Today we actually made it to Eltham Palace! After a failed trip some weeks ago (that you can read about here if you wish), I had been keen to try again at some point; I have heard so many good things about it (or the playground there at least) and it is so close to our house! In addition, D managed to win a month’s English Heritage membership (for August), and as we are trying to make the most of it it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go along!
We travelled to Eltham Palace by bus. It is just ten-minutes from Chislehurst on the 161 bus (the stop is “Blackheath Golf Club”, and from there it is just a two-minute walk). We arrived just after opening and it was already quite warm. Suspecting it would get even hotter, and much busier, I suggested that we start off in the outdoor play area.
The playground itself has an “around the world” theme, with lots of wooden structures to climb on. The main structure is a large ship (or at least I think that is what it is); this contains a slide, lots of steps, and a number of different platforms at different levels, as well as a set of monkey bars! There are also a number of smaller structures, including “mountains” to climb and a plane to “fly”. It was a very unique design and, with climbing being such a big focus, A and E were very happy indeed.
After a while the play area did indeed get very busy and so we decided it was a good time to head to the house. The house is a short walk away, and takes in some of the beautiful gardens. There is also a bridge to cross to get over the moat, and it is apparently the oldest working bridge in London! I do love a pretty bridge!
The gardens were glorious but A and E were not really in the mood to explore so we didn’t get to take in as much as I would have liked; it was a very very hot day! As we got to the house we were greeted by some very friendly and helpful staff who told us what there was to do and see.
I should probably have done some research before I went in as I actually wasn’t expecting the house to be so modern. I knew it had a rich history; a highly favoured royal palace for centuries, with connections to Henry VIII. However, I did not realise that it had been transformed into the modern Art Deco piece that currently stands. Duh!
Eltham Palace is in fact “a unique marriage between a medieval and Tudor palace and a 1930s millionaire’s mansion. From the 14th to the 16th century it was an important royal palace, where monarchs often stayed and hunted in the surrounding parks. After centuries of neglect, Eltham was leased to Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in 1933, who built an up-to-the-minute house that incorporated the great hall. The result was a masterpiece of 20th-century design.”1
It was beautiful though, and I particularly loved the Great Hall (the most substantial survival of the medieval royal palace). We also enjoyed the basement, which contained a billiard table that you were allowed to try, a wartime air-raid shelter, and a darkroom (have you ever tried explaining what a darkroom is to a child who has never seen a camera film, or cannot even grasp the concept of film? Way to make me feel old child)!
There were free multimedia guides on offer at the palace entrance (both adult and child versions), but we decided not to take up them up. From experience we know that it is not possible to concentrate on them with A and E in tow, and they are still too little to pay any attention to their own ones; they would have purely become an extra four things to lose. I did have a peak at one though, and it looked very swish – it even had a map on the screen and everything! This did mean, however, that the information available to us was quite limited, but we picked up bits and pieces of information as we went around; mostly about a pet lemur. (I have noticed this in the last few weeks whilst visiting a few English Heritage properties – if you do not take the audio-visual guides there is very little information elsewhere, at least in my experience).
I had mixed feelings about the house in terms of its toddleriness (that is definitely a word). All of the staff were very friendly and helpful and took time out to explain things to A and E (probably because they heard me talking complete nonsense and they wanted to help). A lot of effort had been made to try to make it very welcoming to young children:
- There were a number of rooms that contained sensory areas (with a variety of things to touch and try, feel and smell).
- We were handed a stamper trail as we went in (always a favourite). For this the children had to try and find specific animals (in pictures, models, windows and furniture) in the different rooms as they went around. When they found them they could emboss their leaflets with a stamp. Each stamp formed a letter, and then all of the letters had to be unscrambled to form a word. My children love stamps; they love anything they can get their hands on, and this was a really good one. They were able to work the stamps themselves, there were not a ridiculous number of animals to find so they remained engaged for most of the time, and A was able to recognise each of the letters once she had formed them. Once they had completed the trail they were able to take it to the entrance to receive a sticker.
- There were a few dressing up areas dotted about, each with vintage-inspired replicas to try on. However, the sizes of clothes available in these areas suggested that they were aimed more at adults and much older children. There were a few bits and pieces that would fit very small children though (mostly hats and jewellery), and a couple of smaller jackets in the basement.
- As with most English Heritage properties, lots of activities are put on during the holidays to keep the children entertained. There was a free, drop-in, children’s activity taking place for most of the day at various times, but we decided that A and E were a bit too young for this particular one; it sounded great though.
I think for me the most worrying thing was that so much could not be touched. Not just objects on display, but large unmissable items of furniture, certain walls, large wall-covering screens, and even a rug. That rug. That gigantic beautiful rug. The hugest rug I have ever seen. The rug that, we were informed, is a £45000 replica of a rug found in the V&A; not a replica of a £45000 rug, no, a £45000 replica. Right in the centre of the main entrance hall. The hall that you have to pass on many occasions. Far too many for my liking. Anyway, this cannot be touched, and it basically fills the hall (by hall I mean an entranceway 10x the size of our entire house) and connects all other parts of the house. In addition, it is itself filled with inviting furniture, with no barriers, or even a rope – just a verbal warning if you hover too close (thankfully we didn’t, but others did) – it was terrifying.
I do not expect places to be toddler-friendly in any way. I don’t even expect the amount of effort that they make at Eltham Palace; I was very impressed with everything on offer. I just wished I had been there without my children on this occasion, as I just don’t think they are suited to such a place yet!
If you do not have a car it is the perfect place to visit from Chislehurst! Entrance is expensive though, at £13.60 for adults and £8.10 for children aged 5-15, and there seems to be just one price that includes both the house and the gardens. So if you do not have English Heritage membership you may want to go without a toddler if you are interested in visiting; it would be a shame not to make the most of a visit if you are paying full price! And remember that it is closed on Fridays and Saturdays. Do not make the mistake that I made before!
Finally, I had heard rumours, and it did seem to be the case (based on signs that suggested this scattered around) that in term-time you can access the playground and café without having to actually buy a ticket. I am not sure how this works, or how you get in, but I know a number of people who do this regularly, so I may have to try it out!