Open House London 2016, Or; Endless Queues and the Perils of not Pre-Booking

img_20160917_152106444_hdrNow that Open House London has come and gone, it’s time for my yearly reflections/rant on the weekend. Or, if you’re not in the mood for relentless negativity, skip to the end of the post where I talk about Kilmorey Mausoleum.

I am neither stupid nor optimistic, so I can’t really explain why a part of me continues to get excited about Open House London every year.  I’ve experienced this event enough times to know precisely what it entails (and if you’re a long-time reader, probably so do you, because I repeat the same thing every year, but bear with me!).  Firstly, “Open House” isn’t exactly open.  About half the properties (and nearly all the really cool ones, or so it would seem) require pre-booking.  Which would be fine if there weren’t 8 million other people in London who always seem to manage to book before you do, even though you tried to make your bookings over a month before Open House.  By the time I remembered to look at the Open House website (in early August, mind, for mid-September), the only building I had even the vaguest interest in seeing that was still taking bookings was the London Library, so I hastily snagged a pair of tickets to that, but everything else we visited would have to accept visitors on the day. Which brings me to the problem of queues.

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To reiterate, London is a city of something like 8.6 million people, and to quote E.L. Konigsburg (who was talking about New York, but it also applies to London), if you’re thinking of doing something in London, “you can be certain that at least two thousand other people have the same thought.  And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be standing in line waiting to do it.”  Open House London is no exception to this rule.  I opened the post with a picture of a queue in central London, and you might think, “well, duh, of course there are loads of people in central London.”  But even well outside the centre, things were busy.  The first place we attempted to visit was the Southwark Integrated Waste Management Plant.  Yep, a dump.  And a dump kind of in the middle of nowhere at that (or as middle of nowhere as it gets in Zone 2 anyway, i.e. an industrial estate).  We arrived around noon and waited in a massive queue for a while, until word reached us that the tours were fully booked up until 4.  As we were due to tour the London Library at 2 (and there was no way I was coming back to Peckham after; it’s a bitch to get to!), we couldn’t do the tour, so now I guess I’ll never know how waste is turned into energy.

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So, we made our way up to Piccadilly (ish) to do the London Library tour, which was lovely, even though it made me saltier than ever that I’ll probably never be able to afford their £500-a-year subscription and have access to their amazing shelves full of one million delightfully musty-smelling books and absolutely pristine old newspapers (seriously, I don’t understand how they keep them so nice.  We have a bunch of old newspapers at the library where I volunteer, and even the ones from the 1970s are all crumbling and horrible, so I don’t understand how ones from 100 years ago were like new at the London Library.  I guess that’s what your £500 pays for).

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After our tour, I did sort of want to just wander around Westminster and see what other buildings were open, but of course the pre-booking/queues put a stop to that (I fully admit that a lot of my problems could be solved if I wasn’t so damn impatient, but that’s not going to change any time soon).  So we went to the Banqueting House, which could accommodate enough people at a time so that there was no queue.  Banqueting House is normally open to the public, but you have to pay when it’s not Open Weekend, which is why I had never been.  It was Charles I’s favourite palace (and, rather cruelly, where he was executed), and was where Inigo Jones put on his famous masques.  Only part of the palace survives, including the fabulous ceiling upstairs, but man, I was glad I did not pay £6 to visit it, because the whole palace nowadays consists of two halls that take all of ten minutes to see (nice toilets though!).  So I suppose that is one good thing about Open House London, but only for those properties where you don’t have to queue for an hour just to get inside.

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Our last stop on Saturday was the “Roman” Bath on the Strand, which is not Roman at all, nor was it initially a bath.  It was only built in the 1600s, and actually fed a grotto inside the old Somerset House and was eventually turned into a small bathhouse that Dahl’s Chickens, I mean Charles Dickens, wrote about in David Copperfield.  The annoying thing about the bath (well, really more about King’s) is that it is basically part of King’s College London’s campus; I got my Master’s at King’s, in Early Modern History (yeah, the exact period the bath was built), and not one person at the university thought to mention to me that this bath was located there.  So this was my first time seeing it, and it was neat, but again, I’m glad we only waited for about two minutes, because you are just looking at a stagnant pool of water with Dutch style tiles.

