The-Leadenhall-Building• Open House London is finally here with some 800 buildings across the city – some of them rarely accessible to the public – open for free this weekend, from grand historical institutions and modern skyscrapers through to ‘green’ schools, engineering projects, parks and gardens, and private homes. The weekend – which is being run this year under the theme of ‘revealing’ – also includes a programme of walks, engineering and landscape tours, cycle rides, a bus tour, childrens’ activities and expert talks as well as a moonlit ‘culture crawl’ through London on Friday night and into Saturday morning (a fundraiser for Maggie’s Centres). Among the buildings opening their doors in the festival – created by London-based architecture organisation Open-City – are the ever popular 30 St Mary Axe (aka ‘The Gherkin’), the Foreign and India Office in Whitehall, the Bank of England, Portcullis House and City Hall along with everything from The Leadenhall Building (aka ‘The Cheesegrater’ – pictured), and Temple Church in the City to the Admiral’s House in Greenwich, the Dutch Embassy in Kensington and the steam coaster, the SS Robin, in Tower Hamlets. As mentioned in a previous week, some visits required pre-booking so make sure you check the programme before heading out. For a full copy of the programme of events, see www.londonopenhouse.org. PICTURE: © R Bryant.

A major new exhibition focusing on China during the “pivotal” 50 years of Ming Dynasty rule between 1400-1450 opens at the British Museum in Bloomsbury today. Ming: 50 years that changed China features some of the finest objects ever made in China – loaned from institutions in China and elsewhere – as it explores some of the “great social and cultural changes” that saw Beijing established as the capital and the building of the Forbidden City. It includes objects from the imperial courts along with finds from three regional “princely tombs”. Four emperors ruled during the period and the display will feature the sword of Yongle Emperor, “the warrior”, the handwriting of the Hongxi emperor, “the bureaucrat”, the paintings of the Xuande emperor, “the aesthete”, and portraits of the regents who ruled while the Zhengtong emperor was a boy. The exhibition runs until 4th January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

The work of 19th century artist John Constable and its debt to 17th century masters is the focus of a new exhibition opening at the V&A on Saturday. Constable: The Making of a Master – which features more than 150 works including celebrated pieces by Constable like The Hay Wain (1821), The Cornfield (1826) and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) as well as oil sketches, drawings, watercolours and engravings – will juxtapose his works with those of 17th century landscape masters like Ruisdael, Rubens and Claude. Among those of their works on display will be Rubens’ Moonlight Landscape (1635-1640) and Ruisdael’s Windmills near Haarlem (c.1650-62). The exhibition runs until 11th January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk/constable.

And don’t forget, Totally Thames continues to run throughout this month which an extensive programme of river-related events. Those on during the coming week include Londonist Afloat: Terrific Tales of the Thames, a series of discussion sessions on aspects of the River Thames being held aboard the HMS President and London’s River – The City’s Ebb and Flow, a guided walk along the river (held on every Saturday and Monday during September), and Hospital and Troop Ships – Transporting the walking and wounded in the First World War, an exhibition held aboard the HQS Wellington (open Sundays and Mondays in September). For the full programme of events, see www.totallythames.org.

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We’ve already mentioned these two riverside embankments as part of our previous piece on Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s revolutionary sewer system. But so important are they to the shape of central London today – not to mention a great place to take a stroll – that we thought they’re also worth a mention in their own right.

Albert-EmbankmentAs mentioned, the Victoria and Albert Embankments (the latter is pictured right) – named, of course, for Queen Victoria and her by then late consort, Prince Albert, who had died in 1861 (see our previous post What’s in a name?…Victoria Embankment) – were located on opposite sides of the River Thames and involved reclaiming a considerable amount of the river so new sewers could be laid.

Construction of Victoria Embankment – which was also seen as a way to relieve traffic congestion in the central London area – started in the mid 1860s and was complete by 1870. Running along the north and western banks of the Thames between Westminster and Blackfriars bridges, its creation involved the demolition of many riverside buildings as a new walk and roadway were constructed behind a wall.

Numerous monuments have since been located along this promenade – they include the Battle of Britain Monument, RAF Memorial and the mis-named Cleopatra’s Needle (see our earlier post to find out why) – as well as a number of permanently berthed ships including the HQS Wellington – the base of the Honorable Company of Master Mariners – and the HMS President.

The walkway also features original decorative lamps – interestingly, Victoria Embankment was the first roadway in London to be permanently lit  by electric-powered lighting (from 1878).

The parks, collectively known as Victoria Embankment Gardens, contain numerous statues and monuments (including one to Bazalgette himself – it’s located close to the intersection with Northumberland Avenue) as well as a bandstand. They also contain the remains of York Watergate – once fronting on to the river, it shows how much land was reclaimed for the project (you can also visit the riverside entrance to Somerset House to gain a feel for where the river once was – look through the glass floor and you’ll see the old riverbank below).

Albert Embankment, meanwhile, runs between Vauxhall and Westminster Bridges on the eastern side of the river. Constructed around the same time as Victoria Embankment, it was designed to prevent flooding of the low-lying areas of Vauxhall and Kennington and to help in Bazalgette’s sewage system plan (although it apparently doesn’t have the same large sewers as can be found on the other side of the river).

Sadly, the demolition did see the centre of what was once the village of Lambeth removed to make way for the new promenade and roadway. But like Victoria Embankment, Albert Embankment features delightfully decorative lamps along the riverfront promenade and is a great place for a walk in any weather.