“ First inhabited as a royal residence in 1311 and frequented for the next four hundred years by successive monarchs, mainly for entertainment. Opening Times: April - September: open Thursday Friday & Sunday 10am-6pm. October - March: open Thursday Friday & „
Eltham Palace has been on my list of things to visit for many years. Renowned as an Art Deco gem in the heart of London, I had heard wonderful things about the unique design and the opulent decoration. The May bank holiday provided an excellent opportunity for the whole family to go out and see for ourselves.
Eltham Palace was once a beautiful medieval royal palace and home to Henry VIII. In the 1930s the glamorous millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld bought what remained of the palace and commissioned a spectacular and luxurious house to be built as a kind of extension. As strange as this may sound, the end result is something quite special. The house was completed in 1936 and was very strongly influenced the Art Deco fashion of the time, designed to simulate a Cunard ocean liner, each room was specially created to reflect the work of various contemporary architects and interior designers.
Now the palace is still a very special place; an echo of a millionaire lifestyle that has long gone, but which was dedicated to breaking the traditional design mold and to putting a great deal of money into making the living environment the most luxurious and amazing home. Walking into it today, you can transport yourself back to that time and imagine what it must have been like to party amongst such sumptuous surroundings.
Henry VIII was the last monarch to spend a substantial amount of time living in Eltham, and in the sixteenth century the palace started to fall into ruin quite rapidly. Over the next two hundred years the magnificent Great Hall was used as a barn and Eltham Palace spent some time being used as a farm.
The Courtaulds, with their modern ideas for new design transformed the site during the 1930s but they left the area in 1944 and the site was used by the army until 1992. Luckily English Heritage took over the management of the Palace in 1995 and in 1999 they restored it to its 1930s glory and opened it to the public. Today it is a special place to visit, but not particularly high profile in terms of fame and publicity.
This could be partly because the grounds have been reduced to a very small percentage of their original size, leaving the palace sitting rather incongruously in the middle of surburban Eltham. From this point of view it compares strangely to more rural stately homes such as Hatfield House or Knebworth which are approached through vast pastures of private land and long drives.
~~Our Visit ~~
As we walked the short distance from the car park to the house, I had a rising sense of excitement - walking along the outskirts of the property I could catch tantalising glimpses of the house and gardens over the brick perimeter wall and I couldn't wait to get in.
Access to the house is over a small wooden footbridge that crosses over the moat. Going through a large door, the ticket office is small and informal - and somewhat confusing. There were two cashiers but no obvious queue. Some people appeared to be walking straight through - either going straight on into the garden or turning left to the kitchen and scullery. As one of the restaurants was in this area of the house, I imagine they were heading there - but the whole place was just a milling crowd of people with no clear direction or signs from the staff.
Eventually we managed to reach a till, and paid for out tickets. We were then directed back towards the kitchen, and after the walk down the long dark corridor and past the restaurant, we found ourselves stepping into the most photographed and famous room in the palace; the entrance hall.
The entrance hall is just simply spectacular, and everything that I was expecting when I decided to visit the house. Lit from above by a multi-paned glass dome which allows light to pour down into the circular carpet and furniture arranged in a circle to mirror the dome. The curator was especially vigilant with the recreated brown and beige Dorn rug, but despite his constant orders to keep off the carpet, visitors still tried to walk across. Small white furniture in the art deco style are arranged around the carpet, with side tables holding papers and magazines from the 1930s. It was like stepping back in time.
The room itself is triangular in shape and very simple, with several rooms radiating off, a large front door which is currently unused, and a long corridor.
Male and female toilets are located by the large front door, but manage to be very discrete and in keeping despite the central location. This is probably because they are not modern additions, but the original toilets that the Courtaulds installed for the convenience of their many guests.
A huge decorated wooden panel with scenes from around the world (1930s Venice and Olso) dominates the room, with two winding wooden panelled staircases at either side taking visitors up to the first floor. Each wall is lined with a lovely mellow blackbean veneer and enormous marquetry panels depicting a Roman legionnaire and a Viking, tower over the visitors.
The room was designed by Engstromer, and is the first example of Swedish interior design in England. Everything in this room is curved and curving - the furniture, the walls, the window dome, the patterns on the carpet. It is quite beautiful and very different.
To one side of the room is a small cubicle that housed the old fashioned telephone (recreated to show us what life was like) - and whilst here I was mystified by a rope ladder that led upwards through a hole in the ceiling. I later discovered that this was so that the Courtauld's pet lemur, Mah-Jongg, could come down from his cage on the upper floor to be fed.
