Last weekend was the Open House London weekend, where hundreds of buildings across the capital opened their doors for free for the public to look around and take part in talks and tours. These include many places that you might never have heard of or never considered visiting before. Some of the places also do tours during the rest of the year, but you may have to pay for them, whereas on this weekend they’re free. And some places may rarely grant public access at all, so this may be the only opportunity you get to look around. So it’s a great initiative that’s been running for 25 years now, and the volunteers who help to make it happen deserve thanks and praise for their work.
As part of this event, the team at VocalEyes arranged special audio described tours of 4 different buildings for visually impaired people. I went on 3 of them (I didn’t do the 4th as I had something else planned). It was my first time going to an Open House weekend, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. So I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for it next year. So here’s my summary of the tours I went on.
The VocalEyes tours were all very well arranged and delivered, and the buildings were amazing to look at. We basically had one or two members of staff from the building, along with the VocalEyes describer, showing us around. So as well as learning about the building’s history, design, architecture, occupants, activities, etc, we also had audio description and the chance to feel and handle all sorts of objects. All of which made the tours very interesting, engaging and fun. Each tour lasted between 90 minutes and 2 hours, so we weren’t rushed.
VocalEyes had also put audio introduction notes about each building on their website, which were very useful to listen to before the tour, and are also handy to listen to afterwards, as they to help to summarise and remind you of the things you saw. So they’re worth keeping as a souvenir relating to the day really. They did also post the notes to me on an audio CD as well, although i didn’t get mine until the Monday after the tours, so it wasn’t so useful in that sense. But as I’d already got the notes online, it didn’t matter anyway.
There’s also a lovely social element to these events as well. I got chatting to a few of the attendees on all the tours I attended, and some of them were doing multiple tours like me, so they soon became familiar faces each time. Some of them go on these Open House tours every year, as they do different buildings each time, so if I go again next year I may well see some of those people again.
The Salters’ Company is the Livery Company of the salt trade, and these days they do a lot of charitable, scientific and educational work. The building isn’t the easiest to find, thanks to work going on in the area for Crossrail and office construction, which is hiding or blocking off some of the more direct routes. Well, there might have been shortcuts I didn’t know about, but with the help of Google Maps I deliberately took a slightly longer route from Moorgate station just to avoid the works and get there safely. And I got there in plenty of time, there were no problems.
It is a fascinating building, with floor to ceiling glass windows and vertically grooved oak panelling in the reception area. And from there we were guided around by a male describer, along with 2 ladies from the Salters’ Company – women have only been allowed to be members since about 2003 I think.
One of the first things we could touch was a massive lump of salt in the lobby by the lifts. And there was a large bronze statue of a housemaid doing some washing which we could also feel. It’s very unusual for a statue of a servant to be made, but this one was donated by a lady as thanks for a pension, and in a previous incarnation of the Salters Building, it survived being bombed in the Blitz, amazingly. So it’s a very special statue to the company.
The lifts took us past a few floors that are used by the ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music), who rent the space from the Salters’ Company. We emerged into a burgundy corridor with huge portraits of former masters of the Salters’ Company on one wall, and a long shelf containing their silver salt cellar collection on the other, which looked really nice. There was also another huge lump of salt to feel at the end of the corridor too, which had lights embedded within it, giving it an interesting appearance.
We then went into the big meeting and events room, which had more portraits on the walls, a grandmother clock, a large table and a very comfortable chair for the Master, which we could sit in. The Salters coat of arms was also on the wall in here – and, indeed, it is present all through the building, including on the backs of some of the chairs. It has 3 salt cellars in the middle, and 2 spotted animals either side (originally thought to be snow leopards, but there’s now some doubt over that). And their motto translates to “salt flavours all” – which is very true, even though salt isn’t used as much as it used to be.
We then went into the Great Hall area opposite, with more of the grooved oak panelling, a couple of snow leopards on platforms above the glass doors leading to the balconies, and a large piano at the opposite end for entertainment (apparently students from the music school sometimes perform here to entertain the guests during events). There was also a teddy bear on a shelf at one end here, and there are images of this bear throughout the building, as it’s the Salter Bear, their mascot. Then we went upstairs to the smaller dining room area – originally called the Ladies Dining Room, as ladies had to eat here while the men used the Great Hall, but now it’s used for smaller events and dinners that all genders go to.
We then went down a square spiral staircase, which was notable for its very impressive light fitting in the centre. It consists of lots of thin poles hanging down, with lights at the end that are made to look like hand sized lumps of salt, and we were able to reach over the banisters to feel a couple of them. The poles holding the lights were all different lengths though – so some came just down to the 5th floor level we were on, but others stretched all the way down as far as the first floor from what I could tell, and the rest were all different lengths in between. It looked really cool.
