Quiet London Part 1

Why on earth would you go to London for quiet?

Some years ago my husband gave me a lovely little book called ‘Quiet London.’ Each page features a museum, gallery, coffee house, pub or shop that is quirky and quiet. Stressed-out Londoners will doubtless find this book invaluable, but what on earth am I doing with this book, living as I do in a quiet town 30 miles away? Surely I go to London for a bit of life?

London is vibrant, full of people who are still bursting with energy at ten at night, people of all languages and origins. Walking along its streets you are delighted with amazing architecture and assaulted by gutter smells. It is wonderful to sample its offerings and wonderful to pause in its oases. The calm is all the more precious for the way it envelops you seconds after you step off the street.

Many of the quiet places featured in the book date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Neither were peaceful eras themselves – the streets would then have rung with horse hooves and the sound of carriage wheels, and cab drivers shouting at pedestrians, but it is fun to escape into another world and leave behind our everyday concerns, secure in the knowledge that we can soon return to our world of central heating and free health care.

In that short but precious break between the frenzy of Christmas and the socialising of New Year, I stopped off in London on my way home from visiting my dad and visited two of these quiet places.

Benjamin Franklin’s House

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Benjamin Franklin’s house

 

The only surviving home of this famous American patriot is, paradoxically, in London, tucked behind Charing Cross Station in a row of elegant Georgian houses. He rented four rooms from his landlady. He only meant to come for 6 months, to negotiate the Stamp Tax, but stayed 6 years instead, befriending many, from Polly, the landlady’s daughter, to John Stanley, the blind organist of the Foundling Hospital. He was parted from his wife Deborah by the Atlantic, but shared his rooms with Peter, his black servant.

The house continued as a lodging house until the late nineteenth century, when it was extended and became a hotel. After a period of dereliction it was restored to its Georgian simplicity – a work which meant the discovery of a pit of human and animal bones under the extension. Some sensational headlines later, they were shown to be part of the anatomy school run by Polly’s husband.

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Benjamin Franklin’s fireplace
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I adore Georgian staircases!

To visit the house you need to book on one of their tours. A mixture of video and talk by a costumed guide/actor might not sound very exciting, but it tells a lively story of a sympathetic man of many interests. There is no surviving furniture left, but the floors and banisters are of pleasing wood and the panelling painted again in a shade the patriot would have been familiar with. The curators have named the shade Franklin Green.

 

Notre Dame, Leicester Square

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Jean Cocteau’s mural

This French church in the busy West End, sandwiched between Theatreland and Chinatown, is a wonderful oasis of peace. The mural by Jean Cocteau is a big draw, its lines simple yet speaking, but I also liked the shape-studded walls, the decorated font and the altarpiece, which had an almost fairy-tale look about it.

The altar piece, Notre Dame Catholic Church, Leicester Square
The altar piece, Notre Dame Catholic Church, Leicester Square

Plotter’s Progress – Essex Book Festival Tour 2018

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The Deeping Desk

Stage 1 The Deeping Desk at the Pop-up Writer’s House

Short version:

My daughter: What’s the point in you going somewhere to write when you can write at home?

My husband: Home isn’t a Georgian house!

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Chalkwell Hall, home of Metal Southend, and for March 2018 a Pop Up Writers House

Longer version:

The Essex Book Festival is a celebration of reading and writing that gets better every year, belying the accepted story that the county has no culture. This year, Metal Southend, a project to encourage the arts in the area, is running a variety of events alongside it. One of these was to offer two desks in quiet spaces in Chalkwell Hall, a gentleman’s house built in 1830, to anyone who wanted to write away from domestic distractions.

My daughter is right – there is electricity, a desk and a kettle at home. But there is also a never-ending pile of dirty dishes and laundry, and a cat who insists on sitting on my keyboard. My husband is right too – our house, pleasant though it is, doesn’t date back to before Victoria, and nor does is have views across the Thames Estuary. There is a third advantage – no cookie jar, so it was better for my waistline.

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My lovely sticky brownie obscuring my plot outline

 

There is, however, a pop-up café downstairs, cheerful, friendly and excellent value, and I enjoyed a lovely, gooey slice  of brownie after lunch. Scratch that about the waistline. Perhaps my trip up and down the gorgeous sweeping staircase worked it off.

The Deeping Desk is named after a Southend writer. Yes, they exist. He was successful in his days, and a pile of his books sat artistically on my desk. The attractive Pan edition that caught my eye had the Amazon invoice in it, showing the pile had probably been sourced specially for the festival.

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The lovely Pan edition of a Warwick Deeping novel

I may see if there are any more copies left at the online store. Warwick Deeping is celebrated in Southend with an underpass named after him, now blocked off due to traffic changes. Maybe I don’t want to be famous locally after all. The other desk is named after Margaret Cavendish, born in Essex, a colourful writer of the seventeenth century, when for a woman to sell a book was as bad as selling her body. Unabashed, she wrote plays, fiction and essays, a range that ran from breathy pulp romance to serious science. As a trained literacy tutor I’m intrigued that she declared that “it is against nature for a women to spell right.”

Yes, I did write. I didn’t manage to clear my backlog of scenes I need to insert into my novel before making yet another attempt to finish draft two. But I did break into it enough to feel I was back into the swing of writing again. Having generous amount of space round me was liberating, too; the view over the railway line and estuary, with the Isle of Grain looming on the far shore, was pleasant but not particularly distracting. But when the light faded and I packed my bag the mud turned a silky grey and the windows of the soul-eating sixties high-rises flashed gold from the setting sun.