~~Other Downstairs Rooms~~
Numerous rooms lead off corridors from all sides of the entrance hall and radiate from the entrance hall itself. These include Stephen Courtauld's study and the magnificent Italian Drawing Room. It is the unsymmetrical nature of this layout that I find so attractive - it is difficult to get the plan of the house into your head.
There are so many beautiful rooms downstairs that it would be impossible to go into detail about them all. Unusual things that I noticed were the innovative vacuuming system in place around the house, best seen in the study. Using this system involved plugging a hose into the vacuuming pipe system that was hidden behind the skirting boards. The engine for the system was kept in the basement and once activated sucked up dust from all around the house, whisking it away neatly into the basement without the maids having to lug a large vacuum cleaner around.
Another room that remains in my memory is the Dining Room, accessed through some really spectacular black and silver doors. These doors had images of animals and birds in silver which stood out amazingly against the black. The animals were inspired from those at London Zoo. The ceiling in this room is decorated with fine aluminium leaves in the Art Deco style and the furniture is upholstered in pink leather.
A long corridor leads from the entrance hall to a very ancient room and it is a surprise to find yourself entering a very different sort of stately home. This is the original Great Hall which was built for Edward IV in the 1470s as a dining room, and which was incorporated into the 1930s house as a surprising addition. You can see this huge hall from two perspectives; from the ground floor or from the first floor minstrels gallery which leads from the upstairs bedrooms. This hall seems strangely incongruous - 100 feet long and dominated by the enormous and intricately constructed wooden hammer beam roof, this hall was used by the Courtaulds as a music room. Although impressive, I found it strangely out of place amongst the art deco finery of the rest of the house.
Going upstairs is a treat in itself. Continuing the theme of a Cunard liner, the curved stairs really are like those on a luxury ship, with small port holes in the wall as you walk up so that you can look out on the downstairs visitors.
As is sometimes common in 1930s houses, some of the bedrooms seem rather disappointingly functional after the unrelenting luxury of downstairs. The most amazing exception to this is Virginia Cortauld's bedroom, which is truly opulent and the last word in extravagance. This room was designed by Malacrida; the famous and popular Italian interior designer, and is totally flamboyant and delightfully over the top. The walls are curved, which I always love, and are lined with sycamore veneer in the style of an ocean liner. The ceiling is mirrored with hidden lighting which is also found in the walls. These hidden light fittings illuminate jade and crystal statues that are dotted around the room above the lights.
The most popular sight in this room was Virginia's en suite bathroom which is more like a shrine to the gods than anything else. This bathroom is dominated by a statue of Psyche which sits above the large bath in an alcove that is decorated with real gold mosaic tiles. The whole bathroom is decorated in gold leaf and onyx and is very much the most impressive and excessive thing I have ever seen.
A number of bedrooms, including Stephen Courtauld's suite, impress with original features and tasteful design, finishing with the servant's bedrooms at the very end of the corridor. These servants bedrooms are closed to the public.
As you walk along the upstairs corridor, it is impossible to miss Mah-Jongg's Quarters. At last you can see where the mysterious little ladder led to; the pet lemur had a large, centrally heated cage on the landing so that he could sleep with his owners, but he also had a private hatch with a rope ladder so that he could nip downstairs to the kitchen for a late night snack.
It is certainly worth making sure that you have time to see the gardens before you leave. The gardens have also been fully restored and are a fantastic example of 1930s garden design. In addition a fair amount of the parkland remains around the house, giving views over London and providing a lovely place to walk or picnic in fine weather.
The Courtaulds were both interested in horticulture and gardens design in general. It is likely that they contributed to the design themselves; a design which included the flooding of the original moat and the creation of ornamental plantations, sunken rose gardens, a rock garden and a woodland garden.
The variety in this garden is amazing and the addition of the water filled moat adds a lot of atmosphere to the area close to the house. The terrace outside the double doored entrance has also been wonderfully designed with a radiating pattern of brick paths. The Courtaulds put their own mark on this area too with 4 reliefs which illustrated some of their favourite pastimes, such as mountaineering and yachting.
There are two main areas to take a snack break in the Palace. The Orangery is a small takeaway snack bar in the gardens. In nice weather you can eat on the tables that sit outside, but there is no indoor seating. The Orangery sells pre-wrapped sandwiches of a limited choice (egg and cress, cheese salad) for around £2.95. These were really not at all appetising and I was disappointed.
Inside, hot food is served in a small, overcrowded tearoom which is just next to the gift shop by the entrance. The food here once again is expensive and really not inspiring. We took one look at the huge queue waiting to sit down in the tiny square room and decided not to bother, making the short walk to Eltham town centre in a few minutes and having our lunch in the local BHS cafe.
