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Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The house that Dennis built.(Revised September 2011)


Since early childhood I have been fascinated by Georgian architecture. I was heavily influenced by the then derelict Hylands House in Essex. Despite its parlous state and my comparative youth, I used to daydream about how the mansion might have looked in its heyday and would have willingly taken up residence in the near-ruin if I had been given the chance. Over the decades I feared that Hylands House would be pulled down as it grew more and more neglected. To my great surprise and pleasure Hylands House was transformed by a major programme of renovation in the latter part of the last century. Although it has a stunning exterior which closely resembles that of my beloved Kenwood House in North London, the restored interiors are a tad too flamboyant for my tastes, although no doubt great pains were taken to ensure historical accuracy.


The closest I ever got to realising my dream of living in a Georgian house was when I thought I was relocating to County Durham. For the same price of a tiny flat in London I could have bought a substantial property in the North East. I had my pick of period properties ranging from a former shepherd’s cottage, a picturesque house with original window seats and a mature cottage garden, a late Georgian townhouse in a village overlooked by a medieval castle, to a 3 storey 17th century town house complete with original flagged floors, oak beams and stone fireplaces. My dreams were dashed when company was taken over by another and all prospective corporate relocations were summarily halted.

I had neither the opportunity nor the resources to realise my ambitions of living in a Georgian house unlike the American Dennis Severs. He had been born in California in 1948. With money from the family petrol stations he came over to England, attracted by impressions of its 19th and 18th century past. For a while he offered visitors the chance to travel around the more salubrious parts of London in a horse and carriage. When that came to an end, he decided to buy an 18th century town house in Spitalfields, then a run down part of East London.

Like Hackney, Spitalfields had once been a very fashionable district, although it never boasted the grand Tudor mansions of Hackney. (Hackney's Tudor mansions ) Its own heyday had been in the 18th century when it had formed the centre of the silk trade. Forced to flee France by the punitive anti-Protestant laws imposed by the Catholic state, Huguenots weavers and merchants took up residence in the area. From the profits generated ny their trade, the merchants were able to built imposing residences for themselves. The decline of the silk trade brought a corresponding decline in the area. In the 19th century more refugees flooded in, this time Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe.

Three years ago I was fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity to go inside 19 Princelet Street in Spitalfields. In the 18th century it was the home of Huguenot weavers. In the 1860s Jewish refugees turned it into a synagogue. Now it is a museum re-telling the story of the different waves of immigrants who lived in this area up until the present day. The house and the synagogue are in a fragile state and it is to be hoped that they can be saved. I also had the chance to explore the even more derelict rooms above the synagogue. One of these rooms became something of a cause célèbre in 1980 when a locked room was opened up for the first time since 1969. It has last been lived in by a certain David Rodinsky, a Jewish scholar. The room had  suddenly and explicitly been abandoned to the extent of a pot of porridge was found on the stove and a half drunk mug of tea left on a table. What added to the mystery was that Rodinsky himself had seemingly vanished into thin air, there being no apparent trace of him after that date. The author Rachel Lichtenstein wrote a fascinating account of the event in her book “Rodinsky's Room,” which also resolves the mystery of what really happened to David Rodinsky. 19 Princelet Street museum





It is possible that Dennis Severs might have heard of the mysterious locked room above the synagogue in nearby Princelet Street, when he set about re-creating his vision of how his own Huguenot house might have looked when the original owners were living there in the 18th century. He wanted to create a theatrical experience in which visitor would see the house it as if his fictional 18th century family had just vanished from sight. Thus, there would be the everyday sights and smells of an occupied house as opposed to the sterile atmosphere of a museum. When he bought his property the 18th century houses in the vicinity were all facing the genuine threat of demolition. It was claimed they were in too great a state of decay to be saved and should be demolished to make way for a complete redevelopment of the site. A determined campaign by local residents saved the area from the bulldozer. Now those once despised houses are worth an absolute fortune.

When Dennis Severs turned his house in Folgate Street into a living exploration of the changing fortunes of a Huguenot family, his efforts did not find favour with academics. They insisted on strict authenticity. Dennis took a far more inventive approach to furnishing and decorating his house. For example, unable to find or afford the decorative plaster carvings of fruit so admired in the 18th century, he bought some wax fruit and nuts from a local supermarket, covered them with plaster of Paris and fixed them to the ceiling. Likewise, the colour of the paint in part of the hall is pink. It is not authentic to the period but Dennis liked the effect even if purists might purse their lips.

