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Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.
I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps. See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Monday, 9 February 2015

18 Folgate Street - London with the Hugenots

This blog is about low-carbon family travel. Here's a way to visit the 18th and 19th centuries on a silent-tour of Dennis Severs' house at 18 Folgate Street, E1. I love mini-museums (London has many wonderful small houses to visit) but this is particularly challenging as it forces you to confront a different style of living. Perhaps comparable to a visit to a grand palace like Versailles in France where you truly imagine you are a guest; or the modern slum tourism of Kiberia in Kenya, Dharavi in India or Rio's favelas? Prepare to be a Hugenot, rich and poor. Post by Nicola Baird 


Dennis Severs' house at 18 Folgate STreet is on the left, below the 'gas' lamp. To the right is the block that British Land wants to obliterate (Norton Folgate) under a "hideous corproate plaza". See how to help stop this at Facebook/savenortonfolgate or "@spitalfieldsT (spitalfields trust)
Tucked behind the busy Spitalfields Market - which is packed on Sundays - you might find a narrow street providing a quiet route back to Liverpool Street station. This is Dennis Severs' house at 18 Folgate Street. It's a handsome Georgian building and Dennis - who is dead now - did it up to resemble the way a Hugenot family of silk weavers would have lived.

It's a place you visit to explore. It's small: there are only two rooms per floor so sensibly you're asked to visit in silence. Together with the candlelit rooms this quickly provides an enticing atmosphere. You are walked into history, becoming a guest of the family - the noises of whom can be heard just off in the next room.

There are half finished cups of tea, unmade beds, wigs and nit combs. For the nosey among us this is a wonderful histronaut experience, and very different from seeing a grand National Trust house with it's 60+ rooms. This house isn't so different to the one I live in, it's just set up differently.  What it made me realise was how much I love electric light?.At Dennis Severs' house it's just fires in the grate and candlelit - even as early as 3.15pm (the last entry on a February Sunday) it's dusk indoors (and the thick curtains, net curtains, dark walls and over-crowding ornaments don't help). With this afternoon half light and of course evening dark it seems quite amazing that people of the 18th and 19th centuries were so keen on embroidery - or even managed to read. I felt like a giant crashing around, night blind, and I'm sure if I'd been wearing a long skirt I'd have knocked over endless items.

Door to another world at 18 Folgate Street, E1
There's a surprise on the top floor and Nell, who was celebrating her 14th birthday, was visibly shaken by the sudden slum. But this part of London became a place for the super poor from mid Victorian times (forgive my unsophisticated analysis). Many families could only afford to rent just one room - many were so poor they didn't even had bedclothes, something that in the 1930s George Orwell writes about so revealingly in The Road to Wigan Pier. We have tremendous poverty now, but I don't think it's as life-threateningly awful as it has been (though it's obviously shocking that in a rich country like the UK children can go to bed hungry). Of course I'm lucky and live with my family in a house which has electric light, bedclothes and central heating.

For anyone who loves eccentric characters or evocative places then Dennis Severs' house is a must visit. 

It's a wonderful way to get the feel of what it was like to be a silk weaver (caged birds, jellied fruits for visitors, plenty of tea without milk, rose water to wash in) living in a house which horses trotted by and the city bells kept you awake.

Of course this remarkable restoration is right by the City - it is in the City - where land values are for the speculators. As a result many of these old houses are at immense risk of being flattened and made into a different sort of work space, usually towering (see that top photo).

Even now there's a campaign on facebook asking us to facebook/savenortonfolgate in a bid to convince British Land from demolishing a whole block of historic houses so they can create a "hideous corporate plaza".

Inspired by my visit I'm going to add my voice to the campaign. I hope you manage to make a visit one day to Dennis Severs' house, but maybe help the campaign too.

VISITOR INFO:
http://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/
Dennis Severs' house, 18 Folgate Street, London, E1 6 BX.
Visitor info: house is bookable for Monday evening tours. Drop in on Sundays. £10 for an adult, £5 a child. Remember you have to be silent...

Over to you
Where have you visited to get a real sense of how the past was lived? Do you find it easier to imagine this in an empty building, or a perfect recreation - inside or out?

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