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Now, as for Sunday…I actually have something positive to say!  This was the first year that I was able to volunteer for Open House weekend, as I wasn’t sure if I would be in London on the last one, and prior to that, I had attempted to volunteer, only to be told I wasn’t needed at the last minute (grrr).  However, this year I successfully volunteered at the Kilmorey Mausoleum.  I picked it because I love cemeteries and tombs and all things gothy, and also because I had always wanted to see it but could never be bothered to make the trip to St. Margaret’s (across the river from Richmond), so I knew that if I volunteered there, I would have no choice but to trek out.

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The mausoleum is only open to the public on Open House Weekend (although this year, they are trying to open it on a few other days; December 11 is the next one), and it is freakin’ awesome.  It is hidden behind a wall with a low door in the middle; you cautiously creak it open to find yourself in the middle of a picturesquely overgrown (though not too overgrown, I hasten to add, having met the gardener) quiet garden, with a big ol’ tomb plunked down in the middle.  The 2nd Earl of Kilmorey was one of those fantastic Victorian eccentrics with more money than sense, and when he realised that his mistress Priscilla was dying from a heart condition (she was his ward, and he ran off with her when she was 20 and he was in his late 50s, ick), he commissioned a tomb for her in a fashionable Ancient Egyptian style, which cost £30,000 (and that’s in 1850s money).  It was originally in Brompton Cemetery, but he had it moved to his house in Chertsey, and then finally to this garden in St. Margaret’s, which was connected to his nearby house by a secret tunnel (sometimes the Earl would dress up in a shroud and sit in a coffin, and have his servants push him down the tunnel).  It has lots of pseudo-Egyptian symbols on the outside, and the inside has their crumbling coffins just sitting there; a carving of dead Priscilla being mourned by the Earl and their son, and these awesome yellow star-shaped skylights that shine bright to illuminate the tomb even even when the door is closed.  It is seriously the coolest mausoleum I’ve ever seen, and the volunteer giving the tours did a great job of making them both creepy AND full of salacious detail (I only had to count visitors and hand out leaflets, so I had plenty of time to talk to my fellow volunteers and learn more about the tomb.  And the Earl’s great-grandson, who lives in Australia, made a surprise visit, so that was pretty cool too!).

So you can see that my Open House Weekend was a very mixed bag (is the expression mixed bag referring to pick’n’mix sweets?  I feel like it should be, if it’s not. Let’s say there were some delicious strawberry fruit gums and soor plooms, and lots and lots of disgusting blackcurrant pastilles and horrible licorice allsorts).  Part of me feels bad for complaining every year about a free event, but a bigger part of me is angry enough about it to complain away, guilt-free.  Sure, I could just not attend, but then I’d risk missing out on a gem like the Kilmorey Mausoleum.  Properties like Kilmorey are the whole reason why I do still look forward to Open House weekend, despite its many flaws.  But central London on Open Weekend is just a mess, and I’m not even sure what could be done about it, except maybe to stop so many places from only taking pre-bookings, and perhaps institute a system everywhere else where you can show up, collect a ticket for a scheduled time, and come back later without queuing (I just really really hate queuing.  It’s the American in me).  Anyway, thus ends my annual rant, but I would definitely urge you to visit Kilmorey Mausoleum if you can on one of their open days, because there were no queues there, and it is rad.





  1. I totally get your hatred of lines – there has to be better way to manage that. Garbage to energy isn’t usually that exciting to see, so you did much better with the library. I too love graveyards and that Mausoleum sounds absolutely awesome! No trips to London planned yet, but with the falling pound, who knows.

    1. I don’t know, my friend went to a different waste management plant in South London, and said it was pretty good, so I might have missed out! I think I’ll try for the one he went to next year, because he said there was no wait. But Kilmorey Mausoleum is great, and it is a good time to visit, exchange rate wise. My parents are coming for their first visit to London next week because the pound’s so low.

