Centuries of history at this stunning, south-east London gem.
Eltham Palace is one of South London’s best kept secrets. After visiting the stunning palace and gardens for the first time last summer, I was surprised that the palace isn’t higher up on visitors’ to do lists when it comes to the capital. Unlike many palaces across the country, what makes Eltham unique is the amalgamation of two different, iconic periods of architecture – late Medieval and Art Deco. It sounds like an unusual mix, but thanks to the Courtaulds, who were responsible for the restoration of the original buildings and the creation of the 1930s home, they complement each other.
Located just four miles from Greenwich, the original Medieval palace was initially a moated manor house which was given to King Edward II (1284-1327) in 1305. During the 14th to 16th centuries, the house was used as a royal residence. King Edward IV (1442-1483) added the Tudor Great Hall in the 1470s, which still stands today and has the third largest hammerbeam roof in England. The hall was frequently used by a young King Henry VIII (1491-1547) – then Prince Henry – during his childhood.
When the riverside Greenwich Palace was rebuilt in the late 15th century, Eltham’s popularity with the royals began to drop. After the royal family ceased to use Eltham as a royal residence from the 16th century onwards, the Medieval and Tudor buildings went into decline. The estate was ravaged during the English Civil War, stripping the land of trees and deer. Following the Restoration, King Charles II (1630-1685) bestowed the ruined palace on Sir John Shaw (1615-1680) in 1663, who went on to build a separate dwelling, Eltham Lodge in the Great Park. The old palace buildings were then used as a farm, with livestock actually living in the Great Hall. In 1793, artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) painted the Hall full of haybales. In 1828, the Great Hall was lined up for demolition, however a campaign to save it resulted in a restoration, despite it continuing to be used as a barn. The estate remained in the Shaw family until the 1890s, by which time only the ruined Great Hall, the 15th century bridge across and the moat and some walls remained. By the 19th century, Eltham’s estate had been greatly reduced, with only two small areas of 21 hectares and 29 hectares featuring parkland.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the fortunes of Eltham Palace turned around. The estate was acquired by the wealthy Sir Stephen Courtauld (1883–1967) and his wife Virginia (1883-1972) in 1933. A new private house was built on the site of the original adjoining the Great Hall. The new house was designed in the Art Deco style with Swedish architect Rolf Engströmer (1892-1970) creating the stunning Entrance Hall, featuring wood panelling and a domed roof. They also restored the Great Hall and added a minstrels’ gallery, as well as extensively relandscaped the grounds. The Coultards remained at Eltham during World War II, with Stephen firewatching from the Great Hall’s roof. Like much of south London, the Hall was bombed in September 1940 – with some of the scars still visible in the woodwork today. The Courtaulds ended up leaving Eltham before the war ended in 1944, with it then being acquired by the Royal Army Educational Corps, who remained on site until 1992. Some of the upstairs quarters in the house today are as they were during the Army’s residence, while the ground floor and master bedrooms have been restored in the style of the Courtaulds.
Having been taken over by English Heritage in 1995, Eltham Palace and gardens are now open for the enjoyment of the public. The audio tour of the palace and grounds is really informative and, I believe, essential for any visit. There’s also a good café on-site when you need a rest, we had a really good lunch there.
- Eltham Palace, Court Yard, Eltham, Greenwich, SE9 5QE. Nearest station: Eltham or Mottingham. For more information, visit the Eltham Palace website.
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