We bought a ruin, ancient, ill-used and dilapidated, in a neighbourhood in London’s inner city which could truthfully and candidly and bluntly be described as a slum. It cost about the same as a semi-detached house on the outskirts of London, indeed exactly twenty thousand pounds more than the stately but dull Victorian terrace house a couple of miles north which was our home, and miraculously sold in the midst of a property slump to a cash-rich Chinese fish-and-chip shop family, who wanted it for their student doctor son. This was a fortunate play. We were buying an utterly unmortgageable building, in need of total renovation and repair, in a bad and, as it would seem, worsening area, which nonetheless seemed to presage extraordinary promise, and though our bank had reluctantly agreed bridging finance, thanks to a long association with us based on trust, the surveyor they sent to value it came away muttering curses. It was twenty years ago now and, though we hardly knew what we’d let ourselves in for, this purchase made us sublimely happy.
We’d been looking for a restaurant premises, and a home for our young family. I was into old buildings - cherishing them and fixing them up - my wife wanted a restaurant. She’d run a busy vegetarian cafe virtually solo on weekends in her home town of Oxford, aged just fourteen. Her gap year after university was entirely spent front-of-house, as a seater, in a lively and achingly fashionable Covent Garden Tex-Mex routinely raided by the Home Office, looking for illegals, Americans mostly, who scarpered each time in all directions, and where Fergus Henderson (famous chef and founder of St John’s) once laboured in the kitchen, learning more than he probably wished to know about refried beans. Though a distinguished banking career intervened, entailing tracking currencies and interviewing central bankers, restaurants and hospitality were already coursing in my wife’s blood. When she and I first met, she’d just been offered her first job in the Bank of England. But that was for the future. Just then her whole world was restaurants, with their thrill and buzz and unceasing conviviality. We ate out at the drop of a hat back then, or rather at any friendly rap at the door, sometimes as much as three times each day. It was our modus operandi: the restaurant life had somehow embedded itself in our character.
We were pipped at the post for a former piano showroom in Jericho, Oxford, near to where we were restoring a little house – by Raymond Blanc, as it turned out, whose charming brasserie established there went on famously to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds before going the way of so many independents and getting sold off to a nondescript restaurant chain. We found our big old commercial building in Spitalfields - formerly Percy Dalton’s peanut warehouse, and before that a seventeenth century fashionable London townhouse - after I was given a tip-off by a local historian whose Stoke Newington house I was plastering at the time. This was a colossal, fully-panelled, meandering old pile in the Church Street with an arched opening for stabling at the rear. It spoke out so delicately of old London and times forlornly, piquantly past. It was just about the most glamorous London townhouse I’d ever seen, and I near fell in love with it. Prior to this I had not “got it” with things Georgian, I had not caught the bug. He was charming but she, regrettably, less so. She was a stay-at-home young mum, grand and haughty, who stood over me while, at her bidding, I was made to scrub the floors to near perfection. You would get this from time to time working in my trade. He - emollient, companionable, glad of my enthusiasm - recommended I write to the administrator of the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, explaining that I was a plasterer and builder with a passion for old buildings and in search of a project. So I did precisely this. In such wise the course of a man’s whole life might be altered.
In response, a cautious and wary young man, Andrew Byrne, wrote back and pitched a terrace of early Georgian houses in Bow, a couple of miles further east, all nicely done up. In those times Andrew, a quantity surveyor by trade, ran a tight little crew of joiners, bricklayers and other craftsmen who deployed all their specialist knowledge and skills on restoration projects of the Trust’s devising. Neglected historic buildings of little monetary worth in the East End passed into their hands, for painstaking restoration, often after compulsory purchase order by the local authority. These were indeed beautiful properties, but I demurred and, speaking on the phone, reminded him I had asked for a project of my own. We went away, and bought and renovated a pretty little Regency terrace house in Jericho, Oxford, whose bowed front wall was so distorted I was obliged to take it down and open it right up like a doll’s house, its wide-planked floors held by acrow props, before cleaning the bricks and building back up again. When I asked again, a few years later, he offered us the building we now own. The City Corporation had wanted to tear it down to make way for a vast new office development, but this was the early nineties and a ravaged economy had put paid to that. I remember the night I first saw it. I could hardly believe my eyes. Only that much, I asked myself, looking up in wonderment, for this vast edifice?
