I had a long day without my children, and I wanted to do something memorable, real and soul enhancing with it. The day was perfect for walking; crisp leaves and the heat of the sun on my face – no need for a coat. I planned to visit Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, the V&A, and Spitalfields market.
From Sloane Square tube station, I walked along the King’s Road, stopping to buy food for lunch from the stalls outside the London Fashion Weekend at the Saatchi Gallery, and people watching the beautifully dressed audience queuing for the catwalk shows while I ate. After Chelsea Town Hall, I turned down Oakley Street to get to Cheyne Walk. By the standards of the neighbourhood, number 23 is modest and self-effacing – I could have walked past it if two sightseers hadn’t stopped outside it and begun reading out loud from their guidebook.
There was a proper bell pull on the door, and the house, looked after now by the National Trust, hasn’t really been altered since Thomas Carlyle died in 1881 and a group of his friends came together to buy it and preserve it as a shrine to him. I’ve always heard of the Carlyles; their reputation seems to loom large over the Victorian literary scene, but I’ve never really known what they’d done to deserve their great reputation. Now I’ve learned that Thomas Carlyle was a famous writer of books hardly anyone now reads, because his sentences are overlong, and his style overwrought. Jane Carlyle wanted to be a famous writer, and instead became the famous writers’ wife, so she wrote a lot of letters and glued pictures to screens. They had lots of famous friends, especially Charles Dickens. I actually don’t think I would have liked either of them much. His personality seems arrogant and overwhelming, hers irritatingly simpering. They both seemed to complain a lot about things – servants, portraits famous artists had painted of them, the noise, having to go to balls and dance with Charles Dickens.
The house is modest and soothing. It has nice things in it, and doesn’t get many visitors. I sat completely alone and quiet for some time in the study they had built at the top of the house, with their books and alternating pink stripe and rosebud wreath wallpaper, and then I go and sit in the back garden. Parents of young children are almost never alone; solitude is a nice novelty.
I don’t think I ever will read a book by Thomas Carlyle, although I may dip into Jane’s letters. I would quite like their wallpaper and their sofa, but I’m not bothered about the Sheraton sideboard.
Leaving the Carlyle’s house behind, I walk to the Victoria and Albert museum. I am thinking about giving up coffee and sugar, but couldn’t resist the allure of a cappuccino and brownie in the museum’s sunny fountain courtyard.
As I walk around the galleries, I notice most visitors are wearing striking nature or Arts and Crafts inspired prints, as though they might at any moment be called upon to camouflage with Morris or Voysey tiles. I have totally done this, too; I’m wearing my Libertyesque peacock feather print silk skirt in blues and greens, and a blouse with gold feathers scattered across an ivory background. Next time I visit, I think I’ll outfit myself in steely minimal monochrome, to stand out.
I still want to visit Spitalfields, and get on the tube, but the central line isn’t working at Holborn, and I end up walking to Bank before going back underground to Liverpool Street. I’m tired now, and it’s all lovely – there’s a 1940s tribute band singing, and people drinking tea outside Jeanette Winterson’s Verde and Company, and everyone is enjoying the sunny early evening – but I’m ready to go home now. I unrealistically think I can walk to the station, but I get lost and realise it’s too far; London Bridge isn’t where I think it is, my London sense of direction has finally let me down. I get on the tube at Aldgate, and eventually make my way back to where I need to be.