7) Dennis Severs’ House: It stinks. This is a good thing.


Dennis Severs’ House.

If you’ve ever seen a refitted room at a historical building and wished you could step over the velvet rope to take a seat amongst the splendour, then you’ll like it here.

‘As you enter, they leave, as you leave, they re-enter.’ Bang the Egyptian knockers first.

  • Location: 18 Folgate St, Spitalfields, E1 6BX.
  • Type of Museum: Local history.
  • Admission times/prices: Mondays 6-9pm, £12 – you have to book in advance; Sundays 12-4, £8; Mondays following the first and third Sundays 12-2pm, £5.
  • Facilities: Just the museum.
  • Transport: Shoreditch High St ELL; also not far from Liverpool St. Buses 26, 48, 243, oh loads.

The main bit(s) Actually all the bits because there’s only one part.

Entry is timed, and you are given instructions on how to approach the house: it’s not a museum where you just read stuff, and you’re not to take photos (hence the lack on this post) or notes, because that prevents you using all your senses. It is true that mentally reviewing something too soon (like for a blog, for example) can prevent you from fully enjoying it in the moment.

You start in the lambent, luxurious lounge c.1780 and move forward a couple of decades as you pass through each room, enjoying an unimpeded close-up view of curios like the pigeon-feather toothpicks. You also notice numerous discarded objects: a top hat on the side of a chair, half-prepared gingerbread, a broken tea-cup. It’s all part of the conceit that the house’s residents are actually still here, just out of sight. If you’re willing to play along, you can almost imagine that this is true.

The house helps you by stimulating as many of your senses as possible. You hear voices that would fit well in a Jane Austen novel, horses’ hooves clattering on the still-existing cobbles outside, and church bells that at first I wasn’t sure were effects rather than real. Scent, too: each room smells different – all the visitors walked around taking deep breaths –  but, sadly, I’m terrible at identifying smells beyond ‘nice, perhaps a bit orangey, with candles.’

The scene in the party room the night before. They'll all regret it when they're tagged on Facebook.

When I asked the curator what the scents were, he said he wasn’t sure, but it was it was probably booze and cigarettes , as the family had had a party last night. The remains of said party – broken chairs, empty bottles, etc – can be seen in an upstairs bedroom, which is modelled on a Hogarth painting. Some of the scents would also have been essential oils that they would have burnt to try to mask the everpresent stench of nightsoil and horse poo. It was an odouriferous time.

Temperature is another of the senses (there aren’t really five) that the house uses to immerse you in the past; I could have happily sat and dozed by the brazier in the kitchen, but right next door is the literal Cold Room. This is the oldest part of the house, and unlike the rest it’s not a re-enactment site; instead it displays the (real) remains of the leper’s hospice that originally stood at this site and gave the area its (ho)Spital name.

The top floor changes atmosphere completely, thanks to the cooler temperature, the washing smells and the laundry hanging in your face. In this part the story is that the family had fallen on hard times and had to rent out these rooms to a poorer silk-weaving family.

A note on the table says that they’ve gone out to see the coronation of Queen Victoria, but the chair by the bed has a seated ghost, one foot on the footstool as he removes his boots, cane balanced in mid-air. Mind you, there’s a smart top hat on another chair, so perhaps he’s not actually the impoverished husband and perhaps that explains the unmade bed…

As the visitors leave, the curator says ‘thanks for playing the game!’ I’m not sure game is quite the word, but it is a fun experience.

Comedian Mark Watson. He might seem unrelated to Dennis Severs' House, but he was visiting and I unnerved him by looking too closely when trying to identify him. Also, this post needs more photos.

Stuff for kids and people who act like them.

Although the website and leaflet state that ‘a most absurd but commonly made error is to assume that it might be either amusing or appropriate for children,’ I don’t that’s actually an error at all. It’s not suitable for all but the quietest toddlers, since they’ want to grab and play and wouldn’t get anything out of it at all, but older children (8+) would definitely appreciate being able to be behind the scenes for a change. I did, anyway.

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About 100museumsinayear

I've challenged myself to visit 100 museums in a year, from the massive to the miniscule, in London and other places.
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