Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday 22 September 2008

Cycles, churches, courts and crime

You expect to have to work for your bread, but this weekend required some effort to take advantage of the circuses - the Open House weekend and London Freewheel.

Somehow, although I'm totally irreligious, the Open House weekend seems to find me visiting mostly religious buildings. Maybe they're just more visible, but this year I started out at Christ Church Spitalfields, now beautifully restored (and incidentally, where one of my great-great-grandfathers was christened - but I suspect that might have been insurance rather than zeal, since the "parish" was the only source of social security in hard times), and over the weekend also dropped in - since I was in the area - at St Clement Danes (the "RAF church", the old memorials to the likes of John Donne's wife being joined by those to many different units and groups of aircrew - and the people in occupied Europe who ran escape lines to get Allied airmen home), St Giles in the Fields and the Bevis Marks Synagogue (designed by a Quaker architect around the same time as the great Wren churches, it has a similar openness, lightness and sense of peace).

There's almost as religious a feeling about the Royal Courts of Justice (that was apparently the intention), the pre-Disney Gothic-turreted fantasy in the Strand. I worked nearby for over twenty years and never realised just how open to visitors they are. They'd laid on mock trials, visits to the cells and a prison van (this required a degree of queuing I didn't fancy), an amusing talk by a judge's clerk about mostly the ceremonial robes but also about the daily work of a judge, as well as other talks and displays. It's a warren of corridors and courtrooms doors off mysterious half-landings up and down winding staircases. The courtrooms are surprisingly intimate, but this is hardly surprising, given that much of the business here is to do with private civil disputes and criminal appeals on points of law, rather than the grand public dramas of TV and movie trials.

From one end of the justice system to the other: the Thames Police Museum is a volunteer-run collection of all sorts of memorabilia crammed into the former carpenters' workshop at the headquarters of the river police in Wapping. Models of boats, old equipment, photographs of great events, uniforms, flags, paintings and documents all jostle for attention as you squeeze your way between the cabinets. There are some fascinating stories here, but they're a bit buried: and the reality of the work, as shown in a recent TV series, can be grim (the river is so murky that divers mostly have to locate what they're looking for by feel alone, whether it's a body or an abandoned weapon).

As for the Freewheel event - last year I wondered if I should get a bike, and this year I was able to join in (no need to register - I don't want a free bib advertising Rupert Murdoch, thank you very much, and certainly not to go on one of his mailing lists). And a great day was had by all, notwithstanding some shocking bad manners by some cyclists (what else is new):

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