Suburban London has a lot of hidden gems, thanks to the fact that most of it used to be countryside before the growth of the metropolis took hold and everything got concreted over. If you know where to look, there are many patches of ancient woodland, remnants of great estates and palaces, pleasure parks and Roman ruins to be found, and all a short train or bus ride away from the city centre. Eltham Palace is just one of these treasures; a fifteenth century former royal palace where Henry VIII spent his childhood, it fell into disrepair after being sold by the Crown and becoming part of a farm. Just before World War One, the magnificent former banqueting hall of the palace was being used as a barn and the whole thing was close to falling down. Thankfully the government stepped in and performed some emergency repair works and in the 1930s, a phenomenally wealthy couple, Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (of the same family who set up London’s lovely Courtauld Institute of Art), bought up the remnants of the palace, demolished the Victorian villa that had been tacked on to it, and built a spectacular Art Deco mansion that incorporated the ruins. They lived there throughout the war before moving on, and the house then became the headquarters of the Royal Army Education Corps until the 1990s, when it was opened to the public by English Heritage. Remarkably, despite having been part of an institution for most of its life, the Art Deco part of the palace is in its original condition, complete with the impressive marquetry walls, wall paintings, library and built-in furniture, and is an absolutely delightful and truly beautiful place to visit.
The palace is unexpectedly reached via a busy suburban road full of modern houses and shops; turn down the lane that leads to it, however, and the roar of traffic ceases as a delightful, rustic panorama opens before you. Greenery hangs over the road, and beautiful historic houses nestle in cottage gardens as the Palace hides behind willow trees, its front door reached by a gothic arched bridge over a stream. It couldn’t be a more idyllic setting, and the sense of wonder at this place being where it is just keeps building the more you explore. The palace is shaped like a butterfly, with two wings coming off a main circular hall; one of the wings is the fifteenth century banqueting hall, the other a streamlined 1930s construction that has echoes of the site’s medieval past while still being unmistakeably modern. Pretty plants and shrubs make up the courtyard garden at the front, and yet there are glittering skyscrapers clearly visible on the horizon, reminding you that we are most definitely not on a country estate, despite being surrounded by acres of gorgeous landscaped gardens.
The house itself is truly spectacular; from the smooth round walls of the entrance hall, inlaid with marquetry depicting the Courtaulds’ favourite cities from around the world, lit by a gorgeous circular skylight, to the glittering gold tiles and onyx walls of Virginia Courtauld’s Roman inspired bathroom, every room offers something to surprise and delight. The Courtaulds were inspired by the interiors of the Cunard ocean liners they spent so much time on as they travelled the world, and this is reflected in the stream-lined surfaces of the beautifully made built-in wardrobes, beds and dressing tables in the bedrooms and the sinuous curves of the freestanding furniture and upholstery. The Crown fans may be interested to know that they used the house as the interior for the royal yacht in Season Two precisely for this reason! Style and glamour exudes from every surface, and it is a wonderful surprise to leave the modern wings and stumble into the medieval banqueting hall, whose hammer beam ceiling and lofty stained glass are truly breathtaking and offer such a striking contrast to the rest of the house. I’m not entirely sure what the Courtaulds used this space for, though I imagine it must have been a magnificent setting for parties and dinners, and even amateur theatricals!
Outside of the house, the gardens are lovely, though as one would expect of late March in England, the weather was not sufficiently nice enough for us to enjoy wandering around in them for too long. I imagine in the summer they must be beautiful, as there are plenty of flower beds, a rose garden and riverside lawns to explore. The Courtaulds loved to entertain and there are plenty of photographs inside the house of them lolling about in these gardens with friends, taking a dip in the pool (which is no longer there) and picnicking on the lawns, and it seems an absolutely charmed existence. Even during the war they kept up the entertainment, transforming the service quarters in the basement into a comfortable air raid shelter, which English Heritage have recreated to give a taste of wartime life. There is also – of course – a lovely cafe in the (heated) greenhouse, and a very good gift shop that has some particularly nice art deco items for sale.
I absolutely loved every moment of my visit, and can’t believe I left it so long – I did grow up just around the corner, after all! However they have opened a lot of new rooms over the last couple of years, and discoveries are still being made – recently when undertaking conservation work, they found maps and wall paintings in the former study, revealing the locations of Stephen and Virginia’s travels. Who knows what they’ll find next? I can’t recommend a visit highly enough – it’s a mere twenty minute train ride from London Bridge station to Eltham, and then a brisk ten minute walk from there – perfect for a little escape from the hustle and bustle!