Driving there seemed to take much longer than it should. Eltham is not an easy place to find for the initiated, and seemed to involve a whole day of dreary south London streets and grey dual carriageways. The A2, A20 and M25 all run close to the palace.
Located in the middle of a residential, the Palace itself is not well signposted and seemed hidden away in a maze of small residential streets.
For those who are not familiar with the area, I would recommend catching a train directly from London Charing Cross to Eltham or Mottingham Stations, or perhaps catching the 124, 126 or 160 bus, all of which stop close to the palace.
~~Opening times and prices~~
The palace is open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday. Summer 10:00 - 17:00, winter 11:00 - 16:00.
Prices are £9.30 per adult, £5.60 for children and £8.40 concessions.
A family ticket is £24.20 and entry is free to English Heritage members.
Eltham Palace is a lovely and unique place, and one which I would readily visit again. We visited on a Bank Holiday and found that the large crowds did detract a little from our enjoyment, so I would recommend trying to visit at a quieter time. The palace is small and the rooms and corridors are also small - it is easy to feel a bit claustrophobic once the visitors arrive in force.
We were able to buy a family ticket, which was good value - but I do think the adult prices are on the high side if you arrive as a couple or individually.
On the down side, the organisation was poor, from the buying of the tickets to the queues in the restaurants. Considering that so many pubs, supermarkets and cafes are within a few minutes walk of the palace, I would expect them to offer better quality and value to be competitive.
However, we did have an enjoyable time, especially walking around the gardens once we had finished in the house. The atmosphere of the 1930 has been really well captured without feeling too much like a museum or a false recreation of every day life. It was a real glimpse into history and one that I was glad to make.
When you think of royal residences in the London area you think of Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and perhaps the Tower of London or Hampton Court. No one would mention Eltham Palace even though it is where the young Henry VIII spent the vast majority of his childhood.. Eltham Palace is in a far flung corner of suburban south east London thus is a little known gem far far away from the touristtrap of central London. It's a palace with a difference as it is more cosy, intimate and at first sight not very royal at all due to the new 1930s wing. You may recognise the interiors as it has been used in films and television programs set in the 30s such as I capture the Castle and Brideshead Revisited.
Eltham Palace is a fascinating building architecturally, with a very interesting history. It's actually half medieval Great Hall and half chic 1930s Art Deco The two halves are melded together to make a very pleasing historic house to visit. The Great Hall was constructed in the 1470s in the reign of Edward IV and was used as a royal palace until the 16th century. It fell into disrepair by the 18th and 19th centuries, with its spectacular Great Hall being used as a barn and then a picturesque ruin. In the 1930s Sir Stephen Courthald and his wife Virginia (commonly known as Ginny) restored the hall to its former glory whilst adding a new wing in the modern Art Deco style. The couple moved out in 1944 due to the effects of World War 2 where it was taken over by the Royal Army Education Corps until 1994 when English Heritage took over ownership of the complete house (the Great hall was already under their care beforehand).
I have been meaning to visit Eltham Palace for a while, as Eltham is almost on my doorstep. However I took the plunge to visit on a sunny Sunday afternoon in June and I wish I had visited sooner, as I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. Being fairly local I accessed the Palace by bus. The easiest way to get to Eltham from central London is to take a Dartford train via Bexleyheath from London Bridge. It should take roughly half an hour. It's about a quarter of an hours walk from the train station but is well signposted.
Once past the car park you cross a bridge with a moat flowing under it to reach the ticket office. Its a medium priced attraction. I paid £8.20 for a ticket to the house and gardens. This included a very detailed but entertaining and interesting audio guide thus I felt this was fairly good value for money.
Once in the courtyard you get your first proper glimpse of the frontage of Eltham Palace with it s magnificent curved At Deco facade and the Great Hall jutting out to the right. Walk through into the entrance hell of the Palace where you are greeted by the staff who hand you fetching blue plastic covers to put over your shoes to protect the vast swathes of cream carpet inside. It did look funny seeing everyone with these blue poly bag type things on their feet but it makes prefect sense and saves on cleaning bills. It is useful to note that there is no photography inside the house so keep your camera for outside shots only.
The entrance hall sets the tone for the rest of your experience. It's a huge light space crowned by a concrete and glass done poring in light like a modern day St Paul's. Underneath this is a wonderful circular huge carpet which your eyes are dawn to. Walk round the room and adore the lovely marquetry panels and take a peek at the private pay phone installed so the guests could call out with the house without the Coulthard's getting the bill. The Art Deco part of the house was designed by the architects John Seely and Paul Page with the stunning interiors designed by Peter Malacrida. Eltham Palace is a joy to behold as the then cutting edge design is now one of the best examples of Art Deco in England.
