Recently, I visited Eltham Palace in south London. Having written about the ongoing restoration of the house last year for Londonist, I’d made a mental note to visit what looked like a beautiful house and grounds. Art Deco is also a bit of a passion of mine and Eltham has it in spades.
And it is beautiful. A former medieval royal palace, Eltham was occupied by Henry VIII before falling into disrepair in the 18th century and being used as farm buildings. It was restored in the 19th century and later became the home of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, who built the 1930s house alongside the Great Hall. You can find out more about the palace’s history here.
Secret wartime bunker
The recently-opened new rooms include a rather fancy wartime bunker and 1930s dark room, former owner Virginia Courtauld’s walk in wardrobe, and two adjoining family bedrooms with a shared bathroom which contains one of the first showers to be installed in a residential bathroom. I’m a big fan of the art deco period and the house has some wonderful examples of furniture, decoration and ornament. It also has a 1930s map room which is being restored at the moment.
But Christ. There seems to be something about stately homes which brings out the worst in people. As you can probably imagine, the rooms at Eltham are sizeable, but they can only take so many people. I lost count of the number of times I stood to one side waiting to leave a room, as people with no grasp of basic physics crammed themselves in without letting anyone out. Others stopped in doorways, blocked stairs and in one case, actually blocked me as I tried to take a photo of a lovely art deco door. If you think this was a moment of absent-mindedness, it wasn’t. I was fixed with a baleful yet smug glare as the owner of it deliberately stood in front of the door. This is surprisingly common when trying to take photos on public places. I get that it’s a public place and I’m not entitled enough to think I get only dibs, but frankly, deliberately blocking someone’s shot is twattish and rude.
A room papered with maps
The map room is going to be fabulous. It seems that English Heritage only discovered it by accident last year while doing maintenance work. The Courtaulds pasted world maps to the wall, painted some charming little pictures related to the map, i.e. an elephant next to the map of Africa, and then varnished over the whole lot. After the Courtaulds left in 1944 (apparently because they were sick of the bombing which is probably understandable), the Army took Eltham over and the map room got several decades of paint and wallpaper. The restorers were in today and the lead restorer started explaining what they were doing. We’d been there less than two minutes (access is very tight, only two people can peer in at any one time and I was conscious of people behind us), when someone shouted aggressively that she couldn’t see, before forcing herself past the other people waiting to pretty much push us out of the way.
We finished with a walk around the gardens then a sandwich and cake in the restaurant. It was busy, and the table we’d grabbed had four chairs, three of which were wood and the fourth a green cast iron type thing. A woman came up to us halfway through our lunch and asked if she could take one of the unused chairs. This was obviously fine with us and we indicated as much. Except she didn’t want the wooden spare chair, she wanted the green cast iron one because ‘it matches the others at our table’ and was displeased because our camera, all our coats and bags were on the chair she wanted. I’m sorry, but this is fucking nuts.
Seriously, people, calm the hell down. Visiting lovely places like Eltham Palace is supposed to be a pleasure, not an ordeal. After all, how can you admire all that Art Deco loveliness if you’re intent on stopping someone else enjoying it?