London: Bank of England Tour

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The Bank of England had an open day a few weeks ago (the museum is open every weekday, but the rest of the building is usually only open to the public for a few days a year, typically London Open Weekend in September), and was offering free tours of some of the offices that are normally off-limits to the public (and we found out about it in time to attend, which is an equally rare occurrence).  When we showed up, I was quite discouraged because the queue literally stretched halfway around the building, and being a typical impatient American, I can’t stand waiting in line.  But my boyfriend was really keen to see it, and I had a book in my purse I could read whilst we waited (otherwise I probably wouldn’t have agreed), so we ended up standing there for the forty minutes or so it took to get inside (they were only taking 30 people per tour, but it seemed like a new tour started every ten minutes).  A quick security scan later, we were in!

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Quick note: we weren’t allowed to take pictures on the tour, so all the ones in this post are of the Bank of England Museum (of which more later). Our tour guide was a woman who worked at the bank (though obviously not one of the higher-ups), and she began by drawing our attention to the Roman style mosaics on the floor, which apparently took over ten years to lay when the Bank was rebuilt between the World Wars.  The Bank of England as an institution dates back to 1694; it moved to its current site on Threadneedle Street in 1734, and was redesigned in the later Georgian period by the famed architect John Soane (of the John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields), but by the early 20th century the Bank had become too small, so the entire interior was demolished and rebuilt (save for two rooms), meaning the only Soane structures remaining are the outer walls, which are eight feet thick!  Anyway, although the Bank is relatively new, it still retains a sense of grandeur and opulence, as emphasized by the aforementioned mosaics, which are coinage themed; the grand columns in the front hall; and the cantilevered staircase, which has an authentic Roman mosaic at its base (it was one of two found during the rebuilding; the other is kept at the Museum of London (or was it the British Museum?  I can’t quite remember, and both have Roman stuff, so either would be logical)).

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We progressed out to the garden, which apparently no one, not even bank employees, is normally allowed in.  The garden used to be the churchyard of St-Christopher-le-Stocks, but the church was eventually demolished as the bank grew around it, leaving only the burial ground intact.  It is now a remembrance garden, dedicated to bank staff who died in the First and Second World Wars, and features the ubiquitous (in historic homes in England, at any rate) mulberry tree for two reasons – one, paper money in Ancient China was printed on mulberry bark; and two, mulberry roots grow horizontally rather than vertically, which is handy as the vaults are underneath the garden (which we naturally didn’t get to see, though our guide kept tantalizingly referring to them).

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We then got to check out the Governor’s office, a position that currently belongs to the Canadian Mark Carney, and is just as large as you’d expect, with a carpet we weren’t allowed to step on because it’s very valuable, a beautiful grandfather clock, some old paintings of London, antique furniture, and of course modern computer screens and such.  It actually wasn’t that over-the-top compared to the rooms that followed it – a hoity toity waiting room framed with the portraits of former governors (these portraits spanned the past 150 years, and yet someone on the tour actually asked if they had all been painted by the same artist (after the tour guide finished telling us that they sat for the portraits, so it’s not like they could have been copies of photographs or something) – I just can’t even deal with people anymore) and an anteroom.

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The rooms above this were even more crazy-extravagant, with a huge anteroom where they sometimes hold banquets that was decorated to look like a gentleman’s club.  Maybe it was the gorgeous hand-flocked wallpaper lining the walls, or musty old carpets or something, but this room smelled pretty bad.  Still, I would have happily hung out in the malodorous room longer to admire the ornate chimney piece, and the globe from 1806 (especially the globe, as it had corrections pasted over the original globe as new territories were discovered; the outline of Australia kept changing).  The Committee Room was next door, with a chandelier so ostentatious that it takes days to clean it.  Like all the rooms, it had double doors (double as in a door built behind another door, not two side-by-side), which is meant to prevent eavesdropping.  It also had a portrait of Montagu Norman, pictured above, which the tour guide told us he hated because he thought it made him look like a cantankerous old goat, so they only hung it up after his death (which is a bit obnoxious), however, when we saw his photograph in the museum, we realised that it was actually very true to life – he might well have been a lovely man, but he did look like an old goat!

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The Committee Room and the Court Room, which was next to it, are the two rooms I mentioned earlier that were saved from the old building, although it wasn’t as simple as it sounds, as they were originally on the ground floor, so the rooms had to be reconstructed on the floor above.  They did retain many splendid Georgian accents, including the colourfully painted walls that are one of my favourite features of Georgian homes.  The Dining Room, however, was more recently constructed (mid 20th century), and had yellow walls, as it was Herbert Baker’s favourite colour (he was the Governor at the time, but I think he chose poorly as far as colours are concerned; I hate yellow), and collections of silverware, Polish glassware, and German china, all of which were given by their respective governments as tokens of appreciation for the aid England provided in various wars.  The tour ended with a peek at one of the old super-sensitive scales, on which they used to weigh each and every gold bar, and we were then directed into the museum to have a look around.

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Now, the museum is normally open on weekdays, so you don’t have to come at a special time like you do for the tour, which is fortunate because I’m going to have to go back and investigate ore thoroughly.  By the time we finished with the tour, it was only about a half an hour before the Bank shut (we got there late in the day, and the queuing didn’t help either), which at first looked like it would be enough time, as the museum only appeared to consist of a round central gallery, and a smaller currency gallery.  However, we realised that there were actually loads of other galleries out the opposite door, and there was no way I was going to have time to see them all, so I’ll do a proper review once I’ve seen everything.  What I saw of it was quite good – I especially liked the Wellington notes, and I’m eager to see some of the original banknotes from the 17th century that are kept in the outer galleries.  I did get to try to pick up a gold bar, but it weighs something like 28 pounds, which was a little tricky with just one hand (which was all you could stick in to the case, I guess for obvious reasons, and there was still a security guard stood there keeping his eye on me).  Anyway, the museum looks great, and was much larger than I was expecting, so I’ll definitely return for that, and let you know how it goes.  As far as the tour goes – if you manage to catch the Bank on one of its opening days, I think it’s worth going (just get there early so you don’t have to wait so long), even though you don’t get to see the vaults – you get a good sense of all the money floating around this place from the decor alone!

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