London: Eltham Palace

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With nothing better to do of a Sunday, I decided we should visit Eltham Palace, another English Heritage property, because I’m really putting that membership card to work (and the guy who sold us the membership hyped the place up).  Eltham Palace is in Greenwich, so I was thinking I could swing by the market and grab one of my beloved Brazilian churros, but it turns out that whilst Eltham Palace is technically in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, it’s about 4 miles away from the nice bit with the market and all the museums, so it’s about as much in Greenwich proper as Lewisham is.   So I was already kind of annoyed when we rocked up and had to pay for parking, which the website assured me would be refunded upon admission, only to see a giant “No Refunds” sign in the carpark.  I believe this was because they were having a “selected special event” in the form of their annual Art Deco Fair which meant the Great Hall was full of stalls selling antiques that I didn’t want and couldn’t afford even if I did.  Real special.  Like all English Heritage properties, there were people hanging around trying to foist memberships on people, and even having membership already isn’t enough to deter them, as they still ask you more than once (if you haven’t yet been suckered into joining, it’s £10.20 for admission to Eltham).  There is also no photography permitted inside the house, which I suspect has nothing whatsoever to do with preservation, as plenty of properties of a similar age and older allow flashless photography, but is a ploy to try to sell guidebooks.  Also like most of their properties, Eltham Palace has limited signage, forcing reliance on their extraordinarily long-winded audioguide, yet another attempt to sell guidebooks (I’m becoming increasingly cynical about English Heritage; visiting three of their properties in rapid succession has tipped me over the edge).

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Though Eltham Palace’s tourist literature makes quite a stink about Eltham being one of Henry VIII’s palaces (the original property was built around the 13th century, acquired by the future (ill-fated) Edward II in 1305, and added onto by subsequent monarchs), you’d never know it when visiting the property.  The Eltham Palace of today revolves around a house tacked onto the Great Hall by the Courtaulds (of Institute of Art and Gallery fame) in the 1930s, which is entirely done up in an Art Deco style.  Art Deco isn’t really my favourite style (I find circular furniture really off-putting for some reason), but the home was reasonably attractive, even though all trace of its medieval past (save for the Great Hall) had been eliminated.  The focal point of the house is the circular living room, with wings radiating out from that centre room.  There was some exquisite paneling on the walls, with some Romans in the living room, and animals with delightful expressions in the dining room.

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Virginia’s boudoir (which was really more of a sitting room than a boudoir) was also quite nice, there was some neat Kew Gardens wallpaper in Stephen’s bedroom, and I did like the Great Hall even though it had been restored by Stephen Courtauld, who had more of a Hollywood interpretation of medieval architecture than a historically accurate one, but it did feel like we were only getting to see a small number of the rooms in the house.  All the modcons of the house were firmly drilled into us via the audioguide, as they had underfloor heating (which is a hell of a lot better than the crappy radiators my flat has, 80 years on), electric fireplaces, and special spotlights built into the beamed ceilings to better highlight the couple’s art collection, but the most whimsical feature was the cage built to house the couple’s pet lemur, Mah-Jonng (obviously long-deceased, but they had stuffed lemurs hidden in unexpected places throughout the house, which I thought was cute).  I was glad that there was at least a small sign in each room with information about it, as it was better than suffering through the interminable audioguide, but it still wasn’t really enough, particularly as they never even made clear who exactly the Courtaulds were (other than involved in the film industry, and extremely rich).

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The gardens at Eltham are meant to be quite famous, and they were nice, but we had to circle the property a few times before we could figure out how to access them (via stone steps through an archway).  We visited on a cold and slightly rainy day, so they’re probably nicer when it’s not quite so cold and muddy, but there were still quite a few flowers in bloom.  I did think it odd how even in the gardens, it was difficult to get a good view of the palace from the front; it was like the grounds had somehow been contrived to keep you from getting too close to the estate, and created the impression that there were parts of the property we were somehow missing (though I’m fairly sure we saw everything that was open to the public).  Again, I was struck by how completely the medieval palace had been wiped from history; for all that elements of it were supposedly incorporated into the gardens, English Heritage made no mention of it anywhere on the site.

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Since it was free with our membership (except for the stupid parking; it was only 2 quid but it’s the principle of the thing), I don’t regret visiting, but if I had to pay a tenner, I would have been super annoyed, as I think what we saw was only worth about half that (at least Down House has a museum in the upper floor, so you actually leave feeling you’ve learnt something, rather than leaving perplexed about what happened to the medieval palace, as I did here).  Also, be forewarned that for some weird reason, in addition to being shut all winter, Eltham Palace is also closed on Friday and Saturday, so you’ll have to make any weekend visits on a Sunday.  It’s certainly a remarkable example of an Art Deco home, but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.  3/5.


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