At Time For Tea
I had always assumed the words ‘Time for Tea’ emblazoned upon the fascia of a narrow building in Shoreditch High St indicated that it was an occasional tea shop. But when I enquired the meaning of this sign from Johnny Vercoutre, who has lived there for the past twenty years and who painted the text in question, he gave an unexpected reply. “It’s my philosophy of life,” he declared with a swagger and a smile, brushing his languid moustache with a forefinger as a mischievously pleasurable thought popped into his mind, “I’d like to drive a long truck with a line of dancing girls into the middle of the street and stop all traffic, and serve tea to everybody.”
Johnny came to the East End as child to buy a tortoise at the erstwhile animal market in Club Row. He likes to brag of his early prowess at splayed brickwork, which was a matter of pride to his father who was a builder in Kilburn and proved to be an invaluable asset in the restoration of his eighteenth century house. Originally constructed as the London Savings Bank, it served as the premises of Andrews the Clockmakers who supplied the timepiece to St Leonard’s Shoreditch next door, before becoming a pawnbroker and finally Clarkes the Stationers, when Johnny first visited to purchase envelopes.
The upper floors had been unoccupied since the forties when Johnny moved in twenty years ago. He has preserved the eighteenth century fabric and reinstated lost panelling, using vintage doors and windows in the restoration, yet pursuing a pre-war style of interior design with an Eau-de- Nil and black colour scheme that would make the last residents feel at home if they were ever to return, transported magically through time.
At street level, one door opens into an ancient flagged alley that once led through from Shoreditch High St to the Old Nichol, the notorious slum which was replaced by the Boundary Estate at the end of the nineteenth century. A side door here retains its metal grille from when the building was a pawn shop and a narrow staircase winds up through three storeys. A series of curious intermediary spaces are lit by skylights with stained glass and, at the first floor, the kitchen leads onto an attractive yard enclosed by age-old railings and overlooked by iron fire escapes. In the living room at the front, a box protrudes from the wall containing the mechanics of the clock on the exterior, installed by Andrews the Clockmakers.
Johnny boasts the last of the Nicholls & Clarke Eau-de-Nil ceramic suites in Shoreditch, imparting an underwater atmosphere to his third floor bathroom. Up above, the attic resembles the weavers’ lofts of Spitalfields with long windows granting views towards the City on one side and over the rooftops of Shoreditch on the other. Names painstakingly carved upon the beams and an elaborate anchor motif marked out in nails upon the a floorboard bear witness to those who passed through here in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
Johnny’ s labour over past decades has brought this unique building back to life and every inch speaks of the history of old Shoreditch. Yet such are the changes in the neighbourhood in recent years – now that Shoreditch has grown rich – he can no longer afford the upkeep and has to sell. Developers are circling and, since the building is not listed, they would be free to gut it to maximize their return on the property and destroy its historic fabric. But perhaps there is someone out there who would like to buy it and cherish it for what it is? If so, Johnny Vercoutre would like to hear from you email@example.com
I was concerned how Johnny will occupy himself in future without his house to renovate. “I have a motor yacht that once belonged to Donald Campbell,” he confessed to me. In response to my exclamation of wonder at this information, he revealed it was sunk. “Oh dear,” I exclaimed. “I still have the pieces,” he reassured me, stroking his moustache thoughtfully, “I can put them back together again.”
One of Johnny’s collection of veteran vehicles
The first floor living room
The attic bedroom
The hidden eighteenth century alley with its original flags
A grille from the building’s days as a pawnbroker
An eighteenth century house in Shoreditch High St
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