It was a balmy early autumn evening. No-one was around. Spitalfields Market, facing us across the road, was swathed in darkness and the traders’ pub, The Gun, on the opposite corner, closed for want of drinkers. Roller shutters were pulled down on all the empty, derelict, former market buildings up and down the street. The wholesale fruit and vegetable market had shut down some years before and moved further east, whilst plans for redevelopment as City offices had severely miscarried in the slump. It was the end of an era. Our support for ambitious new plans for the area would be solicited in the coming years over and over and over again, as different development schemes were brought forward, often in the face of bitter opposition from self-appointed local conservation groups. We didn’t quite know which way the neighbourhood would turn, but we loved the building, were ambitious for it, and ready to give it our all. Some few doors away that night we discovered three people it seemed a lot like us, working late on a handsome late-Georgian terrace house with a shop-front on the ground floor. Marianna Kennedy, one of the three, very charmingly, pressed us even then to buy the old place. The other two were Charles Gledhill and Jim Howett, who still now are working in bookbinding and the bespoke furniture trade respectively and living in our urban village of Spitalfields. But we had no glass to see the future in. Did we even know quite what we were doing, wanting to buy this building? Probably not. One acted recklessly in those days. Life was - is - a great adventure, and the only error the failure to cleave to all its best chances: the handful of precious buds buffeted by contrary winds. Will the same be true for my childrens’ generation? I rather doubt it. Had we succumbed to a folie de grandeur? There were many who thought so. We only knew it would take an act of faith, much hard work and all the courage we could muster, but on no account would we be walking away from this enterprise.
I crept back on my own the following day, just to try and satisfy the intense curiosity this night-time visit had aroused. I saw again the tatty, decrepit old building with its faded roller-shutters and sad, powdery green paintwork, its open-jointed brickwork and dusty, large-paned windows. A pale and peeling commercial sign was emblazoned across its parapet. I stood at a distance from the corner and drank in the scene. It stood slightly abashed then it seemed, in its once-prominent position opposite the shut-down wholesale market, with the gleaming towers of the City rising heedlessly behind it. It spoke poignantly of an intense period of trade and industry now quite withered away and dead. This once proud, handsome building in its setting of one of the great wholesale markets of the nation, now shut down and gone away, had become a sorry irrelevance. It seemed sore at heart – Is it possible to say this of a building? It needed rescuing. We would be the ones to do it, I reasoned to myself.
Just then I saw the stiff, erect back and rolling gate of a tall, lonely figure approaching the building. With unkempt fair hair pushed punkishly upwards, with clunky boots and countrified dress, he seemed a paradoxical figure, as if stepping from the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel, and not what I would have expected in that sleek urban setting. He stood and turned a key in the great, sweeping door which led, I could faintly see, to a gloomy interior. It transpired that this was the young man with whom we had corresponded some years before. But this was the first time I ever laid eyes on Andrew Byrne, historian and authority on Georgian architecture, and by coincidence the man with whom we would now need to negotiate the terms of our property purchase. I recall watching him disappear from out of the hazy, smoggy, London sunshine, against a skyline pricked with office towers and Wren spires and thinking at that precise moment, with inarguable, mute logic: This place is kind of cool!
The actual house purchase was relatively speedily transacted, once our (blessedly broad-minded) bank manager was on board. We lobbed at Andrew a figure cheekily, one might say insultingly, below the price at which the building had recently been marketed by a posh City agency. He narrowed his eyes, looked hard and searchingly at us, then catechized our financial situation. He eulogised the historic pile we had dared to bid for, yet not quite altogether dismissing our overtures. He nevertheless clearly implied we were wholly unworthy of it. He said he would consult his masters, the trustees, and let us know, but he thought it most unlikely. His body language - open, articulate, blunt - said No. We would need to work incredibly hard to win this man's trust, it was clear.
Some days later we heard back from him with news that the sale would proceed.