I found the drawing room to be very interesting as it is very different to the rest of the rooms in the new part of Eltham Palace. Olde worlde beams replace the graceful curves and geometric patterns of the Deco style rooms. This was the room designed to keep Sir Stephen's collection of old masters and Italian furniture so a more old fashioned effect was desired. I liked the room as it seemed like a bridge from the new to the old. Talking of the old, it was wonderful to follow in the footsteps of Chaucer, Henry VIII and Erasmus to visit the oldest part of the building, the Great Hall. It is a large hall with a grand hammer beamed ceiling, an almost throne like chair and sumptuous long drapes. It is hard to believe that a century ago this was just a romantic ruin, as the hall was pain painstakingly reconstructed by the Couthards. They even constructed a minstrels gallery above th hall which you can visit and stand and admire the grandness of it all.
I retraced my steps to visit Stephen's study and Ginny's boudoir. The boudoir was not a boudoir in the normal sense but more a morning room where Ginny ran the house. I was fascinated by a leather map of the Elthm area. It was difficult to see though and it would have been nice to have a replica in one of the rooms so people could look at it closer. What struck me most about the house was all the little new fangled touches such as the in house telephone system alongside the integrated vacuum system housed in the basement (although I am sure I have seen one of those somewhere else). There were even speakers in each ground floor room to pipe gramophone music. I found all these little ingenious gadgets fascinating.
At this point we climbed the stairs to th upper level. The highlight for me was Ginny's luxurious bathroom paneled in onyx and marble with a luxurious looking marble bath, gold ostentatious taps and a lions mouth spout backed by golden mosaic and a statue of a Greek god. I really wanted that bathroom complete with the little passageway for the maid to discreetly fill the bath. The other area that fascinated me upstairs was the centrally heated cage of Mah Jong (Jonngy) who was the Couthard's beloved pet ring tailed lemur. This cage has bamboo wall paper to make Jongy feel right at home, and a little bamboo ladder so he could access Giinny's flower room and the floor below. I think the (ringed) tale of Jonggy is the one thing of real interest for children and I thought it would be nice if there was a trail to do with him available. However there is an interactive game to explore the house with Jonggy on English Heritage's excellent website.
The tour ends in another spectacular room, th dining room. This shrikes Art Deco at its best with the beautiful ceiling, and the Greek key design on the doors and fire place. Children may enjoy identifying the beautiful depictions of animals on the doors which were based on sketches of animals at London zoo. I really enjoyed my tour of the house. It took about an hour which was about the right length as I did not get the feeling of "not another room". It was also nice to have something fairly modern and maybe less formal than some of the better known historic houses. It was great not to see any servants quarter with mangles etc!
At this point we stopped for a bit of light refreshment in the tea room. This was small but the service was excellent as was the food. I was impressed that a scone, jam and cup of coffee only came to £2.30 My companion had ordered organic banana cake and had expected a slice of banana loaf. She received a huge chunk of light moist cake which was exceedingly good value. I felt the prices were very reasonable as the food was very good quality. It was also nice to get a cop of coffee in a china cup that had a vague nod to Art Deco. It's these little touches that male English h Heritage tearooms what they are.
Next to the tea room is the shop. It had the usual English Heritage knick knacks and jar of jam but a lot of the stock was nicely chosen to reflect the individual property. There were some lovely(but expensive) Art deco tea sets alongside cheaper photograph albums and address books. I shall certainly be plundering the shop for gifts for a family member who is keen on all things Art Deco. For the children there were cute cuddly lemurs so they could take home their own Jonggy.
Once outside there are the gorgeous gardens to explore. We were lucky to visit in June as everything was in flower. These gardens are not extensive unlike th great historic houses but there is enough space to have a picnic, let the kids run wild or get away from it all and forget you are actually only 8 miles from the centre of London.
I really would recommend a visit to Eltham Palace and would allow for half a day by the time you have seen the house and the gardens. Take a picnic and enjoy the peace and tranquility. Eltham Palace may be suitable for the more patient child as there are special themed family days alongside Jongy. However there are no interactive display or dressing up boxes that I could see .
Whilst at the property I found it to be busy without being packed. There was enough room to move about. It was nice to get away from the hustle of bustle of London and certainly the coach parties of American and Japanese tourists. Perhaps I should not have written this review so I can keep this little architectural gem well and truly to myself.!
