Just this week, I was taking a little seasonal stroll around Spitalfields, in London. The area is an architectural and historical enclave of Georgian townhouses that has been the homes and workshops for many waves of immigrants over hundreds of years, none more so that the refugee Flemish silk weavers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Once nearly lost to “progress” and City developers, the area was saved in the 1970s by a concerted campaign, led by the poet Sir John Betjeman, amongst others. If there were ever an example of the beauty and benefit of saving historic quarters in this modern life, it is Spitalfields.
While on the walk I found myself in Folgate Street and outside the unique home of the late Dennis Severs. He bought the house in 1979 and set about stripping the unprepossessing layer of 20th century living back to how it would have looked 150-200 years ago. But what makes 18 Folgate Street special is that it doesn’t just show what it looked like, it also shows how it smelled, tasted and felt as well. It is staged as if it is still lived in, with no modern heating or lighting, which adds to its sense of authenticity.
The house is open to the public, but not every day and most of the time you need to book in advance. But luck was on my side. As my partner and I looked soulfully through the window at the warm and welcoming lit fire in the kitchen in the basement and pondered the next available tour times, David the curator stepped outside to tidy up before that evening’s visit. We got chatting, or more truthfully, my less-shy partner led the conversation and before we knew it David kindly invited us in.
It certainly was a bombardment for all the senses. You walk through the front door and leave the present day behind. We were transported back to the 18th and 19th centuries with the rooms set as if the Georgian and Victorian occupants had just left the rooms, with food and drink laid out, beds unmade and clothes discarded. The house is arranged with a story. The story is fictional but historically possible with the lives of a family (5 generations), visitors and tenants over the 150 years or so, from the 1760s to the beginning of the First World War. In the kitchen David was just cooking a Christmas hash on the small cast iron range for the “tenants” that supposedly live in sparse circumstances in the attic rooms. That food was to be laid out later for the evening tour. We sat around the warming range and talked about the house and Dennis Severs’ desire to bring people as close to the historical period as possible. We agreed it was virtually time travel. After we had steeped ourselves in the sights, sounds and smells of the dark and cosy kitchen, David showed us the rest of the house from the recycled medieval stoneware in the back basement that they would have used for building repairs, to the grand salon on the first floor, the main bedrooms on the 2nd floor and the meagre tenant attic space above. Each room gave an immediate sense of being in the past.
© 18 Folgate Street Website
In truth, it is difficult to fully convey the magic of visiting 18 Folgate Street in a simple blog. You need to see it for yourself. If you live in or are visiting London, this is a must. Booking in advance is important. You can enjoy it by day, but maybe more magically, you can experience it at night, all lit by candlelight.
You can read more about 18 Folgate Street here. There was also a video of the house here, with an interview with Dennis Severs before he died in 1999.
More information about Spitalfields, its life and preservation can be seen on the Spitalfields Life website and through the East End Preservation Society.