Published: LONDON CONFIDENTIAL, 2nd November 2011
"The Haunted: Dennis Severs' House. Thalia Allington-Wood discovers a gem in east London."
Standing in dark, shadowed, shuttered room of the seventeenth century, my companion and I are awe struck. We have been whirled into another time and my Converse trainers feel glaringly out of place.
The air is thick with the smell of tobacco and the burning of tallow candles. Two dead pheasants hang against a dark paneled wall and the embers of a fire glow orange in an iron hearth. The room we are in is in disarray. A chair is upturned, a glass of pungent port spilt, seeping a dark bloodstain on a white tablecloth covered in crumbs.
We are in Dennis Severs' House, nestled down a narrow street in East London. Painstakingly recreated to its original state and resurrected for the public every Sunday afternoon and Monday evening. Food of the period is cooked and left steaming, footsteps patter from hidden speakers, clay pipes are lit and left to issue smoke as you wander across 100 years in eerie silence.
The people who keep Dennis Severs' House running don’t wish it to be called a museum. None of the dry explanatory notices or neutralizing effects of modern exhibition displays are found here. This is a place where, rather, the past comes alive to startling and evocative effect.
A ticket (which must be booked in advance) will let you slip from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, between domestic privilege on the main floors and poverty in the attic.
Wandering the house on a blustery grey Monday evening, one can’t help but feel like an intruder. Wooden floorboards creak as you peer among belongings; bottles of liqueur line a table; wax sealed letters rest on a mantel piece. Alarmingly, we find the symbol of the Freemasons scratched frantically into a wall (Sherlock Holmes would have been proud).
Upstairs, we enter a ladies bedroom, where the scent of oranges stuffed with cloves and coffee that sits slowly bubbling below a candle on a small wooden table fills our nostrils. On the bed, the indent of last night’s slumber remains on the pillow, the covers are thrown back. A black cat eyes us suspiciously, flicking its tail.
Continuing our adventure, we push back laundry that hangs to dry in the rafters, reaching the top of the house. Cobwebs hang thick on a threadbare poster bed, a pan of fresh piss at its foot. An ink-splattered desk sits in the corner: old volumes teeter upon it in a pile.
Many museums could learn a thing or two from what this magical place is doing. Entering this house is like stepping through Alice’s looking glass into another world, or driving head first into the pages of Charles Dickens. These rooms belong to the London of Little Dorrit, Bleak House and Oliver Twist: melancholy streets, dingy and grime filled, as Church bells chime ominously. This, surely, is how to capture the imagination of school children (and adults) to the wonder history has to offer: to make the past tangible and real.
It is incredible. I could spend hours and hours here.
Unfortunately, however, our time is up. The front door swings wide and we are thrust back into modern London. A black cab rolls past, as our ears retune to the grumble of traffic and the jaunt of Brick lane.
Yet, walking along the cobbles of Folgate Street, the clatter of horse hooves and the rattle of iron wheels from Dickensian history continue to echo in my ears. Dennis Sever’s House is a place you will find hard to forget.