It’s June in London, and that means one thing. Tourist season. The streets are crowded with maps and guidebooks, and every attraction in the city has a queue a mile long. It’s not that we don’t love visitors in London; it’s just that when they’re here it’s harder for locals to enjoy the sights. But with a little out-of-the-box thinking, Londoners can enjoy the landmarks without the crowds. Step out of Zone 1 and the tourists fade away, opening up the city to those of us daring to venture beyond the comfort of Soho or St James’s. And I personally venture to places like Eltham Palace.
Eltham Palace isn’t exactly on the tourist trail. Way down in southeast London, it’s a train ride from most places locals frequent. But it dates all the way back to 1305, when it was presented to King Edward II. Later it was a childhood home of Henry VIII, and more recently it became the stomping grounds of the wealthy Courtaulds, who turned it into an Art Deco masterpiece with stunning gardens.
The palace just reopened after a major refurbishment, revealing five new rooms that have never been on public view before.
It’s also in the process of renovating the map room, where the Courtaulds were thought to have papered the wall with the globe to help them plan their trips. It’s almost as nice as the one in my flat.
I’m here today to explore the new rooms and take advantage of the palace’s location away from the touristy heart of London. As soon as I arrive, the peaceful gardens transport me to the countryside and prove that my efforts are worth it.
As I make my way across the old stone bridge that spans the moat—it’s the oldest working bridge in London—I take in the pebbled paths lined with the yellows and purples of spring irises. Baby goslings nestle together along the waterfront, their protective parents standing guard beneath the rocky slopes of the gardens above. In front of the palace, clouds of lavender wisteria embrace columns and pergolas like something out of a classical dream.
Once inside, I discover the world of the Courtaulds. The house itself is a stark contrast to many of England’s stately homes. There’s no Rococo explosions of gilded fantasy here; it’s all simple, geometric Art Deco elegance. It’s understated and refined. Well, except for the lemur. But I do love that they had a pet lemur.
Each room in the house, from the billiard room to the boudoir, has information about the occupants and glamorous guests that frequented the estate in its 1930’s heyday. Their stories help bring the everyday life of Eltham Palace alive.
The palace also has a number of interactive exhibits, from perfume bottles that visitors can smell to a basement featuring World War II memorabilia and a closet full of vintage clothes to try on. The last of these mostly attracts teenage girls intent on taking too many selfies, although I also see a grown man getting rather comfortable with a fur coat. There’s something for everyone at Eltham Palace.
And there’s certainly something for those with a taste for the further reaches of history. The Great Hall still gives a nod to the Henry VIII days, with its hammer-beam ceiling and heavy wood furniture. Its cavernous air holds the magic of the famous king’s era, and as I walk across the wide floor I can almost smell the meaty feasts and roaring fires of his time.
My tour of Eltham Palace’s interior finished, I wander back outside to the gardens. Beyond the manicured flower beds and pretty reflecting pools I find wild fields with secret benches and overgrown fences hiding pastures full of horses. It feels so far from London that I’m almost surprised at how quickly my journey home goes from an empty train carriage to a crowded tube. But at least now I know where to escape next time the swelling summer population of the city gives me a reason to get out.