21 Mar - 31 Oct10am-5pmMon, Tue, Wed, & Sun.
1 Nov - 21 Dec11am-4pmMon, Tue, Wed, & Sun.
1 Feb - 31 Mar11am-4pmMon, Tue, Wed, & Sun.
Closed 22 Dec-31 Jan
For many years I have been a card carrying member of English Heritage, taking an interest in all aspects of historic sites and buildings. As with many such memberships, after the initial flush of interest passed, and having visited most of the sites in the south of England my annual membership card rarely came out of my wallet.
Then, just over four years ago, one of those life changing events occurred, I met my Polish wife, who amongst many other things in life, shared my interest in historic buildings and the more simple pleasures of days out in the English countryside.
On her first visit to England, for two weeks, during the Foot and Mouth summer of 2001, we spent a wonderful holiday visiting as many such places as it was possible to pack in. Previous conversations on the phone had indicated to me that she would enjoy visiting castles and palaces, but the one place on visiting this country that she wanted to see was Stonehenge.
Stonehenge is not the subject of this review, and does not really need any introduction anyway, suffice to say here that it is in the care of English Heritage and was the first such property that Adrianna, now my wife visited. As such it whetted her appetite for English country houses, gardens and Castles - my English Heritage card very quickly joined me in gaining a full time partner!
Now living permanently in this country, my wife has been amazed at just how many English Heritage sites there are to visit. Of course The National Trust is also a very strong Heritage organisation too, and we have been to many of their sites also during our travels around the country. In Poland there are also castles and palaces to visit, most very cheaply too. However there is no organisation there to ensure that such places are well cared for, neither to my knowledge is there an organisation listing such properties. The main advantage of National Trust or English Heritage membership, apart naturally from free admission to all of their properties, is that you are sent a very comprehensive guide book each year.
We do not tend to plan our visits, merely taking advantage of a sunny Sunday or Bank Holiday in order to enjoy a trip out. Obviously there are exceptions to that such as the wonderful Osborne House on the Isle of Wight (involving a car ferry ticket!) but, by and large, there are enough sites within an hour or so from where we live to satisfy our need for the Heritage experience.
Whilst we have visited all of the English Heritage properties in Hampshire, Sussex and Kent, due partly to the traffic congestion we had not, until recently, visited any of the London properties.
There are several to choose from and really quite randomly we fell upon Eltham Palace in the 2005 English Heritage handbook. It looked like an easy enough run anti-clockwise round the M25 from the M23, then off at junction 3 (M25) and join the dual-carriageway A20 heading in towards central London. Eltham is to be found as you enter the Borough of Greenwich, SE9.
Either from the centre of Eltham town or from the A20 which runs through it, the brown English Heritage sign posts will clearly direct you to Eltham Palace. From Brighton we had travelled around 65 miles, the journey taking an hour and ten minutes, the only real traffic encountered being on the A20 approaching Eltham itself.
Our first impressions on entering the rather small but immaculately kept car park were all positive. You cannot see the house from the car park, (and therefore the car park from the house!) and from previous experiences at much better known sites, namely Blenheim Palace and Chatsworth House (neither English Heritage), where rows of parked cars ruin whole vistas of the house, this is a very good thing.
Eltham Palace is a three minute walk from the car park, there is clearly displayed disabled parking immediately adjacent to the entrance however, this is a very friendly site for the less able bodied amongst us, witnessed by the number of wheelchair users visiting the day we did.
When we left at around 2.30p.m there was a long queue (outside) to gain entry, however at 11.55a.m upon our arrival we had waited maybe 5 minutes to show our membership cards and purchase (for £3.75) the excellent guide book. From the cash desk you are directed to the house entrance through the door and across the circular courtyard to the porticoed entranceway.
There you are met by English Heritage staff who issue you with plastic covers for your shoes (to keep the carpets inside clean) and if you so desire an audio guide. A tip here is that the only public toilets on the whole (not terribly large in truth) site are located either side of the main entrance. It did seem a little ironic that the blue plastic shoe covers were issued before attending to a call of nature!
However these toilets, female to the right, male to the left, were original to the 1930's house (rather than put there for our 'convenience' by English Heritage!). The owners and designers of this house entertained on a grand scale and if you use these toilets, some very well known millionaires and even film stars from that glamorous era (Stephen Courtauld had a large stake in the famous Ealing Studios) have "been" before you!
Photography (including flash) is allowed inside the house, but mysteriously I was stopped and asked not to use my camcorder indoors.
