I swear to you, one of these years Open House London weekend will not be a bust. I will book everything that requires booking well in advance, and get to everything else super early before queues form (well, that’s not likely, since I’ll never be an early riser), and carefully plot out the whole weekend so I can see as many things as possible. And I’ll post about it right after it happens, instead of a month later. However, this is not that year. In typical Open London fashion, everything went a bit awry. Unlike last year, when I only managed to book Pope’s Grotto because I was supposed to be a steward at the Geffrye Museum, until being informed at the very last minute that my services would not be required, I didn’t book anything this year because I knew my boyfriend and I would be going to America at some point around the end of September, and I wasn’t sure we’d be around for Open House Weekend. As it turned out, we didn’t leave until the week after, which meant I was free to attend but had nothing lined up (and all the really good stuff requires pre-booking). And we had to prepare for our upcoming trip, so we really only had one day to venture around, which ended up being more like half a day after running a few errands and detouring to Maltby Street for overpriced doughnuts. Bearing all that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that I thus only managed to visit two places: the Brunel Museum, and the Thames River Police Museum in Wapping.
The Brunel Museum was perhaps not the wisest choice, as the whole point of Open House is to visit things that aren’t normally open to the public, and the Brunel Museum is, but in my defence, the Grand Entrance Hall is only open at lunchtime normally, and there is usually a small admission fee, so at least it was free and we could show up at any old time and still get to see the former hall. (Plus most of the other stuff that is part of Open London is architecture based, which is not my bag at all, so cut me some slack.)
The Brunel Museum is pretty tiny, but it does satisfactorily give biographical information on both Isambard Kingdom, and his father Marc, who was the one commissioned to build the Thames Tunnel in the first place (a 19 year old Isambard acted as supervisor). It also tells the story of how the Thames Tunnel came to be (there needed to be another way of crossing the Thames, other than London Bridge, but instead of building over the river, hell, why not tunnel under it? Such was the brilliance of Marc Brunel, and really, he laid the groundwork for the London Underground and pretty much every subway system that was to follow), and what it was ultimately used for (it wasn’t practical to build a means of getting horses or carts down there, so it was primarily a pedestrian walkway, until it was converted into a tunnel for trains, which it still is today).
The best part was of course the souvenirs that you used to be able to buy down the tunnel. You see, there was an ancient (well, medieval) rule in London that stated pedestrians could only be charged a penny to cross a toll bridge, which may have been fine in 1200-something, but was not so great in the 19th century, especially after the Brunels and their investors plowed the equivalent of millions of pounds into building it. So they had to think of ways to raise more money, and one of those ways was by selling souvenirs featuring the tunnel in all its glory (they also had fairs down there, and a whole shopping arcade. It seriously looked unbelievably awesome back in the day). Fortunately, the Brunel Museum has carried on that tradition, and although the modern souvenirs were not as kick-ass (I was not able to get a stereoscopic card of the tunnel, or a piece of Staffordshire pottery), I did still manage to spend all the admission fee I saved by visiting on Open Weekend on some postcards and a bookmark, because who doesn’t want a bookmark showing both Brunels and a view of the tunnel?!
And then we went inside the tunnel, or the sad portion that is left, which is not ideal for claustrophobics or acrophobics, both of which I am to some degree, but not so severely that I couldn’t manage. You have to crawl through an unpleasant half-doorway (though I hear they are in the process of building a full-size one) and then climb down some shaky scaffolding to get inside. I should definitely not have been wearing flats with nothing grippy on the bottom, but I survived. Unlike some of the workmen constructing the tunnel when it suddenly flooded. The man who did survive was young Isambard himself, who had his legs crushed by falling beams, got knocked unconscious, yet still managed to float up to the top as the water rose, where he was pulled to safety and resumed supervising the construction a day later from a mattress on a boat in the Thames, since he couldn’t use his legs for some time afterwards. We heard this story, and several others, whilst we were inside the former entrance hall (which is just a black pit, with none of its former grandeur, more’s the pity), all of which were discussed inside the museum as well, with varying degrees of detail.
