Newest Review: ... we found ourselves stepping into the most photographed and famous room in the palace; the entrance hall. ~~Entrance Hall~~ The entran... more
A HAVEN IN THE MAELSTROM THAT IS SOUTH EAST LONDON!
Eltham Palace (Eltham)
Member Name: Richada
Eltham Palace (Eltham)
Advantages: Superb Setting. Wonderful Craftsmanship. Unique Architecture. Disabled Access
Disadvantages: Car Park is Very Small
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.
Summary: A superb art deco palace with ancient origins.