Rather than viewing the house immediately, this was Sunday lunchtime after all, we decided to head straight to what used to be the kitchen in order to have lunch in the tea room. This turned out to be a very utilitarian pair of rooms, originally kitchen and scullery, where there were large refectory tables, mostly laid out to seat six people. At spot on midday this place was packed and we were soon to find out why! The food was superb, and by the standards of eating in this area very reasonably priced. For £21 we enjoyed a hot baked vegetable flan, new boiled potatoes and deliciously crisp, fresh salad, followed by really yummy chocolate fudge cake served with whipped cream and drenched in thick, hot, chocolate sauce. A glass of mineral water each completed our lunch.
Ignoring a big notice saying: "no re-admittance to the house" we re-entered the house via the dining room and then back to the showpiece main entrance hall.
Before proceeding, as briefly as I can, to describe the house and gardens, probably a little history here might come in handy. There had been a palace of sorts on this site since medieval times, it was recorded as such in the Doomsday Survey of 1086, it was the home of the Bishop of Bayeux, half brother to William the Conqueror. Obviously at that stage, London was far from the mighty metropolis it now is, Eltham would have been a tiny village some miles out from what we now recognise as the City of London.
The very unusual house you see before you now bears no relationship to that original palace. The Great Hall, looking rather like a village church from the outside is by many centuries the oldest part of the current palace, having been originally built in the 1470's as the dining hall for the court of Edward IV. It was restored during the 1930's when the rest of this extraordinary house was built by and for Virginia and Stephen Courtauld, millionaires in the days when that really meant that you were truly rich!
What really sets this house apart though is that it is so much unlike any of the usual stately or country homes that we have ever visited. Being a contemporary 1930's design, it is far more modern for a start. There are some slightly unusual surprises such as a (real) Tudor gabled front - only visible from the upstairs landing windows, but mostly this house, Great Hall apart, is a shrine to art deco design.
Now I'll own up to not previously being a fan of art deco, often thinking that the design was an excuse to rather cheapen every day items and in terms of architectural style, in most cases, have viewed it rather as "non-style".
However, Eltham Palace is not your typical inter-war art deco three bed suburban semi, oh no! There is a lot of that architecture to be seen in towns such as Eltham, Northolt and many other outer London suburbs, all now submerged onto one huge city, but the Courtaulds did it in real style, using shed loads of their considerable fortune in turning this into a wonderful family home - fitted with all mod cons.
Probably the most striking space, difficult to call it a room with these extraordinary proportions, is the grand entrance hallway. The Great Hall is also mighty impressive, but not as totally unusual as the first room into which you step.
What makes it so unusual? Well to start with it is almost triangular in shape, but with rounded corners. Everything about it is extraordinary; most of the detailing is unique. The walls are covered (as are those in several other rooms) in the most exquisite Australian blackbean wood veneers, when I say covered, I mean covered, from floor to ceiling!
Into these veneers are inlaid marquetry panels depicting highly detailed scenes of the Courtaulds favourite cities of Venice and Florence. Even for those of us who would not claim to be art connoisseurs, these scenes are breathtaking and beautifully portrayed.
I'm not going to go into the last detail here, because all of you who have the opportunity would be well advised to go to Eltham and admire it for yourselves. However I cannot lead you from this room without making mention of THAT ceiling!
One of the most breathtaking aspects of the whole house is the ceiling in the entrance hallway. You notice upon entering the room that it is flooded with the most beautiful natural, yet defused daylight. The moment that this registers, your eyes are drawn inescapably upwards - towards the most fabulous ceiling that I have ever seen. We're not talking Sistine Chapel style here, oh no, this is an ultra modern homage to concrete and glass, designed and constructed in the early 1930's and looks simply stunning. Hopefully I will be able to do justice to this extraordinary design feature with a photograph inserted below, but they are always too small to fully appreciate such a breathtaking feature!
In simple words you are looking at a domed ceiling 23 feet (7 meters) in diameter with hundreds of circular glass "bullets" set into the concrete. They are not placed at random however, and make up a series of circles - stunning, simple but stunning to look at and a very efficient way of naturally lighting this large space.
Before moving on from the hall (I can feel a rather long review coming here!) a brief mention of the telephone booth situated here. Stephen Courtauld had a dislike of telephones; in the 1930's telephone calls were expensive too. His guests, if they wished to make a call were directed to the payphone booth in the hall!
To the left of the hall is situated the dining room and to the right is the drawing room. These two rooms are of very different character, the drawing room being if anything the only room that seemed 'out of character' in the whole house. It has what look like wooden beams on the ceiling which actually turn out to be finely painted plasterwork. To my eyes though this room smacks too much of an old American TV movie, even the artwork displayed here compared to the rest of the house feels somehow phoney.
