Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester, M13 9LW – Visit Now
Newly reopened, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House looks much like the esteemed author has just popped out. We went along to explore.
If you, like me, get a bit lost when visiting Elizabeth Gaskell’s House for the first time, you’ll recognise the following experience. A quiet walk from a low-rise stretch of new builds, onto a road overhung with trees. A little further, and Manchester’s tightly packed streets suddenly open out around the stunning, honey-coloured grandeur of the Gaskell’s house. Sitting in an ample plot of land, the building has a stateliness not often replicated today. Space, and peace, echoes around it. But it’s when you ring the bell and step inside that the otherworldliness really takes hold.
The front hall is where guests were once received: here, gentlemen hung their hats and deposited their gloves on a stand. I came with a bare head and a houndstooth coat, but Elizabeth’s lady visitors would have taken their bonnets upstairs, if they were coming to stay. A recording of horses hooves recreates the noise of passing carriages beyond the glass-paned front door. Now, crouching at the back of the stone-floored space, there’s a ticket machine disguised in a sort of plush cabinet.
It’s when you ring the bell and step inside that the otherworldliness really takes hold
This machine is one of the few gestures that hint at the fact that this is a house to be visited. “We wanted it to feel like somewhere where someone lives, rather than a museum,” explains Janet Allen, Chair of the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust. There are no “do not touch” signs or twisted rope cordons here. You can sit at Elizabeth Gaskell’s desk in the dining room, where her writing was constantly disrupted with questions about the children or how long to boil the beef for tea. You can also see the window where Charlotte Brontë hid behind the curtains, too shy to join the company (a bit like the opening scene in her novel Jane Eyre).
Brontë was among many guests to the house; others included Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Dickens and John Ruskin. And today the Gaskell’s house is much as those visiting would have remembered it (except, I suspect, rather cleaner). The restoration process here has been detailed and painstaking: the interior reflects the house as it would have been in 1857, after the first redecoration Elizabeth Gaskell oversaw herself. So, the wool carpets have been woven to a mid-19th century design, the walls covered with lime plaster on chestnut laths, and the chairs in the drawing room covered with a specially-printed fabric, its pattern true to the period. From its fibres to its face, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is as close to authentic as you could wish.
What’s truly impressive about all this is the state that the house was left in. It has taken many years, and £2.5m worth of funding, to transform it. The building was suffering from wet and dry rot, a leaky roof, as well as faulty plumbing and electrics. The exhibition on the first floor is a particularly striking “before and after” – especially for those who didn’t see the house in its former state. It’s an evolving project, still: the books in William Gaskell’s study have yet to be inscribed with introductions for those leafing through, and the garden’s flower beds, currently bare, have been planted to mature over the coming years.
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is that there’s so much to explore, from an interactive map of 19th-century Manchester to digitised manuscripts – and, at the same time, such a sense of reflection and serenity. Tea and cake served on vintage china in the basement tearoom will, I reckon, be the ideal way to absorb a rich visit. Here, you can stop a while in the servants quarters and believe, for a minute, that the mistress of the house might just walk back in through the front door.
Admission Charges£4.95/£3.95 Conc.
Services and FacilitiesTours, talks, events, tea room
Commercial and hire servicesOpen on other days for tour groups