We felt like raw pioneers in those early days. I used to drive our old Jag late on Sunday night from our little house in Oxford, and be guaranteed a parking space in the empty street outside. How ironic this now seems. When I stand outside our building these mornings, surrounded by great towers and modern development and a crush of people, I feel like that little old lady in that same Megamogs childrens’ story I once used to read out loud to my own kids, who came home in her sports car after many travels to a world utterly transformed and modernized. Some nights I would haul up one of the three old wooden roller shutters, throw down heavy wood blocks, mount the curb and drive the car right inside the building. There was no-one around. It was like a ghost town, with just the occasional sex-worker passing in the night, sometimes plying her trade audibly in the most uncomfortably proximate nooks and corners of our neglected, Dickensian quarter. Jack the Ripper walking tours would sweep by, swelling the road and pavements sometimes with hundreds of tourists, in particular Americans. The tour guide, theatrically rigged out with deerstalker hat, crombie coat and carriage lamp, pitched up outside our place and rattled off his ghoulish tale of the Ripper’s last victim, murdered in Dorset Street just opposite, reputed to be London’s worst, with vivid, unsparing anatomical detail. (To amuse ourselves and our transatlantic visitors, we sometimes mimed a stabbing at the window on an upper floor.) Late night revellers, returning home from the Brick Lane curry houses, and Shoreditch strip pubs, would strike up drinking songs at the tops of their voices, and delight in kicking rubbish cans all down our road. They claimed absolute entitlement here to such execrable manners and bad behaviour, though all would soon be catching trains back home to nice, respectable suburban neighbourhoods, where resided wives, girlfriends and mothers. Many a time my wife or I would call out to them from our high windows - pleading, demanding, our proper due of peace and quiet.
Andrew had become our temporary lodger, still ensconced in the gaudily-painted, low-ceilinged attic that seemed hardly better than a squatter’s temporary digs. We imagined he hung on just to check up on us, to inspect the contents of our skips, to make certain we didn’t throw away parts of the original fabric. “I saw matchboarding in your skip yesterday,” he once chided. But these were only a few wormy fragments. I was stung by the accusation. He needn’t have worried about us. I hoarded everything. We were as crazy about conservation as he was. I used to see him labouring away on restoring the front door of his Regency house in Hackney, his newly-purchased next abode, handling it lovingly like some rare antique. The thing was poised on trestles as he spliced in new wood in one of the old warehouse rooms on our first floor. I heard him trudging up the stairs at the end of each day, a lone, intensely self-reliant and fascinating figure. He remains so to this day. Andrew doesn’t quite dwell in our century (Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf always came to mind). Where I merely yearn for the past, I think perhaps he inhabits it. He taught us much of what we now know about the technical and practical aspects of restoring an early Georgian building, in particular brickwork, panelling and joinery. He took me on walking tours around the neighbourhood, studying examples of flush, and tuck, pointing. I was taught to abominate the weather-struck variety. Even now he will stop you in the street to give an impromptu lecture on “perps”, or perpendiculars (joints in brickwork), and how narrow they need to be. He showed me how to set out a panelled window seat, and make shutter boxes for double-hung sashes. I craved the heritage imprimatur he so sparingly endowed. With other likeminded Spitalfields homeowners, we traded skills, ideas, knowledge, tools and tradesmen with a rare generosity of spirit in those early days. It brought us close together. We were like communards, in a sense, or kibbutzim. We shared common goals and interests focussed on our houses with a near-religious fervour. It was a strange and fascinating era.
