What?: I’d heard pretty mixed reviews of this place, ranging from “it’s my favourite place in London” to “it’s a bit shit”. Unsure what to do with such wildly differing opinions, and enticed by literally everything that comes up when you type ‘Eltham Palace’ into Google Images, I decided there was only one thing for it but to buy a return ticket to Eltham. Although actually you don’t even need to do that, because while this Tudor-palace-meets-Art-Deco-mansion might look like it’s in the arse end of nowhere (and ok it kind of is), it’s still only in Zone 4!
Actually, other than the low-key-awesome Art Deco playground, which doesn’t come up at all when you type ‘Eltham Palace’ into Google Images, I didn’t hold particularly high hopes for the child-friendliness of this place. But when the decor looks like a 007 film set had a baby with Wes Anderson, who really cares how child-friendly it is? I didn’t, because I don’t always, and really I was just there for a perve, but I was so pleasantly surprised by how great it was for kids even before we’d really got in the door that I was already on the “it’s my favourite place in London” side of the fence.
So what are we even looking at here? Well, the hilariously kitsch introductory video showing in one of the upstairs rooms is a good starting point for getting a grasp of Eltham’s rich history, but basically it was a Tudor palace – one of Henry VII’s favourites – that eventually fell into disrepair until the site was bought by the mega-rich Courtaulds in 1933, who built an ultra-modern house adjoining the surviving 15th Great Hall. Twelve years later the Courtaulds buggered off to Zimbabwe, leaving the house to the army, who remained there for 50 years before English Heritage assumed management of the estate in the 1990s, restoring the house to its former glory before opening it up to the public.
To be honest just being able to poke around this place, ogle the ridiculously dramatic decor and generally imagine the kind of lols that went on here is enough of an amusement for a Sunday afternoon and Babu genuinely seemed to find the house itself really fascinating. What really made her visit though was the Animal Explorer Trail – a worksheet that required her to locate animal motifs in various rooms around the house (with varying levels of difficulty) and then stamp the sheet to eventually reveal a secret word. The completed sheet could then be exchanged for a sticker in the gift shop on our way out, except I totally missed that last bit so she didn’t get the sticker and I’ll forever feel like a terrible parent for it, even if I did let her have a massive slice of cake in the cafe.
Other Babu highlights included Virginia Courtauld’s walk-in wardrobe, which came complete with replica gowns and strings of pearls to try; the basement army bunker, also with dress-up options; and obviously the playground, which was small and simple but fairly unique in its design, having been inspired by the Courtauld’s travels around the world. My highlights were Virginia’s amazing golden bath and the brilliantly dramatic circular hallway, although I thought the entire thing was the absolute shit to be honest.
Where and When?: Eltham Palace is located at Court Yard, Eltham, Greenwich, SE9 5QE and is a 14-minute walk from Mottingham mainline station. Opening days and times depend on the time of year – check the website before you go.
Best Bits: Kids-wise, the Animal Explorer Trail is a must.
Worst Bits: None really other than that it was too much of a crappy day to explore the gardens.
Facilities: On-site cafe and gift shop, playground, baby changing, cloakroom (buggies must be left at the door).
Cost: £17 with donation/£15.40 without per adult. Under-5s go free.
Would We Come Back?: Yes! And it definitely has the potential to become at least “one of our favourite places in London”.
Babu checks out Virginia Courtauld’s golden bath at Eltham Palace, Eltham