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Elizabeth Hawksley: Treasure Trail

November 21, 2010

Have you even wanted to get inside the Bank of England, Lloyds of London or go back stage at the National Theatre? Once a year, on the third weekend in September, London Open House weekend allows you to do just that when a huge number of public buildings – and some private ones – open their doors to the public.


This year, I found myself at the RSA: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce in 8 John Adam St, which was built by the Adam brothers in 1774. The RSA was founded in 1754 as an Enlightenment response to the industrial revolution, and it became a force for social progress. Unusually for the period, men and women were admitted on equal terms from the beginning.When I went in I was offered a Treasure Trail quiz to do. Of course, it was really aimed at children but I like quizzes; they make me look closely at things. So, as I went round, I peered at cornices and ceiling roundels and did my best to answer the questions – some of which entailed looking very closely indeed for things which were sometimes hard to find. I handed in my quiz at the end and forgot all about it.

Adelphi ceiling

The RSA comprises 2,4,6 and 8 John Adam St, together with 18 Adam St, originally the Adelphi Tavern and later the Adelphi Hotel. In Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Emily Wardle fled from her angry father and met her lover Mr Snodgrass there. I like to think of them admiring the ravishing Adam ceiling with its delicate plasterwork and painted panel showing Pan celebrating the feast of Bacchus.Numbers 2 and 4 were originally private houses, and very pretty they would have been, too, with their classical Adam dimensions, elegant staircases and carved Adam fireplaces. No 4 still has its wonderful painted Adam ceiling.


Last week, out of the blue, I got a letter from the RSA. It read: Congratulations! You have won the RSA Treasure Trail Competition. Enclosed was a jigsaw of an eighteenth century print of the Great Room and a cartoon book about Benjamin Franklin, an early member. I was tickled pink.Pictures courtesy of the RSA.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lorna permalink
    November 22, 2010 11:10 pm

    What a fascinating place. Those vaults look particularly creepy and I am sure your imagination was racing.

    I’ve been to some great places on Open House weekend. One atmospheric venue was the Post Office underground railway, which ran (it’s now defunct, I think) from Mount Pleasant sorting office to Paddington. As we stood on the tiny platform, a miniature train would appear every few minutes to stop, take on its load by automatic means, and rumble off again. There was no driver, no obvious human input of any kind.
    Ghost trains? It was very spooky indeed, and I have filed away the experience for future usage…maybe…
    Oh, and congratulations on winning the prize. My granny used to say that there’s nothing like a jigsaw on a long dark night.

  2. childrensauthor permalink
    November 24, 2010 9:07 am

    I loved your cameo of the PO underground railway, Lorna. I think Open House Weekend is a terrific institution – I recommend the old prison cells under what used to be Clerkenwell Gaol if you like creepy, particularly the one where condemned prisoners spent their last night. It was horribly atmospheric – and so cramped which somehow made it worse.


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