Today was a first – as it marked the first time that the Mansion House in the City of London has been open for tours by the general public. It has been possible to write in for a tour but only on London Open House Weekend – whereas today was a just turn up and hand over six of the Queens Coins for entry.
Today, being the first tour was also opened by a short speech by the current Lord Mayor.
We went in via what is now the main entrance for everyone – but was originally designed as horse stables underneath the building. The stables were never actually used as such as they realized almost immediately that it was a bit of a daft idea, but it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that the original grand staircase entrance at the front was discontinued and the "side door" became the main entrance for everyone to use.
After doing the usual security things, and fortunately leaving my heavy laptop bag in the cloakroom, we then rather weirdly returned to the entrance hall we had just come from for the Lord Mayor to join us for a bit. He mentioned that the place is not just a ceremonial building, but is his functioning office and also the home to himself and wife for the year that he holds the title.
They also brought their cat (called Big Ben) with them when they moved in, but we were not to see puss as he tended to sleep during the day. Still, a Lord Mayor and a cat – remind you of anyone?
The tour guide explained a bit about the "stables" and how it was converted into a fairly ornate, if intimate entrance hall. and then we wandered back to the cloakroom which was originally servants quarters and mention was made of the line of busts of famous Lord Mayors which run around the room.
Picture from Richard Feroze
Thence, up the (very creaky) stairs to what would have originally been the main entrance – and you really are bowled over by the scale and opulence of the massive pillared room. It transpired that the room was originally a courtyard and open to the skies – but London weather is not really compatible with such ideas and it was roofed over in 1795 – not long after it was built.
At the front of the main hall though had originally been the Justice Room – which was basically the Magistrates Court. That only moved out in 1991, and the prison cells beneath it reused for other purposes. In the center of this hall – which is in fact a "mere" waiting room, is a magnificent chandelier – which looked to be about two meters wide, and we were told has 36 lights. There are a lot of chandeliers in the building as it happens, but this is the most impressive one – claimed to be second in scale only to Buckingham Palace.
Along side the hall are two rooms – one a dining room which can seat roughly 30 people in comfort and on the other side two parlor rooms with a lot of art work and some very valuable chairs.
However, at the back of the hall is the massive (and boy is it huge) Egyptian Hall which is used for receptions and banquets.
The room is about 4 stories high, with a balcony running around it about half way up – but the original hall was actually double that in height (and nicknamed Noah’s Ark as it dominated the skyline), but that was impractical and not long afterwards it was shrunk somewhat and a new barrel roof was put in. Lining the room are a range of statues, most of the arts and virtues based on my look – and I have to admit that "The Bard" looked like the spitting image of Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments as he came down with the stone tablets – although the bard had a lyre instead.
Walking through the earlier mentioned parlor rooms, and down the stairs to the vault. This literally is a safe room with a very large bank safe style door to walk through, as inside is the vast collection of ceremonial silver and gold the City owns, including the Mace and Ceremonial Sword. In here is also the "fire cup", which was made in 1662 and was the only bit of gold held by the Lord Mayor’s office to survive the Fire of London in 1666.
A final note, there is a lot of Dutch and Flemish art doted around the building, as a bequest from Harold Samuel who was a former Lord Mayor. They replaced a collection from the Guildhall Art Gallery which was mainly of grand portraits of former Lord Mayors. The new collection is a lot nicer and less intimidating though – and works quite well in this setting.
That’s it the tour over, we collected bags and they sold a history guide for an extra Â£3 as you leave.
The tour is actually really interesting, and I have only really mentioned the briefest of the history of the building – as much of it is recorded very well elsewhere. The main thing that hits you is the splendor of the building interior and it seems larger than it actually is on a first visit, although I suspect regular users bemoan the cramped site it is based on – originally a food market called The Stocks. It was so named as there was an actual punishment stocks in the market and people could throw left-over or spoilt food at the miscreants.
As I mentioned, today was the first general public tour they have run, and they will now run every Tuesday at 2pm – just turn up and queue by the entrance, although places are limited to 40 people.
The only disappointment was that photography was not permitted as this is a really stunning building. If that was because 40 people taking photos really slows a tour down, then I hope maybe they find a way of doing smaller groups and allowing photos. One of the press people was taking photos though – of us tourists.