Dickens, in Barnaby Rudge, got it right when he wrote “who enters here leaves noise behind”. You go through a door from honking, endless traffic and bustling pavements into a different world. Peaceful, slower, quiet. You feel you have stepped outside central London.
This is Temple, 20 acres of land which is one of London’s best kept secrets. Although primarily a large lawyer oasis between Fleet Street and the Embankment, it has a diverse cultural history which runs the gamut from Shakespeare to Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Tavener to The Da Vinci Code.
This month sees the beginning of events to mark the 400th anniversary of the signing of the royal charter giving Inner and Middle Temples a level of independence from church and crown control which they have ferociously guarded ever since. There were two conditions: the Inns must “serve for all time to come for the accommodation and education of the students and practitioners of laws of the realm”; and maintain the Temple church and its Master’s House. Both of these terms have been kept.
Events for the 2008 Temple festival kick off with an open weekend on January 19 and 20 giving access to the history soaked galleries, halls and gardens – the largest private gardens in London. “I think it’s true that a lot of Londoners don’t know we’re here and we want them to know we’re here,” said the festival’s artistic director, Kenneth Morrison.
One of the most striking parts of Temple is the Elizabethan Middle Temple hall which, unlike its Inner counterpart, largely survived German bombs in the second world war. The hall, with its double hammer beamed roof, has been the venue for all manner of performances down the years with the most impressive being the first performance of Twelfth Night in 1602 in which, it is said, Shakespeare appeared.
At the time it was the place to be seen, and to this day there are bits from Francis Drake’s galleon Golden Hind still in the hall, which Drake would have given as he partied and celebrated success against the Spanish. They include the table on which Middle Templars sign the roll of members when called to the bar: it is known as the cupboard and came from a hatch cover on the ship.
Every direction you turn there is something of interest. The 29ft table that was made in the hall from a single oak barged down from Windsor on the orders of Elizabeth I. The portrait of Charles I on a white steed from the studio of van Dyck, with the horse’s head disconcertingly small “so as not to look more imposing than the king”. And in the window, two stained panes with the shields of one Josephus Jekyll and Roburtus Hyde – one can imagine young Middle-bencher Robert Louis Stevenson staring up at the window and something lodging in his mind.
Over at the church, with its effigies of Knights Templar lying on the floor staring up to the sky, the Temple choristers are rehearsing carols in the place that the makers of the film The Da Vinci Code used for one of its scenes. The church was also the venue for the world premiere of Sir John Tavener’s seven-hour meditational The Veil of the Temple in 2003 using four choirs and several orchestras.
The open weekend kicks off four months of events including guided tours, mock trials and advocacy demonstrations. There will also be music, film and drama including a performance by the Holst Singers; a showing of the 1922 film Nosferatu (by Inner Temple’s Bram Stoker) accompanied by an improvised organ performance; a new production of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas in Middle Temple hall; and recitals by singers including Angelika Kirchschlager, Carolyn Sampson and Sergei Leiferkus.
There will also be a series of public discussions on Islam in English law in Temple Church – an appropriate venue given that the church was built by the Knights Templar 800 years ago during the Crusades. On February 7 the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, will give a lecture entitled Civil and Religious Law in England: A Religious Perspective.
Robin Griffith-Jones, who is the Temple’s Anglican priest – or the Reverend and Valiant Master of the Temple, as he can call himself if he ever feels insecure – hopes the festival will lift the mystery which surrounds the 20 acres of land. “We are rather tucked away and we’re seen as a little bit secretive or covert, which is not the case. Most people haven’t got a clue we’re here and when people discover Temple they’re bowled over. It’s a magical place.”
· Visit temple2008.org for details of the festival
in The Guardian