Eltham Palace and gardens is run by English Heritage. It is in a leafy part of south London, very close to the centre of Greenwich.
Despite the fact that we live close by, we only got round to visiting Eltham Palace recently (there’s so much to do in London!). I wasn’t sure how well my six and three-year olds would take to being dragged round a country house. Although the children enjoyed themselves at Deal Castle – and we’re regulars at Leeds Castle in Kent – the prospect of visiting an art deco residence was a little daunting. But I was amazed at how much they enjoyed discovering the palace. In fact, it was me who had to drag them away, a good hour past our usual lunchtime.
Eltham Palace dates back to medieval times, and was adapted for Stephen and Virginia (Ginie) Courtauld in the 1930s by architects Seely and Paget, who built a modern extension onto the original great hall.
Stephen and Ginie were modern-day aristocrats from the family that owned the rayon manufacturing business. They were committed socialites; bon viveurs, by all accounts. They filled their home with all the latest gadgets and furnished it in a striking, resplendent art deco style that set a trend for decades to come.
Stephen and Ginie Courtauld were fond of entertaining, and the rooms in their former home reflected their love of inviting guests to lavish parties.
I was impressed by how far English Heritage and the Eltham Palace team had gone towards making the house visitor- and child-friendly. On our way in, we were given an animal explorer’s map; the Courtaulds were big animal lovers, with an array of unusual pets, including Mah Jong, a lemur with its own room and access to a range of tasty nibbles. Young visitors could go round the house, looking for animals and stamping their map when they spotted them.
There was also a range of dressing-up opportunities: as a soldier, in the basement which was used as a bomb shelter during the Second World War; as a court jester in the medieval great hall; and as Ginie Courtauld, in the dressing room leading off her chambers.
Best of all was the family guided tour on the multi media units handed out at the entrance. In each room, William, a nephew of the Courtaulds, gave a short introduction. The children were entranced by this, which made it easy for me to spend time there, discovering it for myself without a youngster tugging on my sleeve.
The family tour featured games in most of the rooms. I’d say these were suitable for children up to the age of 11 or 12; my three year old was just about old enough to enjoy most of them, with a little help.
And even I enjoyed creating my own Ginie Courtauld-style mirror.
We spent so long exploring the house that we didn’t have time to visit the gardens, which had their own family tour. Adult tours of the house were also available on the media units, but I chose to join the children on the family tour, which still had plenty of snippets that would interest adults.
Eltham Palace has a pretty, conservatory-style cafe, where we ate a very late lunch from picnic boxes for the kids, and tasty homemade soup for me.
The lunch wasn’t mega-cheap – £4.25 for a picnic box with a sandwich, drink and snacks – but that’s typical of this part of town. The best thing about the cafe was that it overlooked the play area, so I was able to relax for a few minutes with a coffee, watching the children while they played.
I’m told that Eltham Palace is beautiful in the summer, with people having picnics and relaxing on the lawn, Courtauld-style. The little bit we saw of the outdoor space made me keen to go back there soon.
Have you been to any country houses with children? Did you enjoy the experience?
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During winter (until 24 March), Eltham Palace is open on Sundays from 10am until 4pm. Entry is free to English Heritage members and the under 5s; £13 for adults and £7.80 for children over 5.
We were given entry to Eltham Palace for the purpose of this post.