Me And My Home: A house with history

Caroline Wingfield talks to John Nicolson about rats, restoration and Gilbert and George
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The Independent Online

Broadcaster John Nicolson lives in an 18th-century silk weaver's house off Brick Lane, near Spitalfields Market in London. He has been painstakingly renovating it for the past few years.

When I first moved here people used to say, 'Oh, how dangerous', and then they started saying, 'Oh, how trendy' and now they say 'Oh, how posh'. Gilbert and George live across the road; I suppose you could call them the urban pioneers of the street. They were here before anyone else, all the houses were abandoned and they were pretty much living on their own. When I moved in here seven years ago, this was the only occupied house in the whole block. I used to lie in my room listening to two sounds: a gentle pitter-patter which was the sound of the rats running across the rafters, and a noisier pitter-patter which was folk running across the roofs. There was lead up there and there were no street lights outside. It was dark and it was dirty and it didn't feel safe. It's changed dramatically.

"This is an 18th-century Huguenot silk weaver's house and it very much reflects the history of the neighbourhood. It was built in 1722 by wealthy silk weavers who would have lived on Fournier Street and Princelet Street and others - it's a little warren of early Georgian streets around here. As the 18th century finished and the 19th century began, it became a bit rougher; out went the domestic fronts they had on the ground floor up went the shop façades. But by the end of the century, it had become Jack-the-Ripper land. In fact, he used to pick up his victims in the pub two doors down and walk them off to their fate. So it's quite possible that some of them walked past my front door on their way to their doom. It was very rough from about 1880 through until the 1980s. By the 20th century, it was no longer domestic. I think the last people to live here were in about 1900 and they lived in the attic. And then it just became sweatshops for the Jewish rag trade and then the Bengali rag trade. I saw it one day and it was just a tip and I thought, 'I'd like that'. It was owned by a bank up north. They just thought it was a bit of old rubbish, so they sold it to me.

"The room in the basement, which is now the kitchen, was completely underground and I've restored it back to its original proportions. There was a staircase that came down from the shop above, but it was really just a tunnel that you could barely crawl in. It had originally been a room, and the fireplace is still there. We think it was used to dye silk and they would use the chimney for ventilation. The strange thing is that because they were very poor, the people who lived in the house didn't, as we would do, renovate by ripping everything out and replacing, they renovated by enclosing. So each new generation built walls across the walls and ceilings over the ceilings, floors on top of floors. So the whole thing gradually became like a Russian doll, all boxed in, and it was much smaller when I came than it is now. What I did was peel off layers: plastic wood, then hardboard, then metal sheeting, then layers of wallpaper and finally you got to the original panelling.

"I've painted the rooms in English Heritage colours. People are very romantic about Georgian times, but truth is they put brown sludge across most of their walls. What people think of as Georgian colours now are really just muted modern colours. Everyone always says, 'what wonderful Georgian colours', but in fact they were called things like 'Mouse's Back'. The National Trust does all the really authentic colours, but they are very gloomy. Some of my neighbours have really gone the full Monty with gas candles and orphans up the chimney, but it's not really my scene.

"Living here is not really like the way people outside London would imagine London to be. When I moved in people were incredibly friendly. They would say, 'You must be freezing, you must come and have a bath'. I lived in a room in the attic for about 18 months with water but no electricity while the building work was going on. I was doing Newsnight at the time and I was wandering down in a suit trying to look respectable to go to work and there were cobwebs and dirt everywhere. People were very nice, they'd give me dinner and advice.

"The area is changing a bit as a lot of the people who moved in here originally were artists and they're moving on. Gilbert and George weren't well off when they bought here. It was quite an artistic community. They bought big houses for very little money and did them up slowly, like I've done, quite painstakingly. Because the houses are worth quite a lot of money now, a lot of people are selling up and City boys are buying them and moving into them as posh houses. The area will change over the next decade, but I hope it doesn't change too much; I wouldn't like it to lose its neighbourhood atmosphere.

"There are things I like and things I dislike about living off Brick Lane. I like the diversity of the area very much. I like the fact that you can walk from the City and within two minutes you are into a very artistic, diverse neighbourhood like this, then another two minutes takes you into the curry shops. I like that mixture, it's one of the great things about living in London. The downsides are that there are not very many amenities; you can't get basic things very easily, by London standards anyway.

"The Huguenots used to hide horseshoes round the house and I've found four so far. After the discoveries, I decided to leave a time capsule in the house myself. I thought to myself, 'What would I like to find?' I thought I'd like to find who was in the house, what they thought about their period, what they thought about the house, where they came from, what their families' names were, what they thought about social attitudes at the time. When you think what this house has been through, it's been through wars and famine, through the Jacobite rising of 1745 - that was happening when this house was 30. I would love to know what the people living here thought about these big issues. So I put in some pictures of the way the house was before I renovated it and now, wrote about the job of renovating it, wrote about my job. I then wrapped it in plastic and put it in a wooden box. They'd have to do major work to find it, but if they did major work, they would find it.

John Nicolson presents the breakfast show on LBC, 97.3fm, from 6am to 9am every morning