Inevitably my wife and I were drawn into the labyrinthine politics of the neighbourhood. There was a lot of money at stake, the City Corporation needed “lebensraum”, and Spitalfields would soon become a battleground for conservationists and developers alike, few of whom actually lived and worked there as we did. This was wearisome. We felt ourselves being tugged in multiple directions, our loyalty appealed to from different quarters – indeed, we still do! Spitalfields Market Under Threat (SMUT) captured the headlines for a while, making its own unique contribution, I suppose, rightly or wrongly, to local planning blight. Our friend William Taylor, clever and subtle and charismatic clergyman, author and activist, manned the barricades on their behalf. When fire broke out in the flower market on the furthest side, we wondered whether the developer hadn’t decided out of intense frustration to take the matter into his own hands. This was maybe a good way to concentrate minds, we thought. Our friend Paul Johnston, who’d taken up temporary residence in our building after a sojourn in New York, phoned us in Oxford with live commentary. He could feel the fire’s heat on the upper floors. We saw the steels the next day, twisted and curled like dry leaves in summer. The old market buildings found temporary use as a playground for City lads and lasses. There were bars, restaurants, Five-A-Side, swimming, even an opera house to animate and entertain the office workers. Eric Graham, a former market porter, quickly built up a strikingly modish, street-wise and sought-after designers’ market on Sundays in place of the old wholesale fruit and vegetable market in the Horner Buildings. It became for a time the hottest ticket in town. He is there still, his characteristic long mane of thick grey hair draped across denim-clad shoulders. Much of the time we felt like imposters attempting a parody of normal family existence in this dysfunctional, mainly commercial setting. Each Christmas we were tormented till the early hours by boozy corporate entertaining, with DJs, bands, marquees and fun fairs. When I asked whether, as a resident, my little boy might have a ride on the Merry-Go-Round, I was harshly and rudely rebutted. I had rather thought this an innocent request, and deserving of consideration.... I hadn’t reckoned on the harshness and hardness of corporate City of London.
We made a restaurant with our bare hands, as I often told friends over the years in playful, self-dramatizing conversations. People now will not be able to imagine quite how this may have been. Even my staff seem to imagine that somehow we found our restaurant premises ready-made, bespoke, needing just a lick of paint and light dusting off of the furniture. But no, we took down and rebuilt brick walls, fitted new steels and bolted them together, dug out cellars, underpinned foundations, designed and created a new (though historic-seeming) shop-front, repaired and renewed underground drainage, electrics, plumbing, heating, ventilation and three-hundred-year-old panelling, floors, roofs, staircases... I once asked one of our managers to watch while I rodded a blocked drain under our kitchen floor. “Do you know what I’m doing?” I queried. “I know nothing of dark and dismal Victorian drains,” he replied, haughtily. I’d laid the drain myself just two years before.
The work could be pitiless and unremitting, yet equally it could be creative and fun and deeply satisfying. We used our own money, which was scarce. We had vision and ideas to be sure, but scant knowledge, consequently we had to research and equip ourselves with the specialist skills to tackle each new task in turn. All this took its toll. It has been said of our project that we helped revive and rebuild our neglected, down-at-heel neighbourhood. This was not a conscious goal, but it pleases us to think it may be true. The earliest recorded use of the word “restaurateur” in the French language is applied to someone who repairs, or restores, some precious town or relic. I get this, I really do. It has only relatively recently been applied to the thing we now know as a restaurant. We certainly played our part. I like to say I built this place with bent nails, quoting Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. I laugh when I say it, yet in reality I am deadly serious, since even now I still recall the sensation of straightening four inch wires with my trusty Estwing hammer, before punching them home with repeated long, arching swings into wonderfully biddable, softwood timbers. Recollected like this, the sensation could not be sweeter.
Of course we needed help, and sometimes that wasn’t so easy to find. I started off doing structural repairs and digging out the half-height basement with a couple of lads from Oxford, where my wife and I still owned a house. We slept on floors in sleeping bags, in rooms only recently vacated by artists, who’d colonized our house for studio space under the previous owner. (They fled en masse one day when the business rates assessor swept through the place without notice.) We cooked communal meals on a camping stove with bottled gas. We were carefree, eccentric - Bohemian, I guess you could say. We bathed in a plastic bucket, our water and electricity were borrowed from neighbours, one each side, through cavities punched clumsily through brickwork. “You have stolen my voorter?” asked Valentina, my neighbour, one cold winter day, incredulous, in her thick Bulgarian accent. She’d had a plumber in and he’d inadvertently cut us off. We just needed reconnecting to her unmetered supply a few days longer, till we got our own. It was a plaintive, pitiable request and she duly relented. The hand basin in the toilet had a hole in it as big as a fist and Andrew, our temporary lodger, had a wood burning stove in the attic with a flue pipe that stretched right across the room and poked awkwardly out a window. It was undoubtedly great fun – a life-changing adventure for each of us, and in such happy spirit we approached each new challenge in turn. I remember that first hard winter when my octogenarian mother was visiting from Sydney. She had courage, my Mum. It was so cold the water froze in the toilet bowl. I was obliged, briefly, to remove the wood floor from under the WC, which then was suspended in mid-air, fixed to its cast-iron waste pipe, while above this a green tarpaulin flapped about where the roof should be. That was a low point. One day the police broke in and searched our building after a city worker reported hearing a baby cry inside. It was our son, Jack, just two years old at that time, crying himself to sleep in the middle of the day. The high-ceilinged studio space on the first floor, where we now host wedding receptions and canape parties for fifty people, constituted back then an unorthodox bedchamber. I was never so cold in my life as I was in that room in winter. I remember my infant son swaddled in blankets in his wood cot by our bed and yet he slept soundly the whole night through, without even a murmur. It was never our deliberate intention to imitate the Spartans’ treatment of their newborn, it just kind of turned out that way!
