Sunday 4 October 2015

Doing the time warp at Dennis Severs’ house in Spitalfields, London

So what prompted me to include Dennis Severs' House on my list of cultural tasks?  Well, quite simply, I listened to my friend Hilary's description of her visit there several years ago (it was one of her sixty things at 60), and it sounded such a curious and interesting place that it was instantly filed away for potential replication on my own list.  

My companions on this task were Jane and Loretta, who were at college in Eastbourne with me when we were 17. I'm going to be honest with you,  my use of the word 'college' is a euphemism. It was actually called Eastbourne School of Domestic Economy. It was a bit like a Swiss finishing school, only it was in East Sussex and we had to learn how to clean a loo and do feather icing on fairy cakes. The three of us shared a room together for a term. Jane had a very sophisticated camera with a timer feature - here's a selfie of us 1972-style (Jane's in the middle and looks rather vampish although that may be because she had to throw herself onto the bed very quickly before the shutter clicked).

Loretta, Jane and I arranged to visit Dennis Severs' House last Wednesday. The last time the three of us met up was in 1982, so it was destined to be a very special reunion. Since the actual task would have to be conducted in complete silence (more on that later), we decided to convene for afternoon tea at a nearby boutique hotel to give ourselves some crucial catch-up time. I arrived looking mildly jittery as I'd just been contacted by Alzheimer's Research UK press office asking me to do an interview on Splash FM the following morning about the sixtyat60 challenge, Jane turned up looking splendidly violet (not for nothing is she known in Gloucestershire as the Purple Potter), followed a minute later by Loretta, who was looking calm and collected in chic muted shades. We had a very fine afternoon tea, accompanied by an equally fine glasses of champagne, and talked nineteen to the dozen for two hours. 

Following our over-extended chinwag, we immersed ourselves in a vital teambuilding exercise, in which we had to find Dennis Severs' house within 15 minutes. Jane and Loretta drew their phones. Jane produced an A-Z app and Loretta countered with googlemap. I dithered (it's worth bearing in mind that learning how to use a googlemap app is Task 38 on my list). Would our friendship survive this battle of apps? I'm proud to say that after a detour or two, we arrived at 18 Folgate Street dead on time, and were still talking. Here we all are outside Mr Severs' front door.

We were given a brief introduction about the house on the doorstep. Dennis Severs bought the house in 1979 and gradually turned it into what he called 'a famous time-machine'. Here he is with the previous owner of 18 Folgate Street. 

We were told politely to remain silent throughout our visit, to mind the many lit candles, to resist the urge to touch anything and not to take any photos. We heard that the house was inhabited by the Jervis family, who were Huguenot silk weavers through the 18th and 19th centuries. According to the guide, the family would always depart from a room just before we walked in. So far so spooky......

Then we crossed the threshold into a dim candlelit world of creaky floorboards, surfaces heaving with historical artefacts and bric-a-brac, the sounds of passing hansom cabs, the scent of pomanders and old wood, a wig hanging from the back of a chair, delicate china cups with half-drunk tea, empty oyster shells on plates, fires glowing in grates and loads of little 18th century post-it notes in scratchy copperplate writing on mantlepieces. 

In the front basement was the kitchen where I especially loved the dresser (it's like mine only with ten times more cups, jugs and plates).

We slowly worked our way in silence through the house from the basement to the third floor, taking us from the 18th to early 20th century. Our guide was right of course, we never did see the Jervis family, but there were frequent signs of a sudden departure - a broken cup on the floor, a collapsed deck of cards, a fallen over chair (looked like there'd been a heavy drinking session in that room). 

Dennis Severs said about his house 'either you'll get it or you won't'.  I like to think that I was in the former category (but perhaps I wasn't?). A unique and surreal experience.  

Forty five minutes later we emerged into 21st century Spitalfields. Unlike the Jervis family, I remained in situ while Jane and Loretta took a photo of me as official evidence of my visit. Loretta did think I looked as though I'd been stood up by Dennis. So perhaps his presence lives on with the occupants of his house...... .. 

So a memorable visit to a memorable house and a very big thank you to Loretta and Jane for being wonderful companions on an afternoon when we raised a glass to both the passing of decades and of centuries.

I'm doing the sixtyat60challenge to raise funds for Alzheimer's Research UK. For further information or to make a donation please visit my JustGiving page at  

If you would like to follow this blog click here for information on how to do so

No comments:

Post a Comment