What I love most about London is its rich history and the fact that some of the greatest historical figures have once called this city their home. Sometimes their former residences have been made into museums and I have visited quite a few of them to catch a glimpse of the past and see where important people such as Charles Dickens used to live and work. At times I am completely blown away by these houses – not only because of the extraordinary people who used to live there, but because of their extravagant interior or the sheer size of them. In this post I’m sharing three of my favourite historical London homes with you that are far from any other house you have ever seen!
Immerse yourself in Spitalfields’ Huguenot past in the magical Dennis Severs House
The handsome raven black door and bright red painted shutters of 18 Folgate Street fit in perfectly with the other houses of picturesque Spitalfields. It’s hard to imagine when you walk through the area today with its growing amount of ultra modern tower blocks, but a few centuries ago Spitalfields existed only – as the name suggests – of lush green fields filled with wildlife. It wasn’t until late 17th century that the first streets and houses were built here to accommodate the large group of French Huguenot refugees, often master silk-weavers. Spitalfields has had its golden days but probably more low days in the past – during the Victorian period for example it was a dangerous slum area and the perfect ‘playground area’ for serial killer Jack the Ripper. However, from the late 17th century till the 18th century its residents, the French Huguenots, were well off and had their large and beautiful iconic homes built. The streets around the Old Spitalfields Market are actually my favourite part of London and I always love bringing the people on my walking tours there.
Despite being run-down in the 1970s and 80s, Spitalfields was a sought-after destination for artists who managed to buy properties for a fraction of the local housing prices today. One of those artists moving into Spitalfields, was the American Dennis Severs (1948-1999). He painstakingly restored his depilated house to its former original glory, whilst keeping things as authentic as possible from the time of its first habitants. Instead of electric light, he used candlelight for example, thus creating a ‘time capsule’ transporting its visitors back to approximately 300 years ago.
Dennis Severs sadly died in 1999, but it is possible to visit his truly unique home. Once you step through its handsome door, the smell of dried fruit and spices and the sound of creaking floorboards take you right back to the past. Because visitors must remain silent (it may therefore not be suitable for your young ones), it allows you to fully experience the mystical ambience of the house. You will see a table set for a family with the food still on their plates, but where is the family? Their presence is still tangible and all ten rooms in the house seem to have been in use by the Huguenot family until just mere minutes before you walked through the door. It was Severs’ vision to create an ‘intimate portrait of the lives of a family of Huguenot silk-weavers from 1724 to the dawn of the 20th Century. […] As you enter his house it is as if you have passed through the surface of a painting, exploring with your senses and imagination a meticulously crafted 18th Century world.’ (source)
Tip: for an even more magical visit, visit the house around Christmas time.
Plan your visit here.
Feast your eyes on the eclectic collection of Sir John Soane
Do you consider yourself as a serious collector? You might rethink the size of your own collection once you’ve visited the former house of Sir John Soane (1753-1837) at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane was considered as one of the most innovative architects of his time and is best known for his designs for the Bank of England, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Palaces of Westminster, but also the grand Freemason’s Hall in Covent Garden (Soane became a Freemason in 1813).
During your visit to his house-turned-museum you won’t ‘have enough eyes and ears’, as we say in Dutch, to take it all in. While some rooms leave some space to breathe and take in the elegance of the building – which actually consists of three properties – there are also spaces where every inch is filled with precious objects varying from the sarcophagus of pharaoh Seti I to sculptures in all shapes and sizes from different eras, to layers of paintings, stacked on top of each other due to lack of space. I especially love the Dome Space located at the top of a staircase. As you can see in the photo at the top of this page, this small space holds a great collection of antique bronzes and sculptures. According to Soane’s wishes, his home has been left pretty much untouched since his death 181 years ago. I cannot imagine living in a house with such an overwhelming amount of antiquities, sculptures, drawings, paintings, architectural models and drawings, and other objects all around me, and find it incredible to think the displays aren’t mere museum displays but actually the way Soane chose to have them in his home during his life.
Visit Strawberry Hill House, the birthplace of Gothic literature
It’s exactly 3 years ago now that I visited Strawberry Hill House, the extraordinary home of British author, politician and collector Horace Walpole who built his own gothic ‘castle’ in Twickenham, a lovely green area along the river Thames. You can read my detailed post about this impressive visit here: Strawberry Hill House: The Birthplace of Gothic Literature.
While the two previous historical homes are located in central areas of London, it takes a bit more time and effort to venture to Walpole’s eccentric home, but I promise you it is definitely worth it! I think this is the only ‘castle’ I have ever visited that hadn’t been actually been royal property.
Walpole set out to build his gothic home out of love for gothic architecture. It isn’t difficult to recognise details from gothic churches in Strawberry Hill House: the grand building houses some dizzying spiral staircases, dozens of stained-glass windows, dramatic ceilings and countless curious details that will leave you entertained for hours. Wandering through the building, it’s no surprise that it inspired Walpole for writing his novel The Castle of Otranto, in fact the very first piece of Gothic literature ever written AND in turn the inspiration for classic books such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula!
Tip: Strawberry Hill House regularly hosts temporary contemporary art exhibitions and also organises special family activities throughout the year.
Plan your visit here.
Have you visited one of these extraordinary historical homes? What did you think, were you impressed or not really?
If you have a tip for another must-visit former residential building, then please leave me a comment!