James Cracknell reviews Waltham Forest’s contribution to Open House London
After using previous Open House London events to tour some of the many hidden architectural treasures around the capital – from Roman remains to eco-homes – I decided this year only to visit buildings opening to the public in Waltham Forest.
Open House is often a hit-and-miss affair. You take a gamble with every place you choose, not really knowing what to expect when you arrive. But I was disappointed before even setting off at the lack of private residences in the borough included in the Open House programme.
Why exactly are there no homeowners in Waltham Forest willing to throw open their doors?
Most boroughs have at least two or three stunning private homes to view, but in this borough we only had well-known landmarks and community buildings to keep us entertained. Personally I don’t find touring schools, libraries and museums as appealing as nosing around someone’s new loft extension. Not least because buildings such as libraries are open to the public all year-round anyway.
The only exception in Waltham Forest was The Scene, the big new residential development in the centre of Walthamstow which also features a cinema and several restaurants. London Open House weekend gave non-residents a chance to glimpse inside some of the properties of what has largely been a well-received scheme.
Disappointment put to one side, I made my way to the William Morris Gallery. The museum was hosting guided tours and also providing Open House visitors with a sneak preview of its basement collection, which is due to open to the public later this year. It was a very well-led tour and I certainly felt privileged to be among the first people to see what treasures are kept downstairs, among them an impressive hand-carved wooden printing block bearing one of Morris’s designs.
Down the road the Grade 2 listed Walthamstow Assembly Hall, a pretty Art Deco building adjacent to the Town Hall, had also opened its doors. But the only thing to see that one couldn’t normally view was the backstage area. I noted with intrigue how the ladies’ dressing room had a sofa and the men’s dressing room had only office chairs to sit on.
The next stop on my London Open House circuit was due to be the signal box at Highams Park Station, and would have likely been my highlight of the day had it not been closed due to “ongoing refurbishment work”. Why it was included in the London Open House brochure at all is a mystery.
In Chingford, I paid a visit to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, an impressive Tudor building staffed by friendly guides and offering stunning views across to Essex. But once again, it is a building you can visit at any time of the year, with only a guided tour marking it out as anything other than an ordinary day.
Other properties that could be explored in Waltham Forest over Open House London weekend were the newly-refurbished Leytonstone Library, the ongoing housing redevelopment at Walthamstow Stadium, and one of my favourite hidden gems in the borough, Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum, with its Grade 2 listed engine house.
In the end I had used Open House London 2015 as an excuse to visit some of Waltham Forest’s landmarks with which I had previously been unacquainted. But I rather hope next year there’ll be a few more opportunities to gawp at the borough’s best bathrooms.