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.

Very strange instruments and a big bunny…

I love the Horniman museum in south London. It’s such a randomly brilliant and unexpected place. It opened in 1901 when Fredrick John Horniman threw open his collections and his home to the public. With our newly acquired membership card burning a hole in our wallets and a free Saturday we piled into Bernice and off we went.

Parking is easy on the street at the back of the museum and always gives us a chance to admire and speculate on the shiny silver tin top Bongo just outside the back entrance.

After a splendid and excessively large picnic in the grounds Scott and SC headed off to the farm animals (including the biggest bunny you’ve ever seen…) while I waddled back to Bernice to ditch the rug and the (minimal) left overs. I was delighted to see the owner of the Bongo sweeping his front drive and headed over for some Bongo chat.

Peter made me feel like a compete Bongo novice having spent five solid months traveling with his wife in their unconverted X reg driving as far as Iceland, Bosnia and Portugal. We discussed the usual petrol /diesel MPG issues, height restrictions and general Bongo brilliance as your main and only car. I sensed a small amount of dislike for the pop top option but each to their Bongo own….

As well as the animals in the amazing 16 acres of grounds there’s a kitchen garden, sound garden, bandstand, farmers market on a Sat, nature trail, fabulous plants and SCs favourite botanical display of large round cactuses (mainly because she likes to be simultaneously delighted and horrified at the thought of sitting on them with no trousers on…strange child). In the grounds is also the memorial tree for my dear friend Mike who died in December 2014 from motor neurone disease.

The aquarium in the Horniman is small but exotic, just right for small children. There’s sea horses, a tank of luminescent jelly fish, a fabulous tropical coral reef and brilliantly coloured poison dart frogs. If it wasn’t for all the pesky other visitors to the museum I reckon I could install myself quite happily with a flask of tea on the bench in front of the massive tropical tank for the best part of the day. Sooooo calming….

As a trumpet and flugelhorn player my favourite part of the museum is their amazing collection of instruments, around 8000 I believe. The brass section is totally strange and wonderful, an alto orpheon has made it onto my Christmas list more than once (you’ll just have to visit….or Google). Naturally SC’s favourite bit is the adjoining room where you can make a lot of noise trying out different instruments.

There’s tonnes more to see and I could rave about it all. We popped into the dinosaurs exhibition which is diverting and only open until the end of the month, there’s photography, natural history and a shop which is good for unusual presents. There is a cafe but in our experience its always packed and the service is a bit slow. It’s nicer to bring a picnic and enjoy the grounds.

Never mind the Natural History Museum which is always packed and too big to get round in one day, step off the beaten track and head to the perfectly proportioned Horniman, you won’t regret it.

Not long now until my next Bernice trip…it’s a girls weekend away further exploring the #spacamping concept……can’t wait!