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Spring things to do in East London

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The streets are alive with bird songs and the gentle hum of vacuum cleaners. Joggers are battling their way around the parks, hoping to shed that winter padding, and crocuses are starting to appear in the parks. Soon the constant, menacing hiss of central heating will fall silent, and windows will be flung open (windows apart from ours, that is, which are open even on the darkest days – not because I like to live an icebox, but because the other member of my household believes closed windows are extremely unhygienic).

So what are the best ways to celebrate spring in East London?

 Well, the festival season has started, with East from 5-10 March. Iain Sinclair will be talking about his book Hackney, that Rose Red Empire, at the Southbank, plus there are more than 300 arts, music, food and fashion events.

If you’ve got kids in tow, Hackney City Farm would make a good spring stop. Their Frizzante café does good breakfasts and snacks, the kids can go feral with no raised eyebrows and there is even an aggressive turkey to keep everyone on their toes. 

Columbia Road Flower Market has plenty of tulips at this time of year, and lots of strange little shops to look at – I quite like the cupcake shop myself. From there you can continue down to Brick Lane – stop off at the Beigel Bake for a salt beef bagel and on to Spitalfields, then wander towards Whitechapel to Tayyabs. The best tandoori lamb chops (or lamp shops as my German friend Caroline calls them) in London. Get there early to beat the queues. If the weather turns, there is always Dennis Severs’ spooky house to retreat to – although retreat is perhaps not the word. 

Walk along the Grand Union Canal from Victoria Park to Limehouse Basin, where you can have a pint and maybe something to eat at The Grapes, a tiny pub built in 1720 where Dickens used to drink. There’s a little deck out the back where you can sit right on the Thames, and a fish restaurant upstairs.  

The London Word Festival runs from 7-25 March – it’s an alternative writing and music showcase… I quite like the sound of the Ox Tales on 24 March (tbc), which will be held at the Slaughtered Lamb pub in Clerkenwell, not far from the famous Smithfield meat market. It will feature readings of meat-inspired prose and poetry, plus an ox tongue dissection to wrap things up. Not one for vegetarians, obviously.

 

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Still life drama at Dennis Severs’ house in Spitalfields

I’m standing in a bedroom that smells of cloves, oranges and lamp oil. Beside the unmade bed is a full chamber pot, and from the next room there is the rattle of china and a voice asking for ‘more tea?’ I hadn’t noticed anyone in there when I walked through earlier.

This is the home of Dennis Sever, who lived alone here from the 1970s until his death in 1999. His house is in Spitalfields, just next to Bishopsgate, the self-titled Financial Capital of Europe (though a little less brash these days).

To keep him from feeling lonely, Dennis dreamed up a family of Huguenot silk weavers as imaginary companions, and set up the house to show the life  and fortunes of this family over several generations. Around the time of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne, the silk industry collapsed as printed calico from India became popular, and Severs reflected this decline by arranging some rooms as if they were part of a dank boarding house.

 His house is open every Monday night for visitors to explore by candlelight. As I step inside, a man comes forward and says in a low voice: ‘Tonight you will go on a journey back to the past. Listen carefully, and believe that the people who live here left the room a few moments before you walked into it. They’ll return when you leave.’ I can hardly wait to get started, but he hasn’t finished with me. ‘And you must pay me twelve pounds’.

 The house itself is creepy and somehow alive. A yellow canary dozes in a cage by the window and, in a small, trinket-filled parlour, a live black cat with gold eyes stares at me from the couch. On the way up to the top floor I duck past a line of greying nightgowns hung out to dry. The rooms up here are cold, with caved-in ceilings and walls draped in rotting fabric ­– the imaginary family have fallen on hard times. Old rolls of fabric are abandoned in a corner of the stairwell, orders that were never collected, the names of the customers still on the labels.

 The next floor down is warmer, richer. The sweetly perfumed rooms of ladies, and a scone half eaten and glossy with red jam sits on a small china plate. There are more candles here so it’s lighter, and clock tinkles the hour. The bed is a brocaded four-poster and the white linen sheets are thrown back. Teacups rattle.

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Visiting the house is a lot easier than it was when Dennis Severs was alive. He opened it just once a month, and was very hard on his visitors. If people were late, or referred to it as a museum, they weren’t admitted. If they laughed they were also thrown out, although what there is to laugh about escaped me entirely. To step into a house inhabited by almost-people from a couple of hundred years ago is intriguing, but not – for me anyway – the slightest bit funny. Dennis took a dim view of the modern world. ‘It’s a nice place to visit,’ he once said, ‘but why would you want to live there?’. Well, I wouldn’t want to live in his house. But if you need of a little respite from the frenzied commuters of Liverpool Street Station, an hour here will sort you out.

 18 Folgate St, Spitalfields

 www.dennissevershouse.co.uk, 020 7247 4013

Open every Monday evening (except Bank holidays), by candlelight (booking required, £12); every Sunday between 12 noon and 4pm until 31 March 2009 (£8), and at lunch time between 12 and 2pm on the Monday following the first and third Sunday of the month (£5).

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