The rooms are staged to follow the fortunes of the fictional Jervis family. They begin with the family enjoying an affluent lifestyle. Gradually, the family fortunes go into a decline reflecting the real life collapse of the silk trade. Finally, the fictional family have been forced to eke out their days in a single shabby room under the eaves, the roof leaking and all trace of the splendours of the lower floors vanished forever.

Dennis did not want his house to be an arid museum piece. To give the sense of a real family living there he slept in the beds, cooked in the kitchens and smoked his pipe in the dining room. To the consternation of visitors, Dennis would go so far as to urinate into a chamber pot whilst conducting them on tours. In that he was simply recreating the habits of 18th century gentlemen, who would think nothing of openly urinating into chamber pots whilst dining with friends in the same room. On another occasion, Dennis frog-marched a hapless visitor out of the house when he thought she was not taking his tour in the right spirit. His fearsome reputation meant that I never got around to visiting his house whilst he was still alive. I have been on a number of occasions since. I once took the Partridge when the house was lit by candlelight and the back parlour was decorated as if for a Victorian Christmas. In the kitchen in the basement, I surreptitiously used a small torch to light the darker recesses of the room. It was an act that might well have earned me a permanent ban if Dennis Severs had still been alive to witness it. Dennis Severs House

Let the train take the strain


The only time I have been on the Orient Express was years ago when the carriages were travelling on the same cross-Channel ferry as I was. I sneaked up the steps and stood in the corridor before beating a hasty retreat lest I be discovered and ignominiously thrown off. I once travelled by train from Cairo to Luxor with my friend Lynda. It had a rather splendid dining-car although neither we, being but poor University students, nor the carriage could match the opulence of the Orient Express. Nonetheless, the journey did have a certain faded charm as we took our seats in the retro dining-car before retiring to our cabins for the night. Furthermore, opening the curtains in the morning and seeing the timeless Egyptian countryside and the blue waters of the Nile  as we speed by was more than a match for any European vista to someone like me, who had developed a keen interest in all things Egyptian, preferably ancient. When I did the same journey a number of years later, the dining car had to my regret been replaced by a disco.

My only trip to Scotland was by train. I went with a friend to visit her brother and his wife, wherein lay a convoluted tale of its own. My friend was keen to play matchmaker for her brother and only sibling and had even tried to pair the two of us off in his bachelor days. Our first date consisted of a works outing he had arranged to see the musical “42nd Street” in the West End. Our seats were way up in the gods. Not only were they cramped they were dizzyingly steep. His fellow colleagues grumbled and indicated that he could not be trusted to organise anything properly. I later related the incident to another friend of mine and said what an idiot he was. At that stage she had never met him. She later went on to marry him, which in itself did not perturb me. Unfortunately her wedding fell only days after I had been struck down with salmonella poisoning.

My Malaysian friend May had been on one of her flying visits to England. We met up at my then place of work in order to go off to lunch in a local restaurant. I took a small teaspoon of the chocolate mousse. It was awful. So awful I had to take another spoonful to convince myself that it was really that bad. I started to suffer the repercussions a few hours later. Unfortunately the next day was my last at my then job before I started working for a new organisation on the Monday. As was customary my colleagues had arranged a farewell party at a restaurant. What was not quite so customary was the fact that the guest of honour could not eat a single thing thanks to her queasy stomach.

The weekend did not provide any solace. It was my friend’s wedding day. If I had failed to turn up it might have looked like sour grapes on my part, owing to the fact that I had previously dated her spouse, even though I had made it quite clear at the time I regarded him as something of a fool. The train journey was quite fraught but thankfully passed without incident. My woes started in the church itself. I had not been seated long before I felt I was going to retch. Luckily there were loos in what must have been the church hall around the back. After that I was going back and forth between the two buildings, hoping that I would not run into the bride. At one stage I came back into the church as my friend stood at the altar with her soon-to-be-husband. She briefly chanced to glance my way. I crept into the back row behind a pillar and sat with my head between my legs. It was the same row as the official photographer. I am sure he thought I was some crazy woman who was going to stand up and screech out a reason as to why the marriage could not go ahead when invited to by the vicar. My friend later said that when she had glimpsed me coming into the church, she had assumed I was a tramp seeking the warmth of the interior and perhaps the generousity of the congregation.       

