Behind London’s Closed Doors

Story and photo by Liz Webber
London Foreign Offices Liz Webber

The Foreign Offices are must-sees at London’s annual open house event.

To truly experience a city it helps to know its secrets. For one weekend, every September, Open House London allows access to more than 600 buildings across the city,  many of which  the viewing public would never see otherwise. From hotels and cemeteries, to the Argentine Ambassador’s House and the Bank of England, visitors can explore London’s architectural marvels inside and out.

When planning my Open House weekend, I was told to see the Foreign Office and Indian Office building, located a few blocks north of Westminster Hall. The exquisitely painted interiors harken back to England’s imperial days, mixing in elements of Greek mythology. One whimsical detail that caught my eye was a set of doors that were adorned with metallic acorns on its hinges.

My next stop was St. Martin’s church in Trafalgar Square, where I inadvertently joined a private tour for  Open House volunteers. The tour guide did not seem to mind. And led us up into the rafters of the church while explaining its history. In the bell tower, we were treated to a fantastic aerial view of the square.

I ended the day at Marlborough House, the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation, which can be found at the end of Pall Mall near St. James’s Square. One room had a long wooden table set with place cards and tiny flags for all the members of the Commonwealth. (It’s strange to see how many countries still have ties to England.) Like many of the participating sites, Marlborough House served refreshments; I enjoyed a proper cup of tea while sitting in the garden in the rear of the building.

Each year Open House London offers a complete building guide for a fee; you can also search for participating sites on their website. Most buildings have general admission throughout the weekend, although there are a few that require visitors to book in advance. If you can’t make it to this annual event, Open House offers guided tours throughout the year, focusing on architecture in various neighborhoods around the city.

For more information, visit http://www.openhouse.org.uk.

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