Hidden London: Dennis Severs’ House, Spitalfields

I’ve always thought that the best thing about London isn’t the famous landmarks, West End shows or fancy boutiques, but the little places hidden away on quiet backstreets that hardly anyone knows about. Dr Johnson’s House is one such place, and if, like me, you can’t get enough of historic London townhouses like that one, you’re in for a real treat if you visit the amazing Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields.

You’ll find it at 18 Folgate Street, a row of early 18th century terraced houses that juxtapose oddly with the glass panes of the modern building looming up at the end of the street. The house doesn’t have a sign outside, instead being surreptitiously marked out only by the amazing old lantern above the door.

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My friend and I had booked online for a self-guided ‘Silent Night’ tour, for which slots are available between 5pm and 9pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We were met at the front door by a chap who introduced the house and explained that, starting in the basement and working our way up, we were free to wander it as we pleased – but in complete silence, as this helps you absorb the atmosphere and take in all that the house has to offer. [Photography isn't permitted in the house, so after the exterior photo below the rest of the photos are professional ones by Roelof Bakker, kindly supplied for this post by staff at Dennis Severs' House.]

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Lived in and restored by its creator, the eponymous artist Dennis Severs, from 1979 to 1999, the house is quite unlike a National Trust house or a museum. I’d read it described as an “immersive experience” – a term I admit to being generally wary of – but it was so much better than that. Severs himself called it a “still life drama”, but it defies definition because it is unique. Photographs don’t do justice to the experience at all, but give you a cursory sense of what to expect.

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The idea is that you are walking around a lived-in house occupied by a family of Huguenot silk weavers, who are always just around the corner out of view. Walking into each room, it’s as though they’ve just stepped out of it, and you feel as though you can sense their presence without being able to see them. Half-consumed cups of tea and half-eaten meals lie around; the bed is unmade, as though someone has just got up; there are cobwebs and broken things. It feels lived in.

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Different rooms in the house reflect different periods of its history, creating a sort of collection of time capsules. Each room is absolutely full of stuff, and there are ten rooms to explore over (if I recall correctly) six storeys. There are no naff waxworks or anything like that, and any sound effects are subtle and help provide context – tolling bells in the distance, for example, and the sounds of 18th century London.

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I must say I loved the concept of going around in complete silence, and with no guides forcing their knowledge on you. It made the whole experience so much more evocative. Your senses are heightened to sights, sounds and smells – the creaking floorboards or the smell of wood smoke – and you can take in so much more when you’re not distracted by the inane conversations of fellow visitors. It makes the experience feel much more like stepping back in time, or stepping into a painting. That the whole house is lit only by candle and firelight intensifies this atmosphere; as Dennis Severs would have it, it’s the light you’d see captured in a painting by an Old Master.

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In one of the rooms we discovered what we initially thought was a stuffed black cat curled up on a chair. It was so still that it took us a few moments to realise that it was actually a real, living cat! I thought it was magnificent attention to detail to have a real cat; we all know how a pet makes a house a home.

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Stepping back out of the house into modern London was a jarring experience after an hour immersed in this totally different place and time. If you’re at all interested in the London of days gone by, visiting is an absolute must. Find out more and book your visit here – you will not regret it!

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