05 MAR 2019: A seemingly unremarkable row house stands in a quiet, rather plain, street in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the City of London, close to busy Liverpool Street Station and the Old (and famous) Spitalfields Market. Try as I may, I cannot describe the house better than the introduction on the website.

"Dennis Severs' House is more than just a time capsule.  It is both a breathtaking and an intimate portrait of the lives of a family of Huguenot silk-weavers from 1724 to the dawn of the 20th century.  As you follow their fortunes through the generations, the sights, smells and sounds of the house take you into their lives."

Yes, step inside and be ready for an extraordinary experience. It is all the creation of American artist Dennis Severs, an Anglophile, who came from his native California to London and purchased this house with one intent, to create a city home, as it would have been in the 18th century.   

He wanted his modern-day visitors to feel as though they had stepped through a frame and into an old painting.  But it's not only the visual senses that are awakened here.  The house has smells and sounds!  It is, in fact, the smell of food that first feeds your imagination ... yes, you think, I have come for dinner!

As you travel through the ten candlelit rooms, most with flickering fire flames, the visitor feels as though the family has just left the room.  Glasses of ruby-red wine are half finished, crumbs lie on side plates, there are orange peelings (real) on the tablecloth and crumpled napkins at every place setting.  

Do you hear women whispering in the next room?  Are those portraits on the wall, or are family members watching you through magic windows?  As your small group gathers in silence, a door closes and the floor creaks above.  An old clock chimes delicately.

Below stairs the kitchen is in slight disarray ... the bowls of fruit and vegetables are real, some of them chopped, ready for the steaming pot.  In the attic are the humble servants' quarters and a laundry drying area festooned with fine household linens and the family's clothes: ancient knickers, corsets and petticoats.  There is a whiff of damp wool.

Apparently British artist David Hockney rated the effect of the house as 'standing amongst those of the world's great opera experiences.'  For me, it was as Dennis Severs intended: I felt as though I was part of a painting, a Rembrandt perhaps, or a Hogarth if one has to choose an English artist.  In fact, Mr Severs spent a lifetime studying Old Masters' paintings in search of the light and moods of earlier times.  All and all it is a rare experience and I do not hesitate to describe this still-life drama as spellbinding, a true candlelit time warp.

The house is open every evening between 5 and 8 and daytime visits are limited to Sundays and Mondays.  When I enquired the reason for the limited hours I was informed, somewhat disdainfully, "Because the house needs to rest!"  A typical visit lasts around 45 minutes and includes an introductory talk.  Visitors are asked to wear footwear that will be gentle on the floors and carpets. They are also asked to remain silent for the duration of the tour (though whispers were acceptable!). Exact opening times, reservations (when necessary) and other details can be found at www.dennissevershouse.co.uk 

I grew up in London and visit regularly.  I feel I know it very well, but until a recent visit and a stay in the heart of the City (rather than the more popular West End) I had not heard of the Dennis Severs' House.  Apparently it has been open to the public for 35 years. Today it remains one of my most outstanding memories of the city I love and I hope I can return with a friend or relative one day without prior description, just with the preamble "Do I have a surprise for you!"

As a visit to the Dennis Severs house takes only a portion of a day or evening, it provides the visitor with an excellent opportunity to explore the area of London known simply as 'The City' or 'The Square Mile'.  Its most well-known sites: the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and St. Paul's Cathedral are on many itineraries, of course, but this, the financial heart of London, has additional worthwhile sites to offer.  

Here stands the imposing Bank of England with its fascinating museum, the gracious Guildhall, the Monument tower with its fine views commemorating the Great Fire of London of 1666, the extensive and interesting Museum of London, the Barbican Museum and Arts Centre and a variety of old city churches that offer concerts, some of them free and at lunchtime.

For a special treat pause in the courtyard cafe in the Royal Exchange (the old Stock Exchange Building), perhaps for some oysters and a glass of 'bubbly' or, for a different atmosphere, discover The Place Below, a restaurant offering imaginative vegetarian fare in the crypt of the Ste-Mary-le-Bow Church in Cheapside.  

And 'Cheapside' is not the only intriguing and evocative place name you will encounter here.  The City is so old that no 'roads' are to be found.  That's because the word 'road' did not come into use until sometime in the 17th century, by which time the thoroughfares of the ancient city had already been named as streets, lanes, gates or alleys.  

So keep your eyes open as you wander and you'll see Ropemaker, Knightrider, Hanging Sword, Love, Wormwood, Throgmorton, Houndsditch, Petticoat, Love, St. Mary Axe, Threadneedle and many more.  In olden days some of these monikers were so raucous that that were changed over the years in order not to offend 'modern' sensibilities!

Could only be in London!


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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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