I’ve been fascinated by the Thames Tunnel for a while, so it was neat to get to see the one remaining piece people are actually allowed inside, but it did make me sad about all the bits of Victorian London that have been lost (although some of them, like workhouses and prisons, are probably gone for the best). Well, it’s not really the only remaining piece, because the tunnels are still in use, as I said earlier, and you can see them if you take the Overground to Wapping (you just can’t really get a look at them whilst you’re passing through them). There’s a plaque about the tunnel in Rotherhithe station, and then when you get to Wapping, you can see the old tunnels from the end of the platform, just, you know, mind the tracks. This was convenient, as the River Police Museum was in Wapping, right (actually left) down the street from the station.
Visiting the Thames River Police Museum was more in keeping with the spirit of Open London, in that this is the only time of the year it’s open, being housed in a working police station. You wouldn’t be able to spot it from the road; fortunately, there were big Open Weekend banners hanging up all over the place, and the man at the gate was only too eager to welcome us inside. Although the room it’s housed in is not that big, there was actually more content than I was expecting, as it’s packed pretty full. However, there were not very many detailed captions, so it didn’t take that long to see it all.
I managed to strike up a conversation with the curator (or maybe he was just a volunteer) when he pointed out some minie balls to me, which somehow led to me telling him how Stonewall Jackson died (don’t ask, I guess people who have a fondness for historical trivia somehow manage to sense kindred spirits), and he told me that the museum is in a former carpenter’s workshop, and pointed out the trapdoor in the floor where parts would be winched up. The back door was open, and offered an excellent view of the Thames, where you could contemplate the various river disasters discussed in the museum taking place. He also told me a story about how drunken sailors in a pub in Wapping used to be given a length of clothesline to pass out over, and then were charged for the privilege; apparently one of the model ships in the museum was made by a sailor who did just that and neglected to pay…feeling guilty about it, he made a fine model and gave it to the owner of the pub, who obviously eventually donated it here.
I can’t lie, the main reason I wanted to visit the River Police Museum was because Lucy “Bloody” Worsley (my nickname for her, because it seems she’s always on the TV. As in, “ugh, it’s Lucy bloody Worsley again!”) mentioned it on her A Very British Murder programme (and in the book, but Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder is far more comprehensive, so I wouldn’t recommend Worsley’s). The brutal murder of a family by a mystery killer took place in Wapping in the early 19th century (interesting because the murder was never definitively solved, and the maid just happened to be out of the house at the time of the murders, which no one seems to have found suspicious), and the museum was meant to have some objects relating to it. Unfortunately, all I was able to find was a print showing the alleged murderer’s corpse being paraded through the streets (as far as I can remember, his initials were found on the murder weapon (I think it was some sort of hammer), so he was arrested, and when he killed himself in prison, was assumed to be guilty (despite never having gone to trial), so locals decided to haul his corpse through the streets so people could pelt it with things); the curator/volunteer was busy talking to someone else by this point, and I was too shy to interrupt, so I never found out if there was something else I missed.
I’m happy I’ve finally gotten to see this museum, but it was mainly policey type stuff and river stuff, rather than grisly murders (you know, the sort of thing
you I want from a police museum), so it wasn’t really what I was hoping for. I probably wouldn’t bother going back, but at least I can tick it off the list. Well, this year’s Open House Weekend was about as successful as most (perhaps more so, since we headed up to Shoreditch to get pizza from Voodoo Ray’s afterwards. I’ve said it before, but as much as I hate Shoreditch, I love Voodoo Ray’s pizza. I could do without the loud-ass terrible music they’re always blasting in there, but I can suffer through it for the sake of the pie), but I will try harder next year, assuming I’m not attempting to volunteer at it again or back visiting America, as I often seem to be at this time of year (what can I say, I like fall foliage and apple cider doughnuts). The best part was probably getting to explore bits of London I hadn’t really seen before; despite living here for seven years, I’d never been to Rotherhithe or Wapping, so that was something. And I discovered a random cat statue near the Brunel Museum (see below) so that was also a treat.