Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings

January 10th, 2005

house_spitalfieldsIn 1995 I had enough money in the bank to buy a studio flat in Notting Hill. I was living in the country, and I thought a fashionable broom cupboard near Paddington Station would be a good idea for London trips.

Some god who enjoys a practical joke must have overheard my thoughts, because the next day a friend in Spitalfields, East London, called me to say that the 1780’s house next to hers could be bought for exactly the same price as the dinky Victorian bedsit I was nosing around.

I took the tube from Notting Hill Gate to Liverpool St, crossed over the invisible line of Bishopsgate, and walked back into another world.

Spitalfields was neglected, overlooked, and protected by poverty. Home to immigrants from the Huegenots to the Bengalis, the houses were sweatshops or artist’s studios. Many had been squatted, most were still broken down, apart from the beautiful and breath-taking renovations done by people with very different values to those of the hard-nosed City on the other side of the Bishopsgate invisible line.

My house was right opposite the old fruit and veg market, and a bunch of tramps were hunched over a roaring fire made of petrol and pallets.

spabs_1The estate agent had arrived early to unscrew the rain-soaked marine-ply that protected the front door from invasion. He had a torch. He looked nervous.

‘How long has the house been on the market?’ I asked.

‘Fifteen years’ he said

The house has no roof left, just bots of corrugated iron nailed onto the rotting boards. It had no services, no bathroom, no kitchen, holes in the floors and rats in the basement. It had last been used as a doss house, and mattresses were piled high in every room, like The Princess and the Pea.

1995 was the bottom of the recession. I was already trying to renovate a semi-derelict stable house in the country. It was February and the rain was pouring from the roofline to the ground floor. ‘ Well, I thought to myself, ‘at least it can’t get any worse.’

How wrong I was. I bought the house for cash – and I mean cash – Securicor and a suitcase, as stipulated by the owner on his way to Spain. The day after I completed, the District Surveyor turned up and slapped a Dangerous Structure notice on the front door. I was officially Condemned.

Dan Cruickshank came to comfort me. He was one of the people who had saved Spitalfieds from the bulldozers in the 1970’s. He brought me a flask of tea and a candle and explained that everyone had been Condemned at some time or other. It was quite normal. ‘Look at this’, he said, wading through rubbish towards a drunken door swaying off its door jamb, ‘An original brass hinge.’

spabs_3A hinge is where the heart is – at least if you are a true lover of half dead Georgian houses. Soon we were filling skips with chipboard, revealing fireplaces and cornices, and then we discovered all of the original panelling for the second floor, stacked in the basement and painted Pakistani-pink.
My friend next door got a drill and ran an electric cable straight through the wall so that we had power. We put a standpipe in the basement, and began to renovate. Two years later the house was finished.

Two years. It felt like a lifetime. If I known what I was taking on I would have bought that bijou flat in Notting Hill. Instead, I fell in love, and with all the recklessness of love, I had no idea what I was doing until it was far too late to get out.

One day, as I was sitting gloomily in front of a spitting bath of lime plaster, an evil-smelling cauldron of rabbit-rendered gesso on one of those stoves road menders use to soften Tarmac, a little man appeared on the stairs. He looked like an elf. ‘I used to work here’, he said, ‘In this very room. I was with the London Fruit Exchange, and this office was JW Fruits.’

Fair enough. Destiny had brought me back to my house.

Now, of course, Spitalfields is swarming with bankers, ,the tramps have gone, the tarts have moved down to Brick Lane, Christ Church has been gloriously restored, and the old market is becoming a swanky complex of offices and shops. I don’t know how I will feel about this; I used to look out of my kitchen window at the rats. Now I’m told it will be Prada.

So I have decided to open a shop myself. My ground floor used to be a greengocer, and when we re-made the shop front, we kept its old name – VERDE’S. From November, Verde’s will be open for business once more, this time as an Italian deli, where you can get an espresso at the counter while you are choosing your olives.

I think the old house will be pleased.

These images are from the current edition of Cornerstone, the quarterly magazine of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Founded by William Morris in 1877, the SPAB is the nation’s senior historic architecture conservation group. Website: Telephone: 020 7377 1644.

All images copyright Rob Stummer (