Sunday, October 23, 2016
Eltham and London
Ever since I visited Charlton this past August, I had also been meaning to visit Eltham Palace--for the simple reason that while waiting for a bus at South Bromley station then, I had seen buses headed to Eltham. Somehow, I became sidetracked by all my other travels and sightseeing and Eltham was placed on the backburner. Recently, my attention was turned to it again, thanks to tweets from English Heritage. I could postpone a visit no longer. Eltham it would be...and soon.
I awoke at 5. 30 am, finished a blog post, caught up on email and other laptop-related activity, finished my itinerary for Italy and Sicily and had my breakfast--yogurt with muesli and coffee. I wanted to leave my flat by 8. 45 am but by the time I showered and left, it was 9. 15. However, I did not worry too much as I knew that Eltham was closer than Bexleyheath on the train (having taken the same journey yesterday). It was my intention to get back to London by 3.00 pm, work on putting together my packages for mailing to the States until 5.00 and then get to Chelsea where I would be meeting my friends Michael and Cynthia. I would be accompanying Cynthia for Benediction at 7.00 at the Church of the Holy Trinity.
That was the plan...
Getting to Eltham:
I repeated my journey of the previous morning and found a 10.09 am train leaving Victoria for Eltham. Like yesterday, it crawled so painfully that I am convinced had I walked fast alongside the train tracks, I would probably have reached faster! Still, we were at Eltham at 11.00 am. Right outside the train station was the bus station and from there I jumped into a 314 bus for just two stops. It put me off at a junction from where, along Court Yard Road, the palace was about 8 minutes on foot.
It was a lovely day--the sun was out, the sky was blue and although there was a distinct nip in the air, I had dressed warmly (although I did miss my gloves). At the English Heritage Ticket counter, I bought a ticket for 13. 60 pounds (steep by normal standards) and I hoped it would be worthwhile.
I need not have worried...
Entering Eltham Palace:
The walk from the ticket office to the entrance of Eltham is one of the nicest aspects of the visit. Fall is a grand time to visit as the trees are golden. Fallen leaven crackle about you with every step. You get superb pictures of the palace from the stone bridge that is constructed over the wide moat which is filled with water and floating leaves. A few feet away, you are given a multi-media guide (it is audio and visual--very unusual and very good). And then a few feet later, surrounded by a grand architectural feast for the eye, your tour of the inside begins.
History of Eltham Palace:
Eltham Palace started its life and history as a country manor house built by Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham in 1260. By 1300, he presented it to the King (Edward II)--at which time it became a royal household. In its heyday (1400 to 1600), it was a grand destination for statesmen, diplomats, poets (Erasmus visited) and dignitaries for whom jousting matches were organized as part of the entertainment--a jousting track is still intact outside the palace gates. The Great Hall, built in the 1400s, was the scene of boisterous banquets and much pageantry in the manner of Dining Halls at Oxford or Cambridge--there is a magnificent High Table at one end with a wonderfully carved wooden Tudor screen just behind it, complete with lions posts, stained glass crests and Tudor Rose emblems everywhere. The young Henry VIII grew up in this palace together with his siblings (at which time he met Erasmus--he was then nine and, apparently, already precocious!). But, by the reign of his daughter Elizabeth I, royalty favored nearby Greenwich Palace (as it is closer to the Thames and offered easier accessibility). Eltham fell into disuse and eventually into ruin. By the end of 1600s, it was passed on to one John Shaw who lamented its degeneration.
In the 1930s (the grand decade between the wars as is depicted in part of Downton Abbey), the property was purchased by Stephen Courthauld (brother of Samuel Courthauld who founded the Art Institute at Somerset House in London) and his wife, Virginia (known as Ginnie to her friends). He had made his fortune initially in silver mines and later in fabrics (rayon and silk). Wishing to create a country lifestyle for themselves, they bought the parcel of ten hectares with its Tudor ruin and decided to refurbish it and add a manor in which they would live and entertain friends. They hired Seely and Paget, a team of modern architects and bid them design a completely modern home. The duo created an exterior house completely in keeping with the Tudor lines of the existing Great Hall (which was all that remained of the Palace) but did an absolute number on the interior--they designed and created it in Art Deco style (which was only just catching on in England). The end result is an absolute confection of a home into which a fortune has been poured and in which the style and aesthetic of 1930's Europe can be immediately discerned.
