diamond geezer

 Monday, March 24, 2008

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 23: Eltham Palace

Location: Court Yard, Eltham SE9 5QE [map]
Open: 10am - 5pm (11-4 in winter) (closed Thur, Fri, Sat) (closed January)
Admission: £8-ish
5-word summary: classy medieval/Art Deco hybrid
Website: www.elthampalace.org.uk
Time to set aside: half a day

Wow. If you like your sightseeing to be a surprise, then don't read past this first paragraph. But wow. The family home of Stephen and Ginny Courtauld took me aback with almost every room I walked into. Especially the first room. And the big old hall. And the cage. I bet King Henry VIII loved the place. What a shame that its most famous 20th century owners barely had time to enjoy the fruits of their Art Deco makeover.

Eltham Palace - entrance over Tudor bridgeYou wouldn't expect to find a redeveloped palace in the middle of London's southeast commuter belt. But here it is, up a tree-lined sidestreet across a very old stone bridge. The oldest still-operational bridge in London, apparently, and with a rather picturesque willowed moat beneath. There's not much other evidence of Eltham's medieval past, not yet, just one long wing of a more modern-looking stately home. Admittance is via the servants' entrance, and then into a long pea green back corridor which looks like it belongs in a pre-NHS hospital. Round the next corner there's a bloke dishing out protective blue plastic slippers to slip over your footwear. It's not a glamorous look, and completely at odds with the stylish decor coming up next, but it'll help to protect the flooring ahead from unintentional damage. Ok, first room...

Wow. Is this the portholed lounge of some 1930s ocean liner? No, it's the house's main triangular entrance hall, complete with blackbean veneer walls and a unique glass domed roof. The central rug's rather special, all geometric brown and beige and fawn, so please don't step on it. There are extra-large cloakrooms behind the marquetry panels, as befitted the home of a wealthy socialite, and there's also a walk-in telephone cupboard. They were very big on new-fangled telephones, the Courtaulds. Look down at the skirting board and you might even spot the special sockets where servants plugged their vacuum cleaners into an automated suction system. Elsewhere on the ground floor there's an art-packed drawing room, a smart panelled library for him and a sumptuous boudoir for her. With, up on the wall, a large leather map of the Eltham area. I know, a leather map, whoever heard of such a thing?

Eltham Palace - Great Hall & 1930s additionsAnd then, through a Chinese screened doorway, suddenly it's the Middle Ages again. Ginny and Stephen built their family home in the grounds of a ruined royal palace, and deftly incorporated the Great Hall as their main entertaining space. At 100ft long and 55ft high, there was plenty of room to serve cocktails. The hall is a magnificent 15th century relic, designed by Edward IV's chief mason and still with its oak hammerbeam roof intact. Here the English Tudor court came to celebrate Christmas, and here the young Henry VIII spent much of his childhood. Try not to think about the underfloor central heating the Courtaulds installed - they had different planning regulations in those days.

Retrace your steps into the Art Deco Thirties, and upstairs to the bedrooms on the first floor. Yes, these are as modish and dapper as you might expect. Stephen's bedroom has block-printed wallpaper and a blue bathroom, while Ginny's en-suite features a most ostentatious bath beneath a shining gold mosaic. In another room you can watch the two textile millionaires at play in a selection of their home movies, and outside on the landing is the centrally heated cage in which Ginny kept her pet ring-tailed lemur. He was called Mah Jongg and he had the run of the house down a special bamboo ladder. It's how the other half lived, don't you know.

And finally back down to the dining room, complete with inlaid black marble and a recessed spotlit aluminium ceiling. A dinner party here, seated on rose-pink upholstered chairs whilst servants scuttled around with silver platters, must have been quite magnificent. Alas the Courtaulds didn't have very long to enjoy this cultured decadence. The house and landscaped gardens weren't completed until 1936, leaving only a handful of perfect summers before war broke out. Stephen and Ginny hung on here until 1944, assisting the WRVS and stamping out fires, before escaping first to Scotland and later to Rhodesia. Their loss is our gain. And wow.
by train: Eltham  by bus: 126, 161

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