Dreaming of a mini escape over the weekend? Take some inspiration from our recent day trip to the English Heritage site of Eltham Palace and Gardens. I’d been reading about Eltham Palace in the photo book London Uncovered (a gift from Abiye for Mother’s Day) and I couldn’t wait to see it in person.
We visited with press** passes over Easter weekend and had a fantastic afternoon in Greenwich. Eltham Palace is a striking combination of medieval architecture, Tudor styling and Art Deco. Once owned by the royal family (it’s where Henry VIII and his siblings spent some of their youth), the palace was taken over by uber-wealthy couple Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s. They fixed up its crumbling facade and restored the great hall to its former glory, while turning the rest of the palace into a modern masterpiece.
The Courtaulds introduced new-fangled ideas like underfloor heating, Swedish furnishings, and a built-in audio system. The palace is surrounded by pretty landscaping, including the moat they redesigned with cascading rock features and a sunken rose garden.
You can spend a good few hours blissed out in their 19 acres of gardens, spilling over with local and exotic flowers and foliage. But the main attraction is indoors.
From the carvings above the colonnade to the dazzling entrance hall, the house that the Courtaulds built will take your breath away. It’s just so gorgeous.
Head up the curved staircase to the first floor, where you can pick up a multimedia audio guide and watch a short film about the palace. Then follow the tour through corridors adorned with paintings and art pieces from around the world. Eltham Palace leads you on an intimate voyage to the past.
You get to peek inside Virginia Courthauld’s quarters, and try on 1930s clothes in a replica of her walk-in wardrobe. The highlight is her bathroom, a staggeringly beautiful sanctum that gave me serious envy. Only you, Ginny, only you?!
Stephen’s bed and bathroom are cool too but nothing on his wife’s. Still, there’s plenty to hold your gaze from almost every angle. These guys were way ahead of their time.
The babes liked having their own multimedia guides and Jed was methodical about working his way from room to room in the right order.
We stopped to say hi to the stuffed lemur — a tribute to the couple’s real life primate, Mah-Jongg (aka Jongy) who once ran wild around Eltham Palace. If you pop into the Flower Room near the downstairs kitchen, don’t forget to look up for a little lemur surprise.
Did I mention how gorgeous this place is? I fantasised about cocktail hour in the entrance hall, strolling into the drawing room at dusk, or gazing through stained-glass windows at the lush scenery outside. I couldn’t get over the dining room, a shimmering vision of decadence from top to toe.
‘I wonder if you can hire it for private parties?’ The mister said, with a wink. Actually you can, Eltham Palace is a popular venue for weddings, film and TV shoots (e.g. season 2 of The Crown). Not quite the parties we had in mind.
By all accounts, the Courtaulds were proper aristocratic ravers, throwing lavish gatherings for their celebrity mates. Walking around you can almost hear the laughter bouncing off the walls, the scampering and barking of their many dogs. Or maybe that was my audio guide turned up too loud!
Stephen and Virginia didn’t have kids of their own, but invited their nephews Peter and Paul to live with them. You can take a look at their neatly reconstructed bedrooms, with books lined up on their bedside tables. Each one is an affectionate tableau, made all the more poignant by news that Paul died in the Second World War.
We visited Eltham Palace on a near-perfect spring day. The boys romped around the garden, solving clues along the Easter trail to bag chocolate egg treats. We stayed from around 3pm until closing time, then headed up to Blackheath Common for a delicious pub dinner at the Hare and Billet. Afterwards, the kids played frisbee with their dad until the sun went down. Such a great day out in a lovely part of town.
Eltham Palace and Gardens is at Court Yard, Eltham, Greenwich, London, SE9 5QE (Mottingham rail). Open daily 10am-6pm (last entry 5.30pm) – NB: palace closed on Sat May 4; adult from £15.40/child 5-17 from £9.60/concs from £13.90/family (2 adults, up to 3 kids) from £40/under 5s FREE.
**We received a complimentary family press ticket to visit Eltham Palace for this review. All opinions expressed are my own.