Last week I was sat at my desk lamenting the quick disappearance of London's snow when my inbox pinged. Ordinarily, I don't get too excited about emails parse, but after discovering that it wasn't Urban Outfitters offering me £1 delivery (gone are the days of care-free online shopping) but something far more exciting, my post-snow blues evaporated.
Apparently the lovely people at the Benjamin Franklin House had heard I was an eighteenth century enthusiast (ummmm, no kidding!) and general lover of English culture and history (tick, tick, tick!), so asked if I'd like to come and have a look around Ben Franklin's very own house here in London.You know, Franklin. The guy who discovered electricity. Signed the Declaration of Independence. Worked on the first printing press. Founding father of America.
If I'm not wrong, the distant sound of 'The Star Spangled Banner' drifted around the cabin and I felt compelled to see, no indeed HAD to experience the place myself. Alas, two days later I crossed the river at Waterloo to find myself stood outside a building that very much resembled Grimmauld Place. Minus the Death Eaters. And troll-foot-come-umbrella-stands. And all other elements of fantasy. (Ok, it only looked a bit like Grimmauld Place).
The house director has, quite rightly I think, decided not to fill the place with replica furniture from the mid-eighteenth century. The house, it's uneven floors, thick slabs of stone, warped sash windows and rabbit tunnel doorways have an authenticity to them that doesn't need dressing up. Understandably, I found everything about the place intriguing. The particular shade of green used by Franklin's landlady to disguise muck and sooty smears. The feeling of being on a ship from the rolling, warped floor boards. The beautifully bright light filtering in through the sash windows of Franklin's bedchamber. The stable-door style shutters used by Franklin to keep the prying eyes of passers by from seeing who he had sipping tea in the parlour. The 'cool cupboard' built into the thick basement wall to keep hams cold. No one likes a warm ham, especially Franklin, so it seems.
Before Franklin moved in to living quarters at the house (big up to the landlady who ran the place and up-sold into a swanky pad down the road because she was a woman who didn't need no man and earned her own living), the area was dodgy to say the least. Like, cock fights, gambling, drunks, prostitutes. Franklin set about raising the standards. Literally. He raised the street level, giving houses under-road storage for all those eighteenth century necessities. Like coal. Lots of coal. I used to think basements always had that weird are-we-underground-or-are-we-not view!
He also worked from the house (convenient walking distance from Westminster, don't ya know) mediating unrest between Britain and America. Like, one of the biggest periods of unrest in history, and I don't mean over the correct pronunciation of 'tomato'. He left on the eve of the American Revolution after 16 years in London. Apparently the Americans wanted to govern themselves which we English thought was totalllllllly unreasonable. You did OK, though America, you did OK!
The house holds a Historical Experience show, which involves a nifty projection system and a guided tour from the land lady's daughter herself (costumed, which is an exciting prospect in itself), and an Architectural Tour, which was so interesting I wanted to scream facts into the faces of strangers I came across upon leaving. There's an excellent story about Franklin's 'air baths' that I couldn't possibly spoil for you. It involves nudity and complaints from the neighbours. You'll have to hear it for yourself! You'll never look at a $100 bill the same way again.
What I wouldn't give to spend and hour or two writing at that desk! Unusually for a museum, the tour around the house didn't make me feel like I was a detached observer, worried about stepping on the wrong piece of carpet or photographing statues without permission. The lovely ladies of the Benjamin Franklin House said they hoped visitors felt like 'stewards' of it's history, and I certainly believe so. Houses like this one act as portals connecting us to people from our past, whether they are the reason I can sit here typing on my keyboard or otherwise.
In the next few weeks I'll be working with the House on some exciting events that I will of course share with you nearer the time. If you're a history lover, Georgian enthusiast, or just bloomin' love a good floor-to-ceiling window, make sure you're following me on Twitter and Bloglovin' for updates!
In the mean time, you can book a tour or Historical Experience show online here.
The Benjamin Franklin House very kindly invited me along to experience their Architectural Tour. Opinions are, always, unblemished and entirely my own.