room for London is intended as an ideas factory for London, with dates set aside for 12 writers, 12 musicians and 12 thinkers to stay onboard and get creative – the results of which will be posted online. The design is based on the author Jospeh Conrad’s boat, the Roi des Belges, and features a library, viewing deck and a desk with river views.

 A Room for London will open on 1 January and run throughout 2012. What happens to it afterwards is still undecided – but it may well pop up elsewhere in London. If you’re interested in the dates for paying guests prices are said to be from £120, and get in quick as the first round of dates didn’t last long. Find out more at:

http://aroomforlondon.co.uk/

UPDATE: it appears that the price has now gone up to £300 per night (for up to two people) for the second round of bookings.

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

Dennis Severs’ House

Dennis Severs’ magical house is one of the Londonphile’s top London picks and one of London’s most evocative little gems. American artist Dennis Severs created a mini time capsule in this listed Georgian terrace house, located near Spitalfields Market.

The ten rooms range in time periods from 1724 to 1914 and follow the varying fortunes of a family of Huguenot weavers who mysteriously appear to have always just left the room when you enter. The experience is a sensory overload, and your sense of smell will be particularly active throughout your visit as you experience the traditional smells associated with the various time periods. As Severs himself noted, “your senses are your guide” in this house.

In keeping with the eras portrayed, there is no electricity in the house and you are asked to remain silent throughout your visit, so as to help fully soak up the atmospherics (and to appreciate the creaking of authentic floorboards). Amazingly, Severs himself actually lived in the house from 1979-1999 – on his death it was opened to the public. This is truly something you have to experience for yourself, so I will keep the description to a minimum!

Check the house’s website below for details of the regular opening hours as well as the Silent Night evening visits. This year’s Christmas installation of period Christmas decorations is currently up (until 6th January 2012) and is well worth a visit even if you have already seen the house. Exclusive Silent Nights are also run in which participants can  have a drink by the fire and meet the curatorial team – this is on the Londonphile’s wish list!

http://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/