  2. Queuing…such a British thing isn’t it?! To be honest and ashamed to admit, i never knew about Open House until I read your post (and I’m a Londoner although now living in the countryside). Thanks to your post, I’ll try to get in on the act next year…see you in a queue 😉

    1. Ha! Yeah, Open House is weird in that I don’t think they advertise it much, unless you go on Time Out or the Londonist and stuff all the time. You can find the programmes at some libraries for free, but they don’t draw attention to that because they try to charge people like a tenner for them on their website. And the properties that participate have banners out on the day, but that’s not really something you’d know ahead of time. So I guess that’s another way in which it’s not really all that open, unless you’re already in the know! I honestly don’t even remember how I found out about it, but it definitely wasn’t until after I’d been living here for a good few years.

  3. I’m with you, that queuing business is really off-putting. I probably would’ve given up and gone home, but then I scare easy. The London Library sounds incredible – the photo of you amongst the bookshelves is great – it’s too bad it’s such a ridiculously steep subscription. And of course, I loved the Kilmorey Mausoleum story. I’m a big fan of that Egyptian Revival style and the fact that the coffins are right there made my heart happy. The idea of the Earl getting dressed up to be pushed around in a coffin was the cherry on top.

    1. Amongst the bookshelves is my happy place! I will never enjoy queuing as the British do, but I have had to increase my tolerance for them over the years. Doesn’t stop me loudly complaining the whole time I’m waiting in them though.
      Kilmorey was clearly the amazing kind of crazy (except for the whole running off with his ward thing); there’s so many weirdo tunnelling Victorian eccentrics though. I read a book a while back about the Duke of Portland, who built underground tunnels from his home in Nottinghamshire to the nearest train station, so that he wasn’t seen by the public when leaving his estate. And even on the train, he had his carriage driven into his own private train car, and just sat in it the whole time so as not to have to interact with anyone. Money lets you get away with a lot of crazy.

      1. Wow, I’d love to know more about that Duke – that’s a good dose of crazy, alright. We have a beautiful, old castle here called Casa Loma that features a long, creepy tunnel from the main house to the stables. I once freaked myself out in it as a kid – I read the “Walk Don’t Run” sign too quickly and thought it said “RUN Don’t Walk” and I nearly lost it. My sister had to pry me off the exit door. Anyhow, it’s great place to visit – though pretty pricey (just in case you’re ever here, and so inclined).

      2. The book I read is called The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse, but I do wonder if there’s a book out there just about the Duke, because a lot of this book was taken up by the court case that resulted after his death by someone who was claiming to be an heir (it’s a weird story in itself). I also seem to recall that if he accidentally ran into one of his servants, he would hide, and the servant would have to carry on with whatever they were doing and pretend they hadn’t seen him.
        That castle looks rad…I see they have a haunted house there in October, so I bet that tunnel is real scary then! Or maybe not, I usually find haunted houses a bit lame (though I enjoy them nonetheless!); I think being alone in a dark creepy tunnel and maybe hearing noises behind you would be far creepier. I went to a lecture at an old pathology museum the other day, which is part of a very old hospital, and I swear I heard footsteps behind me when I went to use the bathroom (which is down a long, winding corridor), but every time I looked back, no one was there.

      3. Oh my god, he’s getting better and better. I’m definitely going to have to dig up a copy of his story.
        I have a few friends that’ve worked at Casa Loma and from their stories it sounds like the place is plenty haunted enough already. One guy who worked nights as security wouldn’t even talk about it except to say ‘stay away from the hidden passages.’
        Yikes! That is super creepy. Did it make you want to run? I know I’d have scooted right out of there.

      4. Honestly, I was ok because I knew there were a bunch of people just up the stairs. I’m reasonably brave if I know there are other people about ; it’s when I’m alone at night that I get really freaked out by stuff. Like nights when my boyfriend is gone and I’ve dumbly chosen to read ghost stories and/or lurid true crime books (which probably make up 30-50% of my chosen reading material, so this happens a lot) and I hear weird noises in the other room. I live in a draughty old Victorian flat, so there’s always some kind of weird noise.

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