Newest Review: ... we found ourselves stepping into the most photographed and famous room in the palace; the entrance hall. ~~Entrance Hall~~ The entran... more
Feeling like Greta Garbo
Eltham Palace (Eltham)
Member Name: dee778
Eltham Palace (Eltham)
Date: 19/01/12, updated on 19/01/12 (101 review reads)
Advantages: Opulent, glamorous history
Disadvantages: Can get overcrowded - visitor facilities not great
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.
Summary: A very worthwhile visit
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