In this home, the childless Courthaulds lived and entertained and had a swinging time with their vast household of servants, two nephews called Peter and Paul Pierano that they adopted, a Great Dane named Caesar and a lemur (yes, a lemur, with a long black and white striped raccoon-like tail) called Mah-Jong (Jongy for short) that they bought from Harrods (which, incidentally, only closed its pet department in 2014!--who knew?) When the house was finished, they turned their attention to the extensive grounds and presto!--gardens materialized. They are a gem of horticultural design and even though I was visiting in the autumn, they were sensational.
Visiting Eltham Palace:
The audio guide makes it simplicity itself to appreciate multiple aspects of the house and garden. You enter at the spectacular Great Entrance but you do not linger long here--as you are directed to climb up the steps and enter the Venetian Room where you watch a lovely little film in which you are cast as a visitor to the house in the 1930s and invited to become part of the grand festivities.
As you roam from room to room on the top floor, you are introduced to the family members, their quirks, their passions, their preoccupations. Virginia was the stereotypical socialite of her time with a gay and friendly manner. Stephen was quiet, thoughtful and intellectually-inclined with a wealth of interests including mountaineering, photography (there is a dark room in the basement of the house) and gardening. The Art Deco motif is carried out throughout the home through the handiwork of the Italian designer Peter Malacrida but Virginia had a huge role to play in selecting materials. For example, in the grand Dining Room, she insisted the chairs be upholstered in rose pink as that color best showed off women's dinner gowns!
Upstairs, you roam through bedrooms with black and white wallpaper that depicts Kew Gardens complete with its pagoda (Stephen's bedroom), wood veneer on round walls with a walk-in wardrobe (Virginia's), a bathroom fully lined with semi-precious onyx that surrounds a bath tub whose backsplash features small gold mosaic tiles and a sculptural bust of Psyche (Virginia's bathroom), a large cage for Jongy that was fully heated and had a ladder that allowed access to the house, Jack and Jill bedrooms for Peter and Paul who grew up in Eltham before they became students at Christ Church College, Cambridge with its adjoining bathroom (the only one in the house with a shower from which only cold water emanated--ouch!).
You then pass through the Minstrel's Gallery to get a bird's eye view of the Great Hall. This deck was added by the Courthaulds to enable musicians to find a perch for the grand balls they held in the Great Hall which had once played host to royalty. The great hammered ceiling is the third largest in the country and it has been beautifully refurbished.
Leaving this area, you make your way down the stairs and arrive at the Grand Entrance with its domed gazed ceiling and its wooden inlaid frescoes on the walls that depict favorite buildings from Venice, Florence and Stockholm. In this room, guests were served cocktails as they prepared for dinner in the adjoining dining room where, other than the rose chairs, the most striking features are the doors that depict animals and birds inspired by London's Zoo. There is also a library on this floor with some items from Stephen's lusterware collection and an Italian Room where there are wonderful Renaissance paintings, Florentine ceramics and wrought-iron screens. Turkish and Persian rugs are numerous all over the house and are scattered over the thickly carpeted floors. There is truly so much to see, so much to learn about, so much to marvel over.
Yet, at no point is the house over-the-top. All decoration is restrained and minimalism seems to reign every where. Decorative items (I recognized Lalique bookends and Daum vases and the library is filled with Turner water colors) are carefully picked and strategically placed. There are mod cons all over (such as phones and electric clocks on the wall--mod for their era!) and a lovely and very unusual Map Room (as the couple were intrepid travelers and often invited their friends to travel for weeks on end with them to varied parts of the world). The Map Room was used by their secretaries to map out routes for them! This room was recently discovered when some painting wore out. Careful conservation had unearthed an entire room whose walls were covered with maps.
Downstairs, in Downton Abbey mode, you are invited to peruse the kitchen and the servants living quarters and then you descend even deeper into the basement which served as a war-time bunker, a billiards room and a dark room. During World War II, a regiment of the army was stationed here and they made use of every room in the house including the Great Hall--for by that time, the Courthaulds had moved on to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where they ended up building another fancy home for themselves. Indeed, Eltham Palace has everything the rich and famous could desire, from heated tiled floors in the bathroom to an Orangery.
