Hidden Gem: Somerset House

In my never-ending quest of finding things to do in this incredible city, I came across a free tour for Somerset House. I knew nothing about Somerset House and after scanning the website, I saw that it had ties back to the Tudor dynasty. This alone peaked my interest, and I headed that way.

The space was incredible and massive. The building sits right on the River Thames and overlooks the big landmarks like Big Ben, the London Eye, and Westminster. Being so close to the proximity of these monumental locations, that must have meant that Somerset House was also of importance. Although, after walking in the building, I still couldn’t have told you what it was for.

I was about an hour early for the tour, so I decided to wander around the premises. I walked through some doors and paved my own way to stumble upon the Stamp Staircase. It’s a very plain staircase in the Southern wing of the compound, but what was interesting, I later found out in the tour, was the lower ranking officer’s quarters had just the wrought iron design while as you ascend, the detail gets a little more ornate for the higher ranking officials.

I made my way outside to the giant square that was full of fountains that shot straight up. I can imagine during summer this would be a popular hang out for kids who want to run through it, but while it is still chilly outside, people just sat and watched, mesmerized.

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Across the way was the North wing which housed an art museum: The Courtauld Gallery. I did not expect there to be a museum on the premises, but then again, I had no idea what this building was. I decided to walk through the gallery and see what they had on display. I was floored by what they had. 

Their collection was rather small, but the artists housed there ranged from Van Gogh to Rodin to Monet and Degas. I was floored. I just set out for a casual tour, and I was staring at Degas’ ballerinas mounted on a wall.

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I strolled through the museum careful to look at each piece of artwork. Even the ceilings were painted beautifully and ornately.

After touring the three floors of the gallery, my tour was about to start. I was excited to finally figure out what this building was for. The group was about twenty or so people, and I did manage to get one of the last slots, even being an hour early. We first went around the square where our guide told us the East Wing housed the Naval Department at one time. Now it is full of offices and apparently also acts as a wedding venue.

We continued around and faced the North Wing. Since the art gallery was the only thing in the North Wing, we focused on the 2014-03-20 14.15.16architecture. Above the archway, there were four large statues representing the colonies England had holding things as an offering. What made me laugh was the one that didn’t hold anything but rather stood defiantly, represented America. (Heck yes!)

nelson staircaseWe made our way back to the South Wing where we saw another historically important staircase: The Nelson Staircase. It was originally the Navy Staircase since it led directly to the Navy Boardroom that were attended by Lord Nelson, hence the new name.

After that, we descended into the underground area of Somerset House where the original framework still existed. This is where the Tudor history came into play. It originated as a house for Edward Seymour (Queen Jane Seymour’s brother) Duke of Somerset and Lord 2014-03-20 13.50.28Protector of England while Edward VI was underage, but then was later used as a sort of hotel for Elizabeth I when she had guests come to see her. Elizabeth I didn’t usually stay at the house, but she would use it as a venue. By the time of George III, the palace was very run down and not worthy of its grandeur. So George III traded it for Buckingham Palace giving the government a place to be.

2014-03-20 13.55.53Down in the depths, there was a place called the Deadhouse where several headstones were still intact. The guide was unclear if the bodies were actually somewhere on the premises, and who these people were who had the honor of being interred, but nonetheless, there were several people commemorated on the walls.

We then headed, still underground, toward the front of the compound. It was absolutely unreal. Before London build a proper road, the River Thames came right up to the front doors and you would have to boat in. You can still see the large arches where you could “park” and come onto the property. It was pretty incredible to see that not too long ago (just a century or so), where we were standing was all water with no road damming the River four lanes of road away.

That’s where the tour ended, and I was left still with the question: what does this building act as now? Evidently, it houses businesses who rent out the space for work. There is no specific company that runs the entire compound anymore. So, it’s just a large office building. What a perfect allegory for the buildings in London: such historical significance surrounding companies that filter in and out through the years.

 

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