London is one of those places where you can nearly step into the past. But sometimes the past is getting a dose of modern that interferes with the process. As a writer, I was determined to get a sense of how it felt to live 100-200 years ago. At first I went to the Charles Dickens Museum set in a house that he once lived in but it was closed for renovation. So I went on a Dickens walking tour to see where he worked and lived.
We walked through Fountain Court where parts of Bleak House was set. I loved it. Yet on the walk, of course there was also construction and car traffic.
I also visited the Sherlock Holmes museum. It was so fun to go into the rooms and see how a small house on Baker Street might have been decorated in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s time. There were guides to answer questions and several of us took our picture by the fire, or over by the bullet holes in the wall. Upstairs there were wax figures from the books. I enjoyed it very much. But I didn’t get a sense of what it would be like to really live there.
A quick visit to the Sir John Soane House brought a much grander experience. Sir John Soane’s house is filled with rooms and rooms of art, and large rooms for entertaining. I also went to Kensington Palace and stood in a room where Queen Victoria had played as a child and shared with her mother.
But there was only one place where the present did not intrude at all. One place where the experience brought a person much closer to the reality of living with a chamber pot and mice. One place where whispers and candlelight and smells all the tell the story. When I stepped into Denis Severs’ house, I could almost taste the past.
We arrived by tube on a day that was still dry, but the clouds overhead were starting to threaten rain. There was a line outside the door, because there can only be a certain amount of people that can go in at a time. The caretaker was pretty firm that we had to be quiet as we moved through the rooms. There were no placards explaining about each room so you just had to pay close attention to the details presented before you. I also wasn’t allowed to take any pictures.
Each room in the house represents a different period with the basement starting the journey in 1197. The rest of the rooms range from 1724 to 1914. The basement rooms are dark and the kitchen has real food on the tables. I loved all the china plates lined up in the kitchen hutch and the brown betty teapot on the table. There is no electricity so the entire place is lit by candlelight. Whenever I wanted to move to a different room, I had to catch my friend’s eye. We’d nod at each other and move to the next atmosphere. None of us tourists dared to speak out loud. Because of the quiet, we were able to catch the “pre-recorded” sounds of the mysterious residents of the house embedded in the walls.
The website calls it a game. The idea is that you have just interrupted a family whose occupation is as silk weavers. You are to imagine the family you are visiting has just left the room a few seconds before you. You walk into their bedroom, with dressing gowns, places to sit, spectacles, the bed linens drawn back, and today’s letters to read. It is so well thought out, that you might notice how the occupants change as they get older. In the parlor, there is wallpaper, lace, oil paintings, and a fire burning in the little fireplace. In one room there has been a fight, and there is broken glass or china on the floor. The rooms are decorated in different time periods and with the idea that as you climb higher in the house, the time period and decor becomes closer to our time. The rooms become decorated in lighter colors, and reflect for a while, the increased prosperity of the family.
The caretaker of Denis Severs’ house actually makes fresh food to display every day, and he changes the linens, polishes the floors and arranges the flower displays. He does the behind-the-scenes work so you can enjoy the performance art without distraction. There were many cool things to look at so that now they are blending together in my memory. I am looking forward to visiting it again to note details that I might have missed.
When you finally are through the house and its history, it is a bit jarring to re-enter the real world. But from now on, I carry with me the memory of what it would be like to live in a comfortable, but cramped, dark and richly textured Victorian home. It is the kind of feeling you might get if you could physically enter the pages of a book and find yourself in a densely weaved story set in the past.
By Janis Wildy