I thought I would take a couple of hours to see the entire property (as I did at Red House yesterday). As it turned out, I took more than two hours just to see the interiors. And with tantalizing glimpses of the gardens that were offered from every window, I simply had to tour the gardens as well. But I was hungry and needed to eat as well as to rest my feet.
I made my way to the café where I found a seat, pulled out my sandwiches and downed them with a hot chocolate that I ordered. About three quarters of an hour later, I realized I would need to abandon my plans to go to my office at NYU to carry out my errands--they would have to wait till tomorrow.
Instead, I began the Garden Tour which took me all around the massive butterfly-shaped house, past the Great Hall to offer distant views of the skyscrapers of London (for the city is only a few miles away as the crow flies) and on to the great lawns. In the summer, visitors sprawl all over them. On a chilly day, they walk briskly through the Linear Garden to view the lovely Rock Garden hewn out of limestone rocks to house Alpine specimens on the banks of the moat, the walled gardens with its perennial flower beds (filled with autumnal carnations, daisies and sedum), the Ridge from where you can access what was once a swimming pool (now covered up) and fruit orchards to arrive at a lovely Italianate sunken Rose Garden from where one has a lovely view of the side of the house with its sculpture of Perseus with the slain Medusa's head at his feet. You can walk along the banks of the water in the moat before climbing up again and accessing the main level via a wooden bridge. Everything is beautifully laid out and well thought about and you could easily spend two more hours in the garden. I spent about an hour and at 2. 30 pm, I finally left the property, rather regretfully, for it is a simply splendid place in which to spend an entire day.
On the way back to the station, I passed by half-timbered houses dating from Tudor times--all beautifully preserved today. You could almost hear the thundering of hooves along the jousting track and see the scarlet robes of Cardinal Wolsey who was a frequent visitor to the premises. Even the names of the streets and the establishments along the way hint at royal antecedents--Court Yard, for one.
Eltham Palace was a revelation to me in every sense of the word. When living in Paris, I got to know the Jacomart-Andre Museum and the Nissim Comondo Museum--and they are two buildings that I tell visitors to Paris not to miss (together with Saint Chapelle). Now, I will suggest that all visitors make it a point to see Red House and Eltham Palace as these are truly hidden gems of the city that very few tourists see--most visitors were local English Heritage members (as far as I could see).
On the Train Back to the City:
I had told my Chelsea friends that I would be with them at 5.00pm. With an hour to kill, I took the train back to Victoria, jumped into a Tube train to Sloane Square and hopped into a bus that took me down the King's Road. I went to Oxfam, my favorite thrift store from where I got a absolute steal: a thick strand of Majorica pearls (17 mm each, no less) with a lovely sterling silver clasp and a safety chain at the back. I have wanted to buy Majorica pearls forever but was always daunted by the prices in the duty free shop. These are neither real nor cultured--they are very good quality simulated pearls and if looked after well, they could last a lifetime and be passed along as a very valuable heirloom. Here, for less than the price of a pair of ear-rings with just single drop pearls, I got a whole hefty necklace--I simply could not believe it! Needless to say, I bought them and then wandered into Waitrose where I got myself a much-needed caffe latte and then took the bus to Sloane Street.
An Evening with Friends:
I spent the evening with Michael and Cynthia and then accompanied Cynthia to Benediction as planned. It was a beautiful service with a superb choir in attendance in a church filled with the decoration of the Pre-Raphaelites. Evensong was followed by Benediction. I left the church when the service ended at 7.00 pm, said goodbye to Cynthia and made my way back to the Tube station. I was home a little after 8.00 pm.
Facetime with Llew and Dinner:
The caffe latte affected my sleep pattern (as caffeine always does) so that I was filled with nervous energy as I Facetimed with Llew about all sorts of things for almost an hour. I then set about putting my dinner together (ravioli in cheese sauce which I jazzed up with chilli sauce) and a salad of lettuce and spinach with a simply balsamic vinaigrette. I had Black Forest Trifle for dessert and was still wide awake at 11.00. I finished Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach after savoring every syllable and felt heartbroken, once again, by the tragic ending. It was about 12. 30 pm when I finally switched my light off and attempted to go to sleep.
Tomorrow will bring another week which looks packed to capacity for me as I take on meetings at NYU and meet my publisher's deadline for the submission of my book's manuscript.
Until tomorrow, cheerio...