Posts Tagged ‘royal palaces’

With the sharp freshness of autumn now in the air, the long summer break is all but a hazy memory but I can’t let it fade away completely without sharing the delights of my last holiday outing courtesy of my wonderful National Art Pass.

Driving a round trip of nearly a hundred miles to somewhere in south-east London, most of which is on the M25, surprisingly doesn’t hold much appeal, but I had heard such great things about this place that I set off early one morning and arrived as the gates opened.

Eltham Palace

Approaching Eltham Palace

Eltham Palace, now under the stewardship of English Heritage, is tucked away in a delightful backwater between the triangle that is Bromley, Sidcup and Lewisham. Anyone familiar with this particular part of London will know how incongruous the adjective ‘delightful’ is when used to describe the area but Eltham Palace is more than delightful – it’s a marvel.

This bridge across the moat is 14th century

This bridge across the moat is 14th century

With distant views across to the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, Eltham is one of the few medieval royal palaces to survive with considerable remains intact.  Originally it was a moated manor house acquired in 1305 for the future Edward ll. In the 1470’s a great hall was added which still stands today. The Palace went into decline after other royal Palaces rose to prominence – noteably Hampton Court and Greenwich – and for two hundred years after the civil wars it was used as a farm.

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Portrait of the Courtaulds by Campbell Taylor
© English Heritage Photo Library

Now let’s fast forward to the 1930’s when fabulously wealthy couple, Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (part of the Courtauld Textiles family), were looking for somewhere within easy reach of central London where they could entertain their friends. The couple, although very different in personality – Virginia, a divorcee, was flamboyant, bordering on the eccentric (she had a pet ring-tailed lemur called Mah Jong) and Stephen, a quieter, more reserved man who had served in the First World War and suffered periods of depression as a consequence – were very much a part of the London social scene. They commissioned architects Seely and Paget to build a house for them on the site of the old palace; leading designers and craftsmen were employed to create lavish interiors in the art deco style incorporating the latest modern technology.

The stunning entrance hall showing marquetry panelling and faithful reproductions of the carpet and furniture  © English Heritage

The stunning entrance hall showing marquetry panelling and faithful reproductions of the carpet and furniture
© English Heritage

The dining room. The central part of the ceiling is covered in aluminium leaf. ©English Heritage

The dining room.
The central part of the ceiling is covered in aluminium leaf.
©English Heritage

There were synchronous clocks in most rooms as well as a loudspeaker system so that music could be broadcast everywhere. A centralised vacuum cleaning system in the basement was linked to sockets all over the house and Seimens installed a private internal telephone exchange. To say that Eltham Palace was, in the 1930’s, at the forefront of cutting edge technology would be an understatement.

The Courtaulds lived at Eltham Palace until 1944, briefly moving to Scotland before emigrating  to Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe) in 1951 where they stayed until Stephen’s death in 1967.   The British Army education unit moved in to Eltham in 1945 and stayed until 1992. English Heritage took the Palace on in 1995 and completed a major programme of repairs and restoration by 1999 of both the house and gardens. The result is an amazing display of authentic art deco decoration and a glimpse into the world of an extraordinary couple.

West facing  herbaceous border

South moat wall
herbaceous border

This little tunnel leads out to the south garden - I felt like Alice in Wonderland

This little tunnel leads out to the south garden – I felt like Alice in Wonderland

I visited on a Wednesday, which is when there are guided tours of the house. I would thoroughly recommend this as a way to make the most of a visit – the young man who took us round was so knowledgeable and passionate about his subject that I’m pleased to say he made our tour over-run by almost an hour. There are two cafes on site – one providing home-made hot and cold dishes and the other for takeaway sandwiches where you can sit on the lawn and admire the gardens.

Moat and part of the Japanese garden

Moat and part of the Japanese garden

The moat teems with friendly carp

The moat teems with friendly carp

English Heritage have done a fabulous job in restoring the place to its former glory – for anyone with a penchant for art deco, Eltham Palace is well worth the trip.

All interior photographs – English Heritage; exterior photographs – mine.

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