An unexpected palace

You know when you’ve lived down the road from a local attraction for years but never visited? Safely home from France we awoke to a glorious sunny Sunday, the last “official” day of our holidays. Out of nowhere we decided to hit Eltham Palace, an arduous six miles away and 15min drive in Bernice.

I sternly instructed Scott not to let them sucker us into joining English Heritage. We had been at the place less than four minutes before we were signing the direct debit form. It seems very good value and SC does love a castle you know….

Eltham Palace was absolutely fabulous and splendid for the short trippers. I knew shamefully little before we left and was expecting a “standard” stately home, four poster beds, oil portraits, ponderous commentary etc.

The original palace was built in the 14th century and was where Henry VIII spent his childhood.  The only remaining part of the original palace is the Great Hall built in 1470. I had no idea that the majority of the building is a perfectly restored 1930s Art Deco mansion.

Stephen and Virginia Courtauld bought the shell of Eltham Palace in 1933. They were filthy rich and spared no expense on all the mod cons of the period and an extremely understated bathroom…. I’m not much of a design buff but it is literally jaw-on-the-floor stuff and controversial at the time. They incorporated the stunning Tudor Great Hall into the design (which had been used as a stable, a barn and a tennis court in the interim) .

Very similar to our washing facilities in Bernice….

The Great Hall

Highlights for SC included seeing the luxury quarters for Mah-Jong, the Courtauld’s pet lemur and trying on 1930s frocks. There’s a free audio tour of the house and garden with a family tour option. The family tour is actually very good, fun but informative with a game for each room.

The palace has jazz on the lawn on a Sunday afternoon and listening to it floating up while in such a beautiful setting was pretty magical. We’d bought an austerity picnic so we abandoned the tour as it returned to the entrance hall and hurried out to listen.

The grounds are equally lovely but quite disorientating over a number of different levels. If you blindfolded me and span me round I’d probably still be there now.

Eltham Palace features on English Heritage’s list of most haunted properties. A staff member who died the week after his retirement is said to give tours to visitors. There’s a fun article here about spooky occurrences in Eltham and other EH properties (sorry about the link to the Daily Torygraph).

By the time we’d completed the tour, investigated the giant fish in the moat, played in the playground (all tasteful English Heritage wood, not a garish piece of plastic in sight…) and had an ice cream it was getting on for 4pm. It’s not a cheap day out at nearly £40 for a family but I guess it takes more than a few quid to keep it running. It was great to visit somewhere so local and I’m sure we’ll be back soon.

Giving up in epic Epping

At 6000 acres Epping Forest is the largest open space in the London area. Once a royal hunting ground it is now managed by the Corporation of London despite being 20km from the city (and only 15 miles from our house).

It was the last day of term and we picked up a jubilant SC replete with face paint (and a massive stack of school work which we will lovingly…..recycle) flung her bike into Bernice and headed straight off to Debden House campsite. The traffic was, as always, awful but at least it was only a 50 minute schlep rather than a couple of hours.

Debden House is a really big site. It’s hard to believe you’re inside the M25 (just) and still on the central line as it feels so quiet and rural. There’s more than 300 pitches over seven fields. There’s electric hook up, play equipment and, best of all, you’re allowed campfires in fields 2,5,6 and 7. There’s an eclectic patchwork of pitches of varying sizes, ours was pretty snug with a tight width restriction in the form of two trees at the entrance. Good thing we didn’t bring the Coleman Event Shelter….*

Before long we were all set up with a lovely fire going.

It’s hard to explain why but the site, although has much to commend it, feels a bit rough round the edges. The pitches are close together and it’s noisy in the day time. The facilities are really basic and functional (although the washing up water is hot enough to strip the skin from your hands at first contact…) and there never seemed to be quite enough of them. I think we’d been ruined by the amazing spa toilets at Whitlingham Broad….. such middle class Cool Camping softies.

The rain battered down all night but the morning emerged in that post rain way, all drippy and dazzling. More rain was forecast so we headed to the forest for the classic “lovely family walk”. The campsite couldn’t provide any guidance for where to go (surely they must get that query 10 times a day??!) so we headed off following our noses and stumbled onto a path at the end of the field 2.

SC insisted on bringing her bike despite dire warnings that we WERE NOT going to carry it. It will astonish you to know that a monumentally heavy £29.99 Argos bike decorated with purple hearts and flowers did not cope well with the forest floor after heavy rain. Of course, we ended up carrying it which did not add to the progress of the walk. About an hour later we were back at Bernice having spent 20 mins of that playing on a rope swing.

After a bit more bike riding, Junior Monopoly and I-Spy camping (it’s strangely addictive, try it!) the rain set in again with a vengeance. We planned to go to Waltham Abbey but took the easy small-child owner option and headed to Ashlyns Farm in Epping instead. I have to say we made the right choice, the food in the lovely, cosy cafe at Ashlyns was absolutely splendid. It takes quite a salad to tempt me away from a jacket potato (or a massive plate of chips) but their super food salad with grilled chicken was (almost) Instagrammable.

Oh, alright, here it is….

The weather meant the farm was pretty much out of bounds so, with a grim sense of rainy day inevitability, we headed to the soft play. It was pretty standard stuff, ball pit, slides, smell of dirty nappies but it did have surprisingly good quality of hot beverages. SC found a new friend to tear about with and I had a book and a decent hot chocolate, not so bleak. The complex also has a giant farm shop, a beauty salon (spa camping!) and water park. Definitely one to return to on a sunnier day.

The rain beat down mercilessly and was forecast the same until 1am. Having a camper van is so much easier than a tent in many ways, with passing showers you can shut the door, pop the kettle on and crack open the Snap. Constant heavy rain for prolonged period with a six year old is another matter. With a quarter of a mile trek to the loo up a muddy track and only 15 miles from home we threw in the towel and, with a quick stop for sausages, headed home.

This is not the view I am expecting on our summer hols which is only ONE WEEK AWAY! Ten days at the Camping la Grande Sologne, the countdown starts now!

* the Coleman Event Shelter is a giant gazebo that I bought jointly on a whim with a friend. It’s big enough to host an international scouting jamboree (joke credit to her) and we’ve never camped anywhere roomy enough to take it yet but there’s time….