Yesterday, I had a long time wish fulfilled. Wishes being fulfilled are magical in themselves, but this wish was extra special. For many, many moons I have wanted to visit 18 Folgate Street, the former home of Dennis Severs. Yesterday, as a glorious ending to our Thanksgiving weekend and as a start to our Christmas celebrations we headed out to Spitalfields, in the biting Sunday morning air and joined the already formed line waiting to enter behind those coal black doors.
You are not allowed to photograph inside the home; the image above is my only snap of this building. The house belongs to itself, it is its own person, it has its own soul. Yesterday, was their first Christmas opening day. The gas lantern outside was bedecked with pine boughs and red satin ribbons. Christmas trees stood guard at either side of the entrance. It was charming and felt very Dickensian.
You enter into the house in small groups. As you travel through the rooms, you make your way in silence. Your journey takes you through time. The fireplaces are lit with wood or coal. The only light sources in the house, come from a combination of natural light through the windows and the flickering glow of candles.
Each room is its own experience. The smell of a fire in the kitchen, intermingled with the heady scent from the bowls filled with raisins and citrus on the main table, soon to be turned into something delectable by the cook, no doubt. The tapping of the faucet in the sink was a cheery kerplunk, as vegetables waited in a strainer to be washed. There was fresh bread, a slice already cut off, ready to be stabbed with a toasting fork and held over the fire. A gingerbread man garland was strung above the fireplace, their faces smiling out at you from the candlelight glow around the room. It was cozy, it was warm and inviting after waiting outside in the cold, it was the kind of place you would want to come and have a cup of tea and a chat, or simply curl up by the fire in a chair.
As you made your way up through the house, each room had its own sights, smells and sounds. I was even lucky enough to spy Madge, the resident cat. Who was sitting so perfectly still underneath a chair with the white winter light streaming over her fur, for a moment, I thought she wasn’t real. But, her ears twitched and I bent down to rub her silky ebony fur and was rewarded with a long purr before she dashed down the hallway.
As you enter each room, it is as if the occupants of that room have just slipped out a hidden door and you are trespassing into their world. A letter half finished on the table, the ink still wet on the nib, a cup of tea going cold or the sound of carriage wheels going by. Every element in each space works to create the perfect atmosphere for it to exist within.
The house has a motto: Aut Visum Aut Non!: “You either see it or you don’t.” I saw it. This house spoke to me in such a way. I understood her. I was fascinated watching others travel through the house, who didn’t appear to get it. Or maybe to them, they were getting it. But I think they were seeing, but not really “seeing”.
Etched into the wall of one room in particular is a pyramid. If you didn’t stand in the right place, you might have just missed it. There was a hole in the wall above it and as I peered through a glowing eye was looking back at me. No other person seemed to take that in. They seemed to move about with quick glances. Maybe it is the art historian in me that makes me stop and study? Each room was like a painting. It told a story. It was a puzzle to dissect.
The final room on our journey was the Victorian Parlour and it was so gorgeously decorated for Christmas. The strawberry red velvet curtains against the heavy floral wallpaper were the perfect backdrop for the tabletop tree that was bedecked with ornaments and candles yet to be lit. A box of glass ornaments sat patiently by, waiting for their turn to be hung. A holly and pine garland was strung over the mantel and along the walls. The green leaves with twinges of white gave the room an even more inviting warmth.
As we left the room, I noticed Dennis Severs’ baseball cap sitting on a little corner table, it made me smile. We made our way back down the entrance hall, that from one wall to the other was strung across with boughs of pine and red satin ribbons, that would dance in the breeze every time the door opened. We thanked one of our gracious hosts and out the door we went into the harsh winter light and as the door closed behind us, the spell was broken. Like Alice, in reverse we had stepped through the looking glass back into our world, but I wanted to step back into the world of 18 Folgate Street.
We took a moment to don hats and gloves and then made our way to Spitalfields Market. Everything was too loud, too many people; I wanted to go somewhere quiet to sit and think about all I had just seen. This house spoke to me, I’m still pondering it this morning. I think I will be pondering the magic behind those doors for a long time to come. I am utterly enchanted.
See images from inside the house via their Instagram account.