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
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.
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
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.