You could not however say the same of the dining room. An entirely modern "Art Deco" room, here you are looking at walls covered in bird's-eye maple, floor to ceiling and with an extraordinarily beautiful 1920's style (electric) fireplace. Complimenting this are the unique lacquered ebony door panels depicting various animals and birds. Other items drawing the eye here are the very plain dining table and modern, pink leather high backed dining chairs and the mirror backed display cabinets set into the walls. This is by any standards another breathtaking room.
Leading off from the drawing room is a corridor taking you through to the great hall, but not before viewing another couple of quite extraordinary rooms. Firstly you enter Virginia Courtauld's boudoir, the room from which as "lady of the house" she organised the daily life at Eltham palace with the help of a secretary who was situated in a back room - "en-suite" to the main boudoir.
Next to the boudoir is a rather unconventional library. Like the boudoir it is, again fully veneered but rather than a large number of books displayed on shelves, there are some, Stephen Courtauld primarily designed this room to show off his fine art collection. Priceless and delicate watercolours were shielded from the light by being mounted behind a series of pull down wooden shutters.
We are now about to enter the medieval Great Hall, so breathtakingly contrasting in scale and appearance from the rest of the house that it is like stepping through a door into another world. The purpose of this room I have already covered, suffice to mention here the most fantastic oak hammer beam roof that I have ever seen. In fact this great hall is probably best appreciated from the minstrels' gallery, upstairs, which is where we are now going.
Unlike all of the other big houses visited (in actual fact this is small in comparison, but never mind it is quality that counts here!) the staircase at Eltham is nothing to write home about, a half circle partly encased going up either side of the main entranceway. There is no strict order of viewing the rooms, each one is numbered and you just press the corresponding number on the audio guide. For some reason though as far as the stairs are concerned, on the day we visited at least, the rules of the road applied - everybody went up to the left and came down the right staircase!
No part of this splendid house could in anyway be described as ordinary, and yet the bedrooms upstairs whilst extravagantly decorated and furnished were all of homely proportions. This you could say would be the type of home that maybe we ordinary mortals could dream about on winning a substantial lottery jackpot as opposed to having to have inherited old money as at Blenheim or the like. For this very reason, the much more 'intimate' and private quarters upstairs are just as interesting as the lavish reception rooms below.
I'm not going to describe the upstairs room by room, there are simply too many of them for that, two that particularly appealed to me were Virginia's semi-circular bedroom and the rather large "zoo cage" which was Mah-Jongg's quarters.
Ok as I write this it's getting late, you know who Virginia is, but you are getting bored and now Mah-Jonng? Well you see one of their many pets was a ring tailed lemur, purchased from, of all places, Harrods department store in 1923. He lived to the age of 15, having travelled all over the world on their yacht, finally being laid to rest in the grounds here at Eltham Palace. In the early Second World War years when the Courtaulds left London and took up residence in (the then) Rhodesia, Mah-Jonng's body was exhumed and re-buried in the grounds of their new home! However, here he had his own centrally heated quarters, complete with private little staircase to the ground floor. During the day he enjoyed having the run of the whole house!
By comparison with his quarters, certainly Virginia's were rather more plush! As is the custom of "the upper crust" husband and wife had separate bedrooms, both with double beds and in this case a hidden communicating door between the two rooms. For the period of the day this was an extraordinarily well appointed house for BOTH of these rooms had their own en-suite bathrooms.
Virginia Courtauld had extravagant taste and certainly 'let rip' with it in these most private of quarters! The bedroom is entered from the hallway outside through a curved sliding door, as you enter there are three slots let into the wall to house fresh flowers.
The room itself is almost circular, veneered floor to ceiling in maple, it is quite simple in design and yet at the same time exquisite. What you do not actually notice here is that the lighting, and indeed central heating, are recessed into the circular (classic white plastered) ceiling, this would be the perfect room in which to get a good nights sleep - perfect karma, free of all unnecessary distractions and yet luxuriant at the same time.
Even more spectacular is the en-suite bathroom, quite the most lavish room I could ever imagine performing my ablutions in! The full sized marble bath is recessed into a semi-circular alcove, this being tiled with tiny (inch square) gold mosaic tiles. To either side of the bath are floor to ceiling, gold shelving units backed with mirrors. There are far too many details here to remember and describe, but the bespoke gold plated taps and lion's head water pipe are quite remarkable and in my experience at least, unique.
There are guest rooms, all with en-suite facilities, rather less lavish but all individually designed, something that we particularly appreciated about this house was that it is all "open", there are no locked rooms to leave you guessing what may lie beyond closed doors.