Once we got downstairs, we went outside to the garden area, which had a very simple water feature and a long, narrow lawn area. An area at the back was boarded off as development is taking place there, but the garden will be more expansive when that’s opened up. And then, finally, we went down to the archive room, where we got to see the large, original 2 page charter – left in black and white, not coloured in, as colour was expensive and they didn’t know how long the King or Queen of the day would reign for, so they didn’t want to waste time and money on it only to change it. We also got to feel a bit of parchment, a sponge that one of the ladies there uses to clean paper documents, and other pieces of material that she uses to repair and protect documents to conserve them for future generations to enjoy. It’s a repetitive but important job.
So it was a very comprehensive and interesting tour, and the staff there are very willing to do other tours of that nature, as noted in this tweet:
“We so enjoyed hosting an audio described tour and would love to welcome other groups. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if interested!
The Lloyds Register building, which deals with things like shipping and engineering, is in Aldgate on Fenchurch Street. and again it’s a very interesting building. We had a female describer this time, along with a lady and a guy from the building going around with us, with the guy taking photos to use for their publicity.
We started off in the newer building, which is all glass on the outside, allowing you to see inside, as it’s all designed to be very open. And in the reception area, we were joined by an architect guy who explained that there is no air conditioning, as the building doesn’t need it. The structure of the building is concrete, which is effective because it draws in heat during the day, from the sunshine and the activity in the offices, and then in the evening when nobody is there, it radiates that heat out, so the building is still warm by the next morning. After weekends or holidays, they may use radiators to give it a little boost, but overall it’s very energy efficient and has a low carbon footprint.
We then passed a room with some models of ships in glass cases, before passing into the original, older building next door. And this older building is seriously impressive. For instance, there were a couple of lion sculptures on the ground floor near the doors which were donated by an artist to the Lloyds Register. However, when they were in their original upstairs location, one of the original lions was destroyed when a client, being rather intoxicated after an event, managed to pick one up and throw it down the stairs, smashing it. But the artist who made them kindly made another for them. We also had a look at the impressive library room as well on the ground floor.
We then went up the staircase, passing a large and very colourful circular stained glass window, and had a look at the ornate lobby area upstairs. It had a frieze on the wall, with ships and figures of maidens that we could feel, and a few small stained glass windows above the 3 doors around us.
But the large meeting room we went into was the most stunning area of all. Every inch of it was decorated ornately and impressively in some way. The ceiling in particular was covered in paintings for a start. Although other rooms also had painted ceilings, including the library, the extent and quality of the art on the meeting room ceiling was really impressive, with artworks about different types of weather and seasons, surrounded by representations of the signs of the zodiac.
The walls were covered in a blue carpet type material that was decorated really nicely, above a very large and decorative dado rail. The chair used by the leader in meetings was also very impressive, and very comfortable. And the large fireplace was also amazing to look at it, with a decorative hood above the grate, a decorative wall surrounding the fireplace, and couple of statues in front of it on either side. It’s very over the top, but looks incredible.
When we came out of there, back to the top of the staircase area, we also got to feel a statue at the top of the stairs, of a woman driving a ship with a lion’s head on the front of the boat. As with everything else we had seen, it was very detailed, and it was great to be able to feel it and see it close up. And that was where this very interesting tour ended.
The Freemason’s Hall, a short walk from Holborn station, was the most mind-blowing building of the weekend I think. And I managed to get a few photos here, although none of them do justice to the scale and magnificence of this place.
It was so impressive inside, with all the marble floors and columns, the decorated ceilings with the big starbursts in the middle (which are also on the marble floors beneath), the huge shrine and stained glass window for those who fell in World War 1 (indeed, this building, their third iteration, was built in memory of those people, and shrines have been added for others in the war since, plus about 10% of the 600-odd Victoria Cross winners were Freemasons). They also do a huge amount of charity work as well, one of their core values being to care for each other and the community at large. And even though Freemasonry is based on Christian values, people of all religions and faiths are welcome.
The temple area where everyone sits is entered through 2 huge doors that weigh about a ton and a half each, with decorated reliefs on them. And the room itself is huge, with a checkerboard carpet, a couple of thrones, a pipe organ, stained glass windows and a very high decorated ceiling. We also got to see one of the smaller lodge rooms, again with fancy chairs and portraits on the walls, and we got to feel the fabric decoration they wear around their neck, and the apron they wear around their waists, and things like that.
So it was really interesting – the VocalEyes describer was very good, and the guy from the building showing us around was very enthusiastic and enjoyed telling us about the history and processes of the place and answering people’s questions.
Overall, therefore, I thoroughly enjoyed all of the tours. Thank you to the team at VocalEyes, and the staff at all the buildings I visited, for making it so interesting and engaging. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for the Open House London tours around this time next year, and I highly recommend it to others as well.