I visited Eltham Palace when I first moved to London back in 2011. Recently I went back again with a couple of friends. We all studied history at uni, and every year or so we try to visit some site of historical interest. Eltham was our choice this year.
The Palace is located just south east of London. We took the train from London Bridge to Mottingham station, a journey of under an hour. We then decided to walk to the Palace – we found an interesting route through some fields and made friends with a herd of donkeys.
This was new since my last visit – back then you could just pay at the entrance. The visitor centre close to the Palace is where you buy tickets, browse in the shop and let the kids play in the outdoor play area (this looked like good fun and I was pretty jealous to be honest). There is also a café, where we stopped for a cup of tea before going to explore the house.
Eltham Palace is fairly unique among historic houses, and it has a fascinating and rich history. The Eltham estate was recorded in the Domesday book, and was presented to King Edward II in 1305. For several centuries it was a royal palace, and Henry VIII grew up here. However, his daughter Elizabeth preferred Greenwich, and Eltham slowly declined.
By the time Stephen and Virginia Courtauld leased the house in 1933, it was in a bit of a state, but the couple hired architects Seely & Paget to restore it and put their own Art Deco stamp on it. The pair hosted many lavish cocktail parties, attended by socialites, celebrities and politicians. The house was close enough to London to be convenient and far enough away to enjoy the relaxing atmosphere of the countryside, although it was close enough to habitation for annoyed neighbours to pen angry letters complaining about the late-night firework displays.
Towards the end of the war, the Courtaulds left Eltham, and they never went back: the postwar world was not exactly conducive to lavish housing set-ups with multiple servants. Various groups undertook, with varying degrees of success, to conserve the Palace. English Heritage, which had been involved in the conservation of the medieval Great Hall for a while, took over the management of the entire site in 1995.
We picked up audio guides at the entrance and followed the suggested route around the house, starting upstairs and moving downstairs. The contrast between the amazing medieval great hall, with its roof built for Edward IV 500 years ago, and the 1930s Art Deco entrance hall, was incredible. Another highlight for me was the built-in cage for the Courtaulds’ pet ring-tailed lemur, Mah-Jongg, complete with painted mural and a ladder to let the little creature climb down and explore the house. Mah-Jongg did not prove particularly popular with the guests at parties – apparently he had a habit of biting their legs under the dining table.
Stephen and Virginia had separate bedrooms, bathrooms and sitting rooms: I was particularly jealous of Virginia’s glorious golden bathroom and Stephen’s library full of books. The couple’s personalities really came across during the tour – I think Virginia would have been great fun to be around, but I particularly identified with Stephen and his habit of retiring alone to his library after dinner.
The audio guides were pretty cool as you were able to choose which guest you would like to be while exploring the house. After the tour I found out the lady I chose was still alive at least a few years ago. I bet she has some amazing memories.
There were some basement rooms included in the tour that definitely weren’t there last time I was here. These were used by the couple and their guests during World War II. During the Blitz they would play billiards, put the gramophone on, or even go to sleep while the bombers were active outside.
The guides include the gardens, too. I’m not really an outdoorsy person but I did appreciate the beauty of the gardens. Weekend guests at Eltham were often roped in to help with the gardening. I liked the way that older features like the bridge and the moat were complemented by the flowers chosen by the Courtaulds. The gardens are beautiful and would be a lovely place to relax or have a picnic.
My friends and I had a lovely time at Eltham Palace. Although I came here a few years ago I’m glad I visited again. It’s one of the most unique and special houses you can visit – the mix of medieval and 1930s architecture is really something. Highly recommended.
Address: Court Yard, Eltham, Greenwich, London, SE9 5QE
Opening Hours: 10am-6pm daily in the summer, shorter opening times in the winter. Sometimes closed for special events – check website.
Prices: £14.40 adult, £8.60 child, £13.00 concession, under 5s free. Free to English Heritage and Art Fund members.