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London behind the scenes
In London, what goes on behind the scenes tends to stay hidden. But venture beyond the red rope at some of the capital’s most prestigious attractions and landmarks and you’ll uncover a whole new side to life in the capital. From the loading bay of the Royal Albert Hall to the lighting bridges of the National Theatre, take a look at these exclusive tours for a glimpse of London behind the scenes.
Hampton Court Palace
Five hundred years ago, Henry VIII’s Cardinal Wolsey commissioned the building of the most extravagant palace in England. A popular local landmark, most visitors to Hampton Court Palace spend their time admiring the astronomical clock at Anne Boleyn’s Gate or gazing in awe at the ceiling of the Great Hall. But for the privileged few who seek the guidance of specialist tour company Art History UK, guests can enjoy dinner in the palace’s Little Banqueting House, set overlooking the Thames. Built as a Baroque-style retreat for William III, you’ll dine in the company of the gods, goddesses and nymphs that adorn the walls and ceiling. In good weather, Art History UK’s guests can explore the palace’s rooftops for the best views of the landscaped gardens and famous red chimneys.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Like the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, the silhouette of St. Paul’s Cathedral s one of the most recognisable of any building in the world. Extending 365 feet into the sky, Christopher Wren’s iconic cathedral holds a small compendium of secrets that few tourists get to see. Art History UK offers its guests the chance to go all the way up to the Triforium level and look down from the celestial arched gallery onto the nave below. This tour also takes you to the Geometric Staircase, which winds its way up the inside of the dome, as well as the Great Model Room, which houses (unsurprisingly) a large model of Wren’s second design for the Cathedral, an ambition he never realised.
Royal Opera House
Taking up two and a half acres of prime West End property, it’s little wonder that the Royal Opera House simply goes by the name “Covent Garden”. Originally built in 1732 and known as the Theatre Royal, Handel wrote a number of operas and oratorios to be sung on its stage. Despite burning down twice (once in 1808 and again in 1856), Royal Opera House mark III has retained the pedigree of its ancestors and is currently home to both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. Catch a glimpse of London behind the scene with a backstage tour of this iconic theatre. Visitors can watch members of the Royal Ballet as they practice, observe the technical preparations taking place on and off the stage and take a peak inside the prop-room.
The National Theatre
If the National Theatre’s brutalist architecture divides opinion, the quality of its plays are less contested. And if its exterior looks like a nuclear reactor, it only reflects the National’s “powerhouse” reputation. Even its “Up Late” tour is quite full on. On Mondays only, visitors are invited (read: obligated) to don high-vis vests and hard hats and venture up to the lighting bridges above the Olivier stage for a rare chance to see the technical side of theatre production. Sensible footwear and a head for heights are a must. The more conservatively inclined will enjoy the backstage tour, offering a glimpse into rehearsals, prop and costume manufacture.
Royal Albert Hall
Built by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with the aim of bringing the arts to the masses, Albert did not live to see the completion of this auditorium in 1871. With its striking red brick exterior and 13,000 letter “A”s littered throughout, the Royal Albert Hall really is a love letter from a widow to her late husband (albeit on a grand-scale). Used for everything from tennis matches to the BBC Proms, there is a sense of public spirit here that’s best recognised on a behind the scenes tour. After viewing the splendid rotunda with its 6,000 seats and the grandeur of the Royal Retiring Room, you’ll step behind the facade to see the Loading Bay, where production companies ferry their equipment in and out. In the dressing rooms, you’ll be able to see the private preparation spaces of some of the world’s best performers.
In an average year, spectators at The Championships consume 142,000 portions of strawberries and 7,000 litres of cream. As you can imagine, it is fairly busy behind the scenes during Wimbledon fortnight. Tours are not possible around this period, but throughout the year Blue Badge Guides show visitors around the hallowed lawns. Soak up the spectacle of Centre Court and wander through the picturesque Water Gardens and Picnic Terraces into the Millennium Building, where players must wait anxiously for rain delays to pass. The tour also includes entry to the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, which houses a collection of tennis whites worn by competitors since the 1880s.
Hidden Houses of London
There is no better way to see London behind the scenes than by peering past the threshold of those buildings that have helped make its name. As part of its “Hidden Houses of London” tour, Art History UK hosts private tours around the homes of pioneering architects, composers and artists. Take a candlelit tour of The Sir John Soane Museum, the eccentric home of the architect behind the Bank of England. From Pompeian bronzes to the canvases of Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress”, Soane’s intriguing artefacts could rival the wings of a museum. Alternatively, you could stop by the Handel House Museum for a tour around the residence of the famed Baroque composer, before a private harpsichord concert in the very room where Handel would practice and perform. Showcasing the most attractive Victorian piles, Art History UK also invites you to enjoy a drink amid the decadent décor of Lord Leighton’s dining room, before dinner in his studio and after making your way around the Leighton House Museum.
Written by William Railton