This is the upper level of Liverpool Street station, an area of small shops where Ponti’s Italian cafe restaurant stands on the corner. This branch of Ponti’s is one of my favourite places to go for coffee and a slice of their fruity panettone.
We come here on average once a week and by now they know us and always give us a friendly welcome. There is something about the atmosphere of a well run Italian cafe that makes me feel comfortable and content. Today we came for breakfast and to meet friends.
From Ponti’s, we walked to nearby Folgate Street, in the heart of the financial district. Folgate Street is dominated by this monstrous glass building, one more of those architectural aberrations that have been allowed to steal our sky and turn the city’s streets into windy valleys.
Folgate Street still has a cobbled road surface but little else remains of its long history. It was once part of the weavers’ district and the site of other small industries. Much altered with the passing of time, today it is a fairly nondescript street of nondescript buildings. But why, you may enquire, are people queueing at one of the remaining houses?
They are queueing for admittance to the house where this Egyptian style door knocker seems to meditate with downcast eyes, number 18 Folgate Street. To give it another name, it is Dennis Severs’ house.
So, what is this place? If you knew nothing of it and went in naively, you might think it was intended as a reconstruction of a house lived in by a family in the 18th and 19th centuries, a museum in fact. And you would be wrong. You are told most emphatically that this is not a museum.
The best description, I suppose, is that to be found on the site to which I provided a link above, the Dennis Severs’ House Web site. This will give you a better idea of the house than I can give you. I can tell you only my own personal impressions and I cannot show you any photos because photography is not allowed.
You are asked to imagine that 18 Folgate Street is a house inhabited by a family and that, mysteriously, they vacate each room just before you enter, leaving something of their presence behind them. You are supposed to use your eyes (the place is crammed with artefacts) and ears (there is background music and snatches of conversation) and your poetic sense, if you have one (mine, I think, is a bit rusty).
What do you gain from your visit? I think every visitor must answer that for him- or herself. In my case, what I felt was that I was glad to have seen the house, having heard of it, but that I would not be going back. Putting that another way: it didn’t do a lot for me.
The house is crammed with furniture, knickknacks, ornaments, decorations, personal possessions and food. Lots of food: there is food everywhere, improbably large amounts of it. If it were real, the place would be overrun by rats.
The place made me feel uncomfortable. I patiently visited each of the ten rooms, looked, listened and did my best to feel, but all I felt was a desire to finish the visit and be outside again. The problem is not with what the house is but with what it is not. There are so many things that it is not. It is not a museum, not a time capsule. And it is most definitely not what it is most particularly claimed to be, a lived-in house. It is far too improbably for that, too stuffed with objects, too cluttered and dilapidated. No one could live like that, at least, no one sane.
This was underlined for me when I pointed out to Tigger that there were modern baseball caps on the hall table. They jarred with the rest of the 18th and 19th century decor. Note that I did not actually speak, because visitors are asked to remain silent throughout their visit. I merely pointed to the caps. I was immediately buttonholed by the host who told me in didactic tones that the caps were there because the house was not a museum but a lived-in house and that people of the 21st century also have a presence there. I felt I was being corrected for a criticism I had not made. Nor do I accept the correction since the house is not lived-in and certainly not by baseball cap-wearing 21st-century people.
To my mind, the house is a monument – a remarkable and inimitable monument, I agree – to an obsession. There is even (this is my personal opinion alone, of course) a touch of insanity about it. If a family really did live there, they would be a family of mad people, living in a fantasy world like Miss Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations.
It is as though someone has ransacked Hogarth’s pictures for the seediest possible interior, ramped it up several degrees of improbability, made a model of it and then placed the visitor in the midst of this construction, as on a film set. Reality is nowhere in sight.
No, I am wrong, there was one piece of reality: a live black cat. When we entered one of the rooms, he was under a table but shot out, briefly worked his claws on an armchair and then fled upstairs where we encountered him later. Tigger tried to make friends with him but he just sat and stared at her from a distance. He obviously knows the rules of the house: look, listen, touch nothing.
Leaving Dennis Severs’ house, we turned down Spital Square towards the Gherkin. I have taken to calling this building the Lurkin’ Gherkin because of the way it pops out at you at every turn. It seems to follow you about.
We went into Spitalfields Market which was up and running and very crowded. I took the above picture at a rare instant when the foreground was not packed with jostling passers-by.
We thought we would go for lunch in one of the eateries in the market but they were all packed out so we carried on walking and looking until we reached Brushfield Street where S&M (for sausage and mash) had a table to spare.
After lunch, our friends fancied a visit to the Geffrye Museum and we agreed to go too even though we had been there ourselves quite recently (see Gravestones and period rooms).
The Geffrye Museum is a very pleasant venue even when it is busy, as today. It’s rather heartening to see how many people are interested in what it has to offer.
As was only to be expected, there was a queue for the museum cafe, so we caught a bus back to Liverpool Street station, and sneaked into Ponti’s again, 20 minutes before they closed. Having accompanied our friends to their bus stop, we crossed through the station again and caught the 214 back home.
It has been an interesting day and even though I may have retained negative impressions from the visit to 18 Folgate Street, I am still glad to have gone there and experienced it for myself. You might respond to it as I did and should visit the house yourself if you have the chance.