Don’t ask me why, but I’ve always been intrigued by what goes on in the ‘corridors of power‘.
What do those ‘Mandarins of Whitehall’ actually do?, and is our destiny really at the mercy of those men in grey suits?
A few years ago I was looking down on those bastions of government control from the London Eye and they looked even more mysterious somehow, so when the opportunity to visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) arose during London’s Open House Weekend, I was determined not to miss it.
Obviously I wasn’t the only person curious to see what it was like inside because there was a huge queue to get in, largely because of the security checks that were taking place due to recent terrorist activity in London and elsewhere.
Certain areas were obviously out of bounds but photography was allowed in the rooms open to the public, but for some reason I wasn’t able to photograph those ‘corridors’.
The first Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was Charles James Fox who was appointed in 1782. His offices were in a couple of private houses near to St. James’s Palace.
By the end of the century the offices were relocated to Downing St, and as the importance of the Foreign Office grew, so did the need for new premises.
By the 1850s it was decided to replace the old buildings which had expanded along, and around, Downing St and incorporate the newly formed India Office within the complex.
The contract for the new building was given to the prolific Gothic Revival architect, George Gilbert Scott, and along with Matthew Digby Wyatt, who was responsible for the India Office, work started on the building made from Portland Stone in 1861.
The new building provided adequate office space for many years to come, but by 1963 moves were afoot to demolish it and replace it with something more practical for the modern age.
After a public debate, there was a complete reversal and it was classified as a Grade I listed building.
After re-adjustment of some of the departmental offices, a renovation programme began in 1984 and was completed in 1997 at a fraction of the cost of demolition and rebuilding.
As my visit proved it’s looking as good as ever.
Entrance is via King Charles St and into the Quadrangle, an area out of bounds for photography.
The tour starts at the India Office, which stretches along King Charles St. The highlight here (arguably of the whole building) is Durbar Court. To start with it was left open to the elements but Wyatt added a glass roof (he also designed the glass roofs for Crystal Palace and Paddington Station).
The tour continues up the Gurkha Stair to the India Office Council Chamber and then back down the Muses’ Stair with its splendid octagonal glass lantern.
Walking up, down, and along the corridors brought me to the ‘Locarno Suite’ named after the Locarno Treaties signed here on 1st of December 1925.
Initialled in Locarno, Switzerland, they were designed to relieve tension in Europe after WW1.
The suite consists of three rooms – the Reception Room, the Dining Room and the Conference Room.
The way out (or the way in if you’re here on official duties) is via the Grand Staircase with murals by Sigmund Goetze on the first floor including Brittania Pacificatrix which seems to reflect how Britain saw itself when it was painted during World War I. It seemed an appropriate way to finish the tour somehow.
By necessity, this review of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is just a brief summary, but it includes the period when the British Empire was at its zenith.
The British Empire will mean different things to different people, but there’s more to it than that. This is a place where today’s politicians mingle with the Mandarins of Whitehall to determine today’s future, if that makes any sense.
I enjoyed the architecture, the history – and above all – I’ve managed to walk those ‘corridors of power’ at last.
A visit to the London Eye will never seem the same again.