Our building had noble, seventeenth century origins, but had been hard used over the years, and showed many signs of neglect and mistreatment. Just like a person, a building may betray the consequences of neglect. We know little of its origins as a one-room-deep, London townhouse, except that in its day it was grand and distinguished. Having survived so long, it must have been a very fine thing indeed. I once discovered dusty fragments of original wallpaper tucked behind the woodwork on the first floor. Hand-printed, in a neoclassical motif, it was of a rare and exceptional quality. The building had been listed (Grade II) when Wren-period raised and fielded panelling was discovered under modernising, white-painted hardboard on the first floor, in a room we now reserve for private dining. How I should have liked to be present when Trust members started pulling away those big old sheets from the walls! But wet rot endangered such beautiful, irreplaceable joinery due to a carelessly ill-maintained, leaky parapet gutter two floors above. Even the panelling had been left to decay. Propping up floors and cutting out rotten timber became an early priority. New beam ends had to be scarfed in and bedded into repaired brickwork, with steel plates for reinforcing. Whole walls of panelling were levered up off the floor with scaffold boards, and re-attached to slipped and ancient, but reinforced brickwork. We didn’t hold back, meekly waiting to take instruction. English Heritage came to see us, to check up and, we imagined, chide and pontificate. But instead we stopped them in their tracks by exceeding their expectations, even reinstating chimney stacks where for a hundred years there were none. And neither did we attempt to conceal our building’s antiquity. A saggy roof ridge, clearly visible from Christchurch steps, was left proudly unstraightened. “You too would sag a bit if you were three hundred years old,” a friend opined. We were having fun. We felt we were being creative. We dug deep, speculated and imagined, tested our wits, plundered our resources and acted promptly to make our vision real. We never doubted that our task was noble.
Our new home was famous in the neighbourhood as the Percy Dalton building, and still bore the legend emblazoned across its high parapet on a faded sign:
“Percy Dalton London Ltd. Nut Importers and Roasters”
His ghost was everywhere around us, with all the ancient detritus and paraphernalia of his trade. I was constantly meeting ex-employees, and family members, who regaled me with stories of this larger-than-life figure. His grandson, a young lawyer based in Paris, fetched up one day with a trunkful of memories and stories. He told me how Percy first started by gathering up discarded fruit from the wholesale market and taking it over to Liverpool Street to sell to office workers, and ended up with a vast business with international reach. He had the first commercial telex machine in London, whose intricate web of wires we would be stripping out from a disused office on the first floor. A mechanical adding machine and addressograph, and wholesale auction stand, went to a local museum. He had served in the Italian campaign in the Second World War, where he used his fluency in the Italian tongue to establish local fruit trade contacts for after the war. Having started with nothing, from the desperately poor background of the Jewish East End, he well knew the value of money. His favoured transport was a worn out old flat-bed truck. When his brother showed up one day in a brand new Mercedes, Percy Dalton didn’t care to hide his displeasure. I possess a photo of him with this truck, stood alone in suit and capacious dark overcoat like some Prohibition-era gangster at the corner of his building, now the entrance to our restaurant, his name written across its brickwork in hand-painted signs evocative of times long past. It is an image both potent and poignant.
