Key to the City: Open House London 2012

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As well as being Olympic Year and Jubilee Year, 2012 sees the 20th anniversary of Open House London. The scheme offers visitors the chance to do more than peep through the keyhole of buildings normally inaccessible to the public and to actually step inside, explore and experience them for themselves. Despite living in this illustrious city for many a long year, I’d never taken advantage of this initiative, until this year. In two very different but equally enjoyable visits, I went inside Richard Rogers’ iconic ‘Inside-Out’ building, Lloyds of London, and climbed the bell tower of St Mary’s Parish Church in Walthamstow.

Lloyd’s has been in business for 324 years, and started off in a coffee house. When you consider that London’s most famous diarist and one-time Secretary to the Admiralty, Samuel Pepys, reported hearing more reliable shipping news in the city’s coffee houses than from the Admiralty, this makes sense. The nine liveried staff who help in the smooth running of the building are still called ‘waiters’ as a legacy from the times when the shipping news was bandied around with the newly fashionable drink. Frequently compared with Paris’s Pompidou Centre (which Rogers co-designed with Renzo Piano), the building’s concept is for the space inside to remain uncluttered and open. This is achieved by housing as many pipes and cables as possible outside the building in shiny metal spirals, leaving the inside an unfettered, layered space arranged around a soaring atrium. Another theme is transparency, and the principle of openness in business which Lloyds espouses is reflected in the clear-sided escalators inside and the glass lifts clamped onto the outside corners.

While the views out onto the skyline from the upper floors are staggering, and the Adam Room, like a grand hall in a traditional English stately home, is unexpected, the highlight of my visit was meeting Bob. Standing straight and proper in his pressed naval style uniform, he explained how every day he completes the shipping entry in the huge, permanently-displayed, cream-leafed ledger. His hand-writing is elegant; the details he captures clipped and factual, sometimes draping tragic loss of life in the strict decorum of Lloyd’s reporting. The most well-known entry is that of 16 April 1912, when the record of the Titanic sinking was added. We could see this famous page displayed under the Lutine bell, salvaged from a ship in Napoleon’s fleet and now taking pride of place in the underwriting room. Historically rung regularly, once for good news, twice for bad, it’s now used only for ceremonial purposes.

Continuing the theme of bells, the day after my trip to Lloyd’s, several miles further east and on a wet, blustery Sunday afternoon, I pitched up at St Mary’s. Knowledgeable church steward Mary took us through a brief history of the church – there has been a place of worship on the site since the 11th century – before leading us up the high, wedge-shaped stone stairs to the bell-ringing room. Here we were given a demonstration by Mary; bell-ringing Captain, Dennis; and a third campanologist (which I’m reliably informed is the correct term for bell-ringer). Watching the red velvet bell pulls, fuzzy like bulrushes, glide up and down on their thick ropes, hearing the bells ring out above, was quite hypnotic. I was going to say ‘peal out’, but apparently a true peal involves at least 5000 bell changes, so it can take some time.

The actual bells are in the chamber above: there are ten, though usually only six are rung. When we discovered that the largest weighs almost a tonne, we understood why it’s rarely used. Back down in the ringing room, to my delighted surprise I was given a quick lesson and a go at bell-ringing myself! With the rope flailing around and leaping off unbidden at all angles, the bell clattered unmusically overhead and I was glad that David, my instructor, was there to keep control. Several attempts in, and I was finally beginning to feel the weight of the bell and pull at the right moment and to the right extent. My success was sporadic, however, and it was with some relief that I handed the rope back to David. As with anything, practice makes perfect. I’m not sure I’ll make a habit of bell-ringing, but I’ll definitely be putting Open House weekend into my calendar for 2013.

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