I mentioned earlier the "mod cons". One notable feature of Eltham Palace is its built in, centralised vacuum cleaning system. Rather than pushing a noisy, heavy portable cleaner around the house, all of which, excepting the bathrooms, was carpeted, the servants merely plugged a flexible hose into sockets in the wall which sucked all the debris downstairs to the basement. Other centralised and modern, by today's standards, features include a music system throughout downstairs and an internal telephone system. Ironic that as Stephen Courtauld was known to dislike telephones so!
Having completed our tour of this simply superb house - a tour which took well over an hour and a half, the rest of our visit was taken up enjoying the magnificent gardens.
As this review has, I am sure, already outworn your patience, I will save the gardens for another day. The Palace is set in 19 acres of land, certainly not over large by the standards of your "average" stately home, but like the house, what they lack in size, the gardens very much more than make up for in beauty.
You may look at the prices below and consider them rather expensive, we of course got in for nothing on our £52 joint annual English Heritage tickets and therefore paid nothing. Unusually I will offer two recommendations here:
If you enjoy this sort of outing then £52 a year is a true bargain - you can get into any English Heritage property in the country and obtain a discount on many more - or return week after week to this superb venue! OR
Pay £7.30 each for a house and garden ticket and enjoy Eltham Palace.
Richada's tip; if you like it as much as we did, then join English Heritage here and have your entry fee refunded! Then you can go back again and again as we fully intend to!
Eltham Palace is OPEN from:
1st April to 31st October - Sunday to Wednesday 10.00 to 17.00
1st November to 31st March - Sunday to Wednesday 10.00 to 16.00
But CLOSED - 22nd December to 31st January and 18th July.
Eltham Palace is a short train ride out of central London (regular trains from Victoria or Charing Cross), and well worth the trip. This English Heritage property is a fascinating house and garden, combining the remains of a mediaeval palace with state-of-the-art 1930s design. In the Middle Ages, from the 14th Century, Eltham was a royal palace. The Courtaulds bought the Palace in the 1930s, and somewhat controversially set about building their dream home. They kept what remained of the original palace – basically the great hall with its fabulous hammerbeam roof, to which they did add some faux mediaeval touches of their own. These include stained glass and a decidedly inauthentic minstrel’s gallery. However, with its relatively sparse, heavy, wooden furnishings the great hall retains its atmosphere and dignity despite these alterations. The attached new house built by the couple made no concessions to the site’s history: it combined Art Deco, ocean liner design, and the latest technology. Nonetheless, the overall effect is reasonably harmonious: neither building looks out of place next to the other. The entrance hall has a circular carpet mirroring the glassy dome in the ceiling, with marquetry panelling on the walls. There are ‘portholes’ in the stair walls, an effect mirrored in the built-in furnishings elsewhere. Ladies’ and men’s cloakrooms at the entrance are a reminder that the house was used a great deal for entertaining. Perhaps the most memorable room is Mrs Courtauld’s bathroom. Although small, it is stunning. Behind the bath is an alcove lined with gold mosaic tiles, housing a Classical statuette: this achieves the desired effect of a temple to Venus. The en suite bathrooms are part of the modern amenities found throughout the house. Others include a central vacuum cleaning system and a speaker system playing music throughout the ground floor from one
source (revolutionary at that time). However, Mr Courtauld’s love of technology did not extend to the telephone. Guests were expected to use a pay phone just off the hall, not only because of the expense of telephone calls but also because he personally disliked the instrument: most in the house are internal only. This kind of personal feature emphasises just how much the house was created to the design of two individuals, rather than simply a fashionable showpiece. Another such feature is the home of the couple’s pet ring-tailed lemur. This was being renovated when I visited, but somebody with a sense of humour had placed a cuddly version of the animal disappearing down its ladder! The ladder allowed the lemur to move from its own quarters to the ground floor. So beloved was this pet that a memorial was built to him when he died, in striped stone to reflect his tail (that memorial is now at another of the couple’s homes). I visited on a sunny Sunday, and the house was extremely busy. There is an audio tour available but no equipment was left when I arrived. The tea room provided good light lunches and cream teas, but was hectically busy too. However, the house itself was not overcrowded: I felt able to wander at leisure and properly appreciate each room. While bringing the crowds, the sunny weather did also mean that I could fully enjoy the gardens. These are well worth walking around, combining relatively formal water features, a large rock garden at the side of the river, a mediaeval bridge and a host of other pleasing features. Get the map when you arrive at the Palace, and make the most of exploring! There is also a shop, with the usual range of English Heritage products. The guidebook is well worth buying. It’s copiously illustrated, and as well as the tour of the house it offers further information on the history of the Palace, the designers involved, et cetera.
I would definitely recommend taking the train out of London to Eltham Palace. It has a huge amount to offer, whether your interest is mediaeval or modern architecture, or gardens. Worth a visit!