I have a high regard for this man and all that he achieved. Many people came to me over the years with first-hand accounts of this charismatic, larger-than-life figure. Some of these were ex-employees, some were heirs and descendants. One elderly gentleman arrived one morning pushed in a wheelchair by his daughter. He spoke with passion and fervour about this building we now owned and struggled to bring into productive use. “You will do well with this building”, he told us. “It is a lucky building. It will make you money,” he said. He seemed eager to impart a blessing, and we were not unreceptive. His name was preserved, hand-painted on an old panelled door somewhere in our building. This was Percy Dalton’s trusted former business partner. He was charming and fascinating as he recounted the family history. But he ruffled feathers too. I met a former employee driving a cab on the outskirts of East London. “He was a bastard”, he told me sharply, drawing from bitter personal recollection, and seemingly unsoftened by the passing years.
And yet I hope to emulate him in some sense. He was smart. He innovated and kept ahead, working harder and better than his competitors. I guess I aspire to do likewise. Already I have earned a full excise licence, and now import all our wines direct from French producers and cavistes. Accordingly I’ve dispensed with all the many swaggering British wine merchants, with their hefty mark-ups, and pass on something of the savings I make to my customers. It is a high-risk undertaking. I must rely on my wits and imperfect French and the hard work of driving all over France in a late-model van. I must try and make do without the support of local professionals. I must make my own way, based on connections I have established in the wine trade and the slender knowledge I have acquired about all the amazing French wine regions. It is a challenging task, and yet I love every moment of this.
Jim Moore, a builder friend from Oxford, came to help us in those early days, but soon melted away in sheer awe and perplexity at the scale of the task which confronted us. Were we foolish, or merely naive? Exploiting old plastering trade contacts from London, I began to gather together a team of mostly Irish carpenters, bricklayers and labourers to tackle the fundamental structural repairs and improvements the building so desperately needed. We dug down to extend the old half-height cellar with seventeenth century brick-paved floor and poured concrete for underpinning and new footings all the way round the oldest part of the building. I’d heard stories of small fortunes extracted from homeowners by Irish navvies underpinning London terrace houses. I chose to ignore such tales, and vowed to do the work myself. I think I have dug a cellar in almost every house I owned: this was but the latest. I once read The Great Escape and it set my boyhood imagination on fire – I even dug out under my parents’ home to make a den, and painting studio for my mother, in my early teens.
I pulled from the soil many ancient artefacts; the most interesting of which was a very old long-bladed bread knife. I once picked up a local history pamphlet which identified our building as the site of a radical Jewish workers’ collective – a bakery, of all things, in the mid-nineteenth century. Starting out with such very high ideals, the enterprise quickly folded, amidst multiple recriminations. From time to time I still witness a knot of people on the pavement across from our building, being regaled with this story by some local historian. I never quite managed to retrieve the bread knife in time to hold it up for their inspection.
We completely renewed all underground drainage, even while hosting our neighbours’ drains and their contents, which passed us on their way to the main Victorian sewer in the road, and had to be temporarily diverted around our new work. (This work sometimes occasioned an unwelcome guest or two – I guess you can imagine who?) We turned a staircase around 180 degrees, and built it anew in the old-fashioned way - in situ, with bearer beams and brackets, not housed in load-bearing strings, just like they did three hundred years before. Stairs had as many as three layers, one tread and riser laid flat atop the other, in some of these old houses. How did I know about such things? By careful observation, and reference to early volumes of carpentry and joinery manuals, volumes of which may still be found in second-hand bookshops and market stalls. I learn from books, and have taken great care to build up a library for all the building trades – it has always been my way. From Brick Lane’s traditional Sunday flea market I purchased three-volume sets of joinery manuals written in an elegant manner in the 1930’s, the last era of proper, craftsmanlike building. The next generation will doubtless be different, with countless YouTube videos and the like to plunder, but this has been my way since childhood. It is gratifying to see conservation specialists beginning to make staircases this way, in situ, just as they were made in the past.
