Salters' Hall entrance interior

Open houses and secret places

We asked Robin Davies, one of VocalEyes’ Trustees, to write a review of his experience at this year’s Open House London.

One weekend each year London allows access to dozens of buildings and places normally closed to the general public. For those aware of this opportunity and able to book places it provides a wonderful chance to look inside some very private spaces indeed. Plus for our community, VocalEyes has for several years selected four of these sites and provided tailored audio-described tours for groups of blind and visually impaired individuals.

This year I was quick enough to get onto the list for all four buildings selected by VocalEyes, so had a very interesting, enjoyable but rather exhausting weekend!

The audio CD, sent out in advance, provided not only clear and accurate details of the visit arrangements and each building’s location and transport links but also enticing background information, history, architecture, function, structure and design details for each. Once listened to , and I did this several times,I could not wait to visit and experience these hidden and unique  places for myself.

Four unique and exceptional buildings, none of which I had visited previously, and two of which I have never heard of! The visits are scheduled as two tours each weekend day, mornings and afternoons, with enough time between to have lunch, rest a little and  chat about the fascinating buildings being visited.

Salters’ Hall was a secret gem of a building with a impressive structure, location and architectural history. VocalEyes describer Tony McBride and the in-house expert were wonderfully enthusiastic, informed and entertaining. Taking care to ensure all in the group got maximum from the visit, and were given  the opportunity to touch items, fabrics  and surfaces where ever possible. We gained a very clear understanding and appreciation of the building’s structure, interior design, fabrics and furniture and the many uses and ceremonies which take place. The highlight for me was the clear description of the purpose and history of livery organisations and their buildings and ongoing relevance in today’s world.

Lloyds Register Group, I learnt is far more than the award winning ultra-modern front extension, which I had long wished to explore. Visiting the much older original building which sits behind the new front extension was both surprising and inspiring, with very clear descriptions by describer Lonny Evans of its history, design and amazing interiors and furniture. Maximum opportunities to touch or even sit on furniture were given and much appreciated. The highlight for me was the information provided about the modern front extension from a member of the architectural firm, who was clearly proud of its environmental credentials and clever use of modern materials to save energy and create an amazing space without disrupting the historic values of the original building.  A strong presentation and an interesting contrast of past investment and even indulgence in artistic and creative opulence of long lasting quality, with modern minimalism and concern for the environment and running costs.

Freemasons’ Hall was a magnificent surprise and astonishing in its history, structure and opulence. Our describer Willie Elliot and the in-house expert combined seamlessly to describe the rooms and fill in the history and rituals involved. As an ignorant individual about this organisation, I learnt so much in just a couple of hours, which made the visit very special indeed. The highlight was the detailed information regarding the amount of marble used, the size and scale of the rooms and the breathtakingly huge metal doors which moved so easily; English craftsmanship at its best.

Canada House must have one of the finest locations in London and is an impressive demonstration of conversion which both retains the structure and presence of the original buildings whilst cleverly converting them into a space suitable for modern needs. The interior also shows modern Canada in a brilliant way, capturing the spirit of a fairly new nation with a long history of links to the UK. Again our describer, Di Langford, and the young,  knowledgeable and enthusiastic in-house expert provided clear, insightful and often amusing commentaries. The highlight was the trip to the topmost floor and meeting room with amazing views over Trafalgar Square and the presence of a living garden wall outside alongside several bee hives, something which captured, for me,  the spirit of Canada and Canadians perfectly!

All the tours were very well managed, started on time, were properly staffed and executed. The four buildings were very different, unusual and fascinating; we felt honoured to have had the opportunity to visit and be given a fascinating audio-descriptive master class  in each one. Look out for the event next year, come along and explore some of London’s secret places.

VocalEyes’ audio-described tours were made possible through the generous support of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers and The Drapers’ Company.

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You can listen to audio introductions to each of the 4 buildings that Robin visited in the playlist at the bottom of this page.

The featured image at the top of the page shows the entrance to Salters’ Hall, photo credit: By The wub (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.



Audio playlist