Every week for six months I would travel several hundred miles by train to Durham from London. I was able to travel first class, which enabled me to breakfast in the dining car on the outwards journey, a boon considering the train set out just after 6 o’clock in the morning. It was an even greater benefit on the return journey when the rest of the train was packed with students travelling home for the weekend. Some were even forced to stand for the entire journey, which took around 3 hours.

When I first went to Finland as a teenager I flew out. There was an extremely objectionable woman in my aisle who refused to move when I wanted to get up as we seemed to be unaccountably delayed. As I looked out of my window seat I could see a pool of dark liquid forming under the wing. Soon afterwards we were asked to disembark and board another aircraft where I met a friend of my mother’s. She insisted I sit with her. Unfortunately she was a chain smoker in those barbarous days when people were either unaware or could not care less about the dangers of passive smoking, It hardly seems credibly now but I once spent a couple of years sharing a small office with four chain-smokers. Going to a cinema meant that even sitting in the non-smoking section; you would still have the fog from the smokers section waft over the screen. Likewise, when you went to restaurants you could be certain that the smoker on the adjoining table would light up just as you were beginning to eat. I was never ever tempted to smoke myself. My mother did and the sight of a heaped ashtray near food can still turn my stomach even today. She later quit and became quite evangelical about not smoking. When she died a decade or so later, her doctor said that her lung cancer was not smoking related.

Although I had flown out to Finland on my first trip to the motherland, I travelled back by train. My grandfather was anxious that I should not miss my connection from his home in Viitasaari and  had tried to help me board the train whilst I tried to explain that I had yet to get a ticket for that stage of my journey, a task not helped by the fact neither of us were fluent in one another’s native tongue. It was only in the 21st century that I discovered how intrepid a train traveller my grandfather had once been. It seems he was determined to witness the birth of his first grandchild. So he set out for from a remote Finnish village armed only with a letter in English, written by a local school teacher, asking for directions on how to get to the hospital in North London from the English sea-port. Somehow he successfully found his way to my mother’s bedside.

At the time, I was struck by how much cleaner and smarter the Finnish carriages were compared to their shabby and often grimy English counterparts. But at least the English trains were fuelled by diesel and not by steam. Part of the longest train journey I ever undertook was by steam train: the journey from London to Moscow. Having recovered, or so I thought from my debilitating bout of quinsy, I set out with my fellow schoolgirls on the exchange trip to Russia. We had been told that there would be a restaurant car. This did not prove to be the case. My friend’s parents had prudently ensured their daughters were more than adequately supplied with food and drink to last them the entire journey, provisions which they were more than happy to share with me. The most memorable part of the journey was when we crossed over into the former Soviet bloc and through the Iron Curtain. We later discovered that the exits to and from our carriage were sealed off from the rest of the train as we passed from West Berlin to East.

Border guards came on to the train at both sides of the Iron Curtain. I thought the East Germans were extremely officious, barking orders at a bunch of schoolgirls, still dressed in our night attire and squealing for our teachers to rescue us from the armed soldiers. It might just have been a Germanic tendency. When I travelled through West Germany on my own a few years later I was genuinely shocked at the impertinent attitude the West German border guards seem to adopt towards a young German traveller. At the time I would have given short shrift to a British Rail employee had he been so bold as to subject to me to such searching questions.

From our carriage window Warsaw seemed not that dissimilar to other towns in the West. Only the countryside hinted at a very different  world as I was struck by the number of horse-drawn vehicles and the simple religious roadside shrines. When we came to Brest in Belarus our train pulled into sidings. To our astonishment the wheels of the train had to be removed and replaced to enable it to travel along the different gauge of the Soviet railway system. Moreover, instead of being pulled along by a diesel engine, the train now had a steam engine. And thus we continued our journey to Moscow, fortified by mugs of hot mint tea with sugar, thoughtfully provided by the Russian train conductor.