London hosts a treasure trove of hidden secrets. As do most cities. Let me introduce you to one of them. It’s far better hidden that most of the capitals secrets. It’s hidden in plain view. If you’ve been to London, you’ve almost certainly walked past it. You almost certainly glanced at it. It’s name might even ring a bell. But unless you’ve really been through the depths of your guidebook, or have an especially deep interest in the history of Londinium, then that first glance probably isn’t followed up by a second glance.
I’m talking about Banqueting House. It’s on Whitehall between Trafalgar Square and Westminster. But it’s on the wrong side of Whitehall. Tourists march down to the Thames with ‘eyes right’ to see the curiously helmeted soldiers outside Horseguards and to see Downing Street. Else they are looking behind at Horatio atop his lofty perch, aka Nelson’s Column. Or are looking forward, perhaps with starstruck eyes as the Elizabeth Tower, aka Big Ben, looms into view.
Poor Banqueting Hall. No one looks to the left. Not for long. Yet this imposing building isn’t simply on Whitehall. It is Whitehall. Well, the last remaining piece of the Palace of Whitehall. The Palace was, at its height, the largest in Europe, overtaking both Versailles and the Vatican. The origins of the Palace date back to the thirteenth century, but it was the infamous Henry VII who took it on (or rather took it from – Cardinal Wolseley was the victim) and developed it to a state of unrivalled grandeur. He married two wives there, and eventually died there. For more than a century and a half it was the official residence of the English monarch. Until one day, just before the end of the 1600s, a fire broke out and reduced almost the entire structure of the palace to ashes. But Banqueting Hall survived.
And still survives. There’s a massive Reuben on the ceiling commissioned by Charles I, which is still in situ. It cost three thousand pounds, an extortionate amount in those days. Was it worth it? You could have asked Charles I himself. Maybe someone did, but perhaps we’ll never know. It was the last piece of art he saw, we do know that. Or at least, can safely assume so. He was lead through Banqueting House, pushed out one of the windows onto a temporary scaffold and beheaded one cold January day. He probably had a lot of things on his mind, other than that pricey Reuben of his.
Visiting Banqueting House today is a less traumatic event. At just £5 per person it doesn’t exactly cost an arm and a leg, let alone your head. If you’re up in London and travelled by train or coach, you can get a two fer one, making it even more of a bargain. The audio guide is genuinely interesting (as opposed to the dreary monotone monologues that most places pass off as audioguides) and best of all, the hall has a half dozen bean bags littered on the floors. You can lie back and admire than Reuben and listen to the audioguide at your leisure. And let’s face it. A morning of walking through the streets of London is tiring work. This is a nice opportunity to grab forty winks.
Photos? Of course. But just a few. My preferred photo viewing experience, 500px, is here and my traditional host, Flickr, is here. Criminally, I neglected to take a photo of the outside of the building. This is truly poor form, and I apologise most sincerely. The outside of this building is so important. It was the fruit of the great Inigo Jones loins. Not as famous as Christopher Wren, but every bit as important, if not more so. You may have seen countless British stately homes and mansions and marvelled at the architecture. The designs of which were all inspired by the fabulous architects of Italy. Inigo Jones, however, was the first.
He went to Italy. He saw Italy. He came back and copied Italy. And Banquesting House was the first of those creations, inspiring countless recreations across these green
miserable, drizzlely grey and pleasant lands. He pioneered this large scale theft of continental design and engineering. He was rewarded handsomely for it, I’m sure. These days, he’d probably get a Cease and Desist writ.