|Eltham Palace Gardens and Grounds *||Greenwich|
* on The National Heritage List for England, Parks & Gardens
Eltham Palace was built as a royal retreat, the manor having been taken into the Crown's possession in 1305. The estate included the moated manor house, a dovecote, deer park and a windmill. The land was added to by subsequent monarchs and by Edward IV's reign it incorporated 3 parks, amounting to 1300 acres. It was sold in 1649, the majority of the land to Colonel Nathaniel Rich who demolished most of the buildings apart from the Great Hall and Chapel although these were in ruins; the deer were slaughtered and the parks stripped of trees.
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Eltham Palace - Photo: Sarah Jackson
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Site on The National Heritage List for England, Parks & Gardens, for Register Entry see https://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list
The site today comprises C20th gardens within the mediaeval site of Eltham Palace, which was built as a royal retreat in C14th, although by the C16th it was reduced to use as a hunting lodge. The manor had been taken into royal possession in 1305 when it was granted to Edward Prince of Wales by the Bishop of Durham, Anthony Bek. The estate included the moated manor house, a dovecote, deer park and a windmill. Edward II was born here in 1316; a large-scale building and improvement programme was embarked upon, continued by Edward's successors. Edward III built part of the great wall around the moat and developed the grounds, adding the Middle or Little Park to the west between 1367-68. Richard II extended the parkland by enclosing the area from Shooters Hill to Mottingham and built the stone bridge that still serves as the northern entrance, the oldest bridge in London still in use. He also enclosed the Great Park, another park to the south and east of the Palace, and laid out a new garden beyond the moat to the south. Edward IV built the Great Hall and laid out a third park, Horne or Lee Park, to the west of the Palace. Together the three parks comprised c.1300 acres. It was popular for hunting between the reigns of Edward IV and Henry VII but Henry VIII eventually abandoned it in favour of Greenwich Palace, although he laid out gardens to the south and east of the moat, a Privy or Arbour Garden and alleys to provide a private walk. He also added a new chapel, lodgings and a bowling green in 1532. At one time Geoffrey Chaucer worked as Clerk of Works at Eltham Palace.
There was much demolition during the Commonwealth and the estate was sold in 1649, the majority of the land to Colonel Nathaniel Rich who demolished most of the buildings apart from the Great Hall and Chapel although these were in ruins; the deer were slaughtered and the parks stripