Friday, March 24, 2006

Ben Franklin's House in London

Everyone should have a doppelganger. You feel less alone in the universe. I heard about my doppelganger from a school headmistress in south London. “Dear God”, she said, “do you know there are two of you. Same first name, both Americans, both work for banks, you both talk quite quickly (she meant too loudly and too much), you are both trying to get your sons (same age) into the same schools.”

“Stop”, I cried, “Who is this impostor?”

Naturally, over the years, the other Kate and I have become best mates and so, when she suggested we check out the newly opened Ben Franklin House, I jumped at the chance, especially as I had promised, in a NoCrowds posting on January 13, to rush right over there.

The Ben Franklin House, on a quiet street off the Stand, is a first class experience. The restoration of this Georgian terrace house has taken eight years and from what I saw yesterday, it is well worth the time and effort. Not because it is a “grand” restoration but because it appears to be a loving and faithful one. No surface is even or smooth. The floorboards, wide, imperfect and beautiful would make any modern day designer swoon. The Georgian atmosphere is pitch perfect.

But the ambitions of the house far exceed that of providing an authentic glimpse of domestic life in Georgian times. Through the use of actors and clever video and sound technology, visitors participate in the life of Dr Franklin during his London years. The museum does a wonderful job of bringing together both the big picture of his illustrious achievements during his years in London as well as the minutiae of his daily existence at Craven Street. It took me a minute or two to warm up to the room by room theatrics, but by the end, as they would now say in 21st century America, “It worked for me”.

The house opened in February of this year and there are still some logistical kinks to resolve. Our show started a good 15 minutes late. We were left alone in the first room with a small exhibit for way too long and I am not convinced that the current arrangement with a theatre strangely located in the arches around the corner where you pick up you tickets and wait in the unattractive bar is the right start to the experience.

But with that said, the Ben Franklin House is an exciting and welcome addition to the London museum scene and shows what can be achieved in simple surroundings using good ideas and state-of-the-art technology. While the Historical Experience held my attention, it would also be very accessible for a younger audience and I look forward to taking Eloise, age 8, in the near future.

Following our visit, the doppelganger and I dashed over to the Paul Bakery and CafĂ© on Bedford Street in Covent Garden for lunch. Paul’s is one of the London outposts of the French boulangerie and patisserie chain that has been run by the same family for more than 116 years. The front of the house is a very French bakery which smells exactly as it should. The back of the house is a small and atmospheric “Salon de The” serving delicious, high quality omelettes, quiches, salads, sandwiches and the like. You can easily get out for under a tenner which is no small feat for Covent Garden. The other Kate and I had a fine time. After lunch we bought our husbands macaroons from the bakery. And, of course, being the husbands of doppelgangers, they both love them.

Ben Franklin House
36 Craven Street
London WC2N 5NF
Tel: 0207 930 9121
To book tickets: 0207 930 6601 or online at
House is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 – 5. Performances roughly every hour. Pre-booking advised.
Closest tube: Embankment or Charing Cross

Paul Boulanderie & Pattiserie
29/30 Bedford Street
Covent Garden
London, WC2
Tel: 0207 836 3304
Mon-Fri; 7:30am-9:00pm, Sat-Sun; 9:00am-9:00pm
Closest tube: Covent Garden

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