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Down in suburban South-East London is a building that managed to blend Medieval palace, art-deco design and a castle-like moat into one perfect home – this is Eltham Palace.
And it’s open to the public.
Entry, once you’ve paid your fee or waved your English Heritage card, is over a cobbled bridge that looks terrifically suitable for a castle, and then a courtyard with a modest door in the far corner.
In here, is the room that made the building famous in the 20th century, a huge art-deco reception room, that is most certainly not an original feature of the medieval palace.
How that arrived is an interesting story.
Although today it’s surrounded by suburbs, this was once all fields on a high hill, and a convenient site for a Royal Palace, so one was built in the 13th century, and until Tudor times when Greenwich usurped its role, this was the main regal residence in this part of England.
Although occupied by various people over the subsequent centuries, including Cromwell’s army, by the 18th century the Palace, and the medieval hall was essentially a ruin, and being eyed up for demolition.
Fortunately, two things happened. One, the government stepped in to shore up the building and restore the Great Hall, then in 1933 the most famous event took place — it was leased to the fabulously wealthy Stephen Courtauld.
They, to some opinions at the time, controversially, added a side building to the Great Hall, and a joining reception room, turning the site into a giant V-shaped structure, with the now-famous reception room.
And, not just being rich enough to afford great designers, but being very artistically minded themselves, the Courtauld’s decorated the building in the sumptuous art-deco design.
This curved triangular space was the main reception, and do avoid walking on the carpet, as people who do ignore the instructions tend to get told off sharpish.
But walk around and look back at the door for the magnificent wood panel decoration and two grand staircases leading up to the private rooms. Arranged around the reception are a couple of large living and dining rooms, and until recently that’s all you saw here.
However, a few years back they opened up the basement, which had been converted into a WW2 shelter by the Courtaulds and now it’s a narrow tunnel route to rooms which modest by their standards were still far more generous than afforded to ordinary folk.
No idle whim either, as the building took a direct hit from incendiary bombs.
Although the family were creating a family home, it was in effect also a gift to the nation, as they never owned the building. The Courtaulds had taken out a 99-year lease from the Crown Estate who still own the Palace, so while they expected to live there, it was not a legacy for their great-grandchildren to enjoy.
In fact, the Courtaulds moved out during WW2 and gave the building to the Royal Army Educational Corps who occupied it right up to 1992.
What you really want to do though is go back up to the ground floor and up the grand stairs that lead to the private spaces. Long corridors lined with bedrooms of various degrees of opulence depending on the occupant.
There is a room set aside for a film about the family, but do take a moment to look at the benches you sit on, the feet are a delight, and typify the whole building, the attention to the small details is exacting.
Mr and Mrs Courtauld had separate bedrooms linked by what the guides say is a secret door, but so obvious is it in the wall that to call it a secret is a disservice to the English language.
Separate bedrooms being the appropriate way for people of means to live at the time, it being rather frowned upon to routinely share a bed if you could afford two beds.
The lady had the famously richly decorated bathroom, while the gent conformed to manly stereotypes with a more sedate affair. Despite their wealth, today their bathrooms look grandly decorated, but basic in function. No showers, and very basic amenities.
Smaller bedrooms for guests — all single beds, and the same for junior members of the family, who had to share a bathroom, albeit the only one with a shower, but cold water only.
Despite their wealth, we tend to sometimes forget that even the most basic of us today live lives that rich ancestors would find impressive, what with central heating, fridges, hot running water, washing machines and the like.
Families visiting today are encouraged to put on some of the costumes left lying around, but not to touch the furniture or art. Kids have an animal trail to complete, as there’s the family’s famous pet lemur to find.
Do look out of the windows where you can either for grand views of the gardens, London in the distance, and in places, the very UFO looking concrete dome that sits on top of the reception room.
So far all so art-deco, but along one corridor and you walk onto a minstrel’s gallery overlooking the restored medieval hall. With what’s said to be the third-largest hammer-beam ceiling in the UK.
The minstrel gallery is not original, being added by the Courtaulds so they could have a grand view of their hall, and for musicians when they held parties, of which there were many for this socially well connected family.
When you do eventually make your way downstairs into the Great Hall, do go to the far end and look for lots of that other thing that medieval buildings seem to have in ample supply – graffiti. Most of it appears to be 20th century, although I spotted a couple that are — or claim — to be 19th century. It seems that the military occupiers after the Courtaulds left were not averse to leaving more than a few names scratched in the walls of the ancient hall.
If you peer around the corner into the conservatory, there’s a modern door in a modern door frame leading to nothing more than a modern brick wall. Most curious.
Down here on the ground floor is also two large rooms that are probably where Mr and Mrs spent most of their time. Both clearly show two very different personalities, with his lined with books and maps and a grand working desk, hers with a bespoke sofa and delicate decorations.
It’s in her room that something only recently discovered can also be seen, a side room which is lined with maps on the walls, and if you look around many of them are surrounded by painted decoration.
As a building, it’s such a complex mix — mostly art-deco, but with a few grand rooms, it’s actually the upper floor with the smaller private spaces that show how people lived when the guests were sent packing for the night.
But put it in a mound that’s surrounded by a moat, a bridge, old gardens, and oh, a medieval hall, and it’s easy to see why the Courtaulds lavished so much time on turning this into a family home.
And it’s too our great fortune that they did.
Although still owned by the Crown Estate, Eltham Palace is managed by English Heritage. Entry is £17 for adults, or free for English Heritage members.
Allow a good half-day at least to fully explore the site and its gardens.
Eltham Palace is about a 10-minute walk from Eltham railway station, or about 20 minutes from Mottingham Station, with plenty of buses in the area.
This article first appeared on www.ianvisits.co.uk
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