Something I’m trying to do at the moment is visit all the obvious tourist attractions that I’ve never set foot in – places near me or elsewhere in London that I’ve just never had the time or inclination to visit. I did the first earlier this week – Eltham Palace.
I was always under the impression that it was only open for a couple of days each week – but under English Heritage it’s now open all week, except when it’s booked for filming (a crew making a new Poirot drama were setting up camp while I was there). It’s a diverting place – and unusual in that its really interesting history is relatively recent; not as the remains of a royal palace, but as the home of Stephen Courtauld, from the wealthy textile family, and his wife, Virginia, during the 1930s and 1940s.
For those of us who know Eltham, it comes as a bit of a shock to see this home as their idyllic retreat – lavishly furnished inside in the art deco style, surrounded by beautiful gardens for the family – and their menagerie of pets – to frolic in. You can see home movie footage of the family larking in pools while their lemur climbs all over their dog’s back. Happy days, and a world away from modern-day SE9.
But on top of the old royal hall, Courtauld watched London for fires as the Blitz raged – which helped him save the building when a bomb fell there, but the scorch marks remain. The family left for Rhodesia in 1944, and sold their furniture – but after the army’s educational wing pulled out of Eltham in 1992, English Heritage did amzing work in retrieving and recreating the style in which the Courtaulds lived.
But I left thinking much more could be done – the palace still feels hidden (even a relatively local visitor like me managed to use the wrong bus stop) and the beautiful gardens seemed undersold, with old ladies getting drenched by a sprinkler on a footpath. It’s also tricky to find your way around the building and grounds, and the staff didn’t help – one grouching at me for using my camera inside (having missed the tiny “no photographs” sign at the door), and for the sin of following some Japanese tourists through a way that was actually closed.
With patience, though, it’s a rewarding place to spend an hour or two.