We erected a scaffold right round our building, across both elevations. It was the dead of winter, amidst a crippling recession, and no construction work was getting started virtually anywhere. We got the thing done by a contractor for four hundred pounds, with no limit on time. This was before the days of huge pavement deposits, scaffold licenses and pettifogging local authority bureaucrats snapping at your heels. I don’t suppose, if we had to do it all again, that ordinary folk like ourselves may attempt such work now, such is the stifling growth of regulation and control. This seems a shame. Much is lost when the enlightened amateur, with his passion and commitment for beautiful old buildings and their restoration, is squeezed out and smothered by the dour professional, who reduces everything to a mercenary calculation. Stripping everything away, we indulged ourselves in some archaeological speculation. The exposed roof structure revealed a former second dormer window on the Crispin Street elevation, which had been half cut away in 1780, a hundred or so years after the house was first built, to make way for the new road which, by act of parliament, was intended to relieve pressure on Spitalfields Market. At that time our house must have been re-handed, as it were, with front door and staircase moved to the other side. In 1670 our old place was just one room deep, consequently I found Baltic pine panelling rudely broken back inside brickwork on the side elevation, where this new road was constructed a hundred years later.
We chopped out three-hundred-year-old sills and ordered new dressed stone direct from the Portland quarries in Dorset. Pallets of stone were off-loaded at our door, to include seventy foot of roof copings. Parapet walls, bellied in from WWII bomb damage, were taken down to ceiling height, and built up again straight and true, with locally-sourced second-hand stock bricks and lime mortar joints with flush, not weather-struck, pointing, expressly to please the ever-watchful conservation lobby in our neighbourhood. I hosted a beauty contest amongst my several tradesmen, to discover who could lay the prettiest brick wall. I gave the palm to the roofer, and passed him the task of finishing the walls. Handmade red clay roof tiles, all crudely painted with bitumen, were carefully removed and laid aside for cleaning. Rotten roof timbers were cut out, spliced, replaced and let in as necessary. Our splendid, hammock-shaped ridge, evident from the end of our road, was forgiven its shape. Parapet gutters were remade with all-new structural timbers and stepped sawn boards, then likewise the saggy flat roof over the newer part. A neighbour, his own restoration project at a similar stage, seeing this, commanded all his plywood be taken up, and sawn boards be laid in their place. All was beautifully dressed by our lead man, Andy Mead, a church roof specialist, who was recommended by our local second-hand roofing material supplier. I managed to purloin him, fortuitously, coming home skint from a summer holiday abroad. He arrived at my door with no more than a bossing stick, portable lead burning kit and bottled water against the searing August heat.
I climbed on the roof of the early Georgian SPAB offices in nearby Spital Square (I had permission of course), with a sketch pad, pencil, tape and profile gauge in my pocket. I tell this story to show what lengths I would go to in search of the perfect architectural detail. This is how I found the pattern for our dormer windows which, faithfully reproduced, I reckon are still the most handsome in our road. This bossed lead-work I managed to do on my own, along with ridges and eaves over wood rolls to the roof, since my lead man Andy was not yet available. Three-hundred-year-old double hung sash windows needed overhaul and repair, but on no account replacement. (Metal windows, cement floors, modern staircases and the like were anathematized in our philosophy, since they strip out the soul of old buildings.) Hardwood sills were cut out and renewed, and oak single pain sashes restored to 6 over 6, with patient joinery and some clever spindle work by a father-and-son team named Grisley, in an ancient machine shop in a railway arch behind the Geffrye Museum, now vanished, like so much of what was fascinating then about the old East End. I discussed with him the propensity of joiners and spindle workers to lose fingers and worse in machines. “Count these,” he spat out dismissively, holding up his right hand. “Five!” One window still boasts carved boxwood pulley wheels every bit as old as the house – not so many of these left in Central London, I think, and a sure defence against double glazing salesmen!
A house looks naked without a chimney, and since around 1900, by which time our building had become a commercial warehouse, our party wall had been taken down and entirely rebuilt, all the way from the cellar, without any chimneys or flues or fireplaces. I was determined to get our fireplaces back. Again, archaeological research showed trimmed joists in original floors for hearth stones at each level, under the thick asphalt floor-covering that had been laid throughout, so it was a relatively simple matter to reinstate these, and the lovely, plum-coloured London stock bricks which paved the cellar floor I employed to line my elliptical hearths. Nothing was wasted here – we plundered our own building for materials! What was tricky was creating a cantilevered steel structure directly above the entrance hall from which to strike the three-storey brick chimney stack. My surveyor friend Charley Croyden knew a recently-retired structural engineer who contributed a beautiful set of hand-drawn steelwork designs and calculations which passed muster for the local authority building inspector, and we sourced the steels from an Oxford fabricator.
I recall the bright, sunny day they arrived on the open lorry. I had assembled a team of four or five men, and yet these great I-beams were too heavy to lift comfortably. We stopped the traffic whilst sliding them across the road on scaffold poles, then tilted them, one by one, into the hollow space under the floor. By some mischance I foolishly positioned myself at the leading edge of the longest and heaviest of these, as it began to slide towards the cellar floor, suddenly gathering pace. I called out in fear and panic and we heaved together to arrest its progress – just in time for me to escape being skewered. Bolting steels together is like Meccano for grown-ups. I once knew a rigger in Sydney, an old university pal, who did this on skyscrapers. My work was only child’s play, compared with his. And yet the rewards flowed quickly. It seemed to me then I was making rapid and fulfilling progress in transforming our neglected hulk of a building into something quite possibly very special. Everything went into position quite felicitously and just exactly as it was meant to. In the whole history of my career as a builder and plasterer, and enthusiastic amateur student of period buildings, I never imagined I might be handed so wide a canvas, such breadth and scope for achievement, and withal to be allowed so much fun!
“You’ve done very well out of the system,” declared the openly left-wing, local authority planning officer to me over the phone one day, quite out of the blue. She seemed bitter, aggrieved. This was a perplexing statement, and quite without foundation. I suppose if we had been looking to turn a quick profit then she might have had a point. As it was, I met many people over the months and years who told me they had once looked at our building as it moped and lolled interminably on an agonisingly torpid property market. “I nearly bought your place,” they would tell us cockily at parties and gatherings. Except that they didn’t. None dared actually buy of course, due to the huge amount of work needed to put it right. We had purchased a vast, distinguished, fine and yet truculent historic building in a prominent position just at the precise moment when the City and East End were locked in turbulent transition. The Corporation had hoped to bulldoze it and make everything new. We took on the almost impossible challenge of slow and patient repair, adopting such eccentric and individual methods as would make our building quite unlike any other. Meanwhile the City was moving east, due to the demands of banks and law firms and the role of new technologies. Historic Spitalfields would need to find some way to adapt to these changes, and not for the first time in its troubled three hundred year history.
We were investing of course, in the time-honoured way of buying cheap and sitting tight. “Acheter et attendre” is how they put it most succinctly in SW France. I don’t suppose we could afford to buy our building now. We are often complimented for having bought well. But this was never the point for us. We’d saddled ourselves with a great task. It was the means to an end, not the end in itself. Whatever the destination, we were determined to enjoy the ride.
On the evening of the day of completion of our purchase, my wife and I joined a friend from Oxford, Jane Holden, in unlocking the door of our new place. A mannequin in a gingham dress with bright lipstick and a broad straw hat greeted us, not unfriendly, propped up in an old cash office at the end of the entrance hall. She was the legacy of artists and bohemians who had colonized the place after the market ceased trading, and she seemed to make a good omen. That evening we opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate. I remember making a toast - as is sometimes my wont, my family will attest. I invited us all to drink “to our making, in time, one of the truly great restaurants of the world.” Everyone laughed of course, and yet I was only half joking. I sometimes hear people wonder out loud how to make a restaurant (it is a highly fashionable enterprise, you will know). They invariably conclude that an intricate web of bank funding, investors, professional advisers, marketing and piles and piles of cash are required. We had none of these. My wife and I know nothing whatever of these things. No-one was ever going to bankroll us. We had just our bare hands, our wits, and the desire to make something good and worthwhile and a thing that may last. I think perhaps my wife and I are determined people, not easily discouraged or dissuaded. We have been fighters, not quitters, while many others have fallen by the wayside. We are still here. Someday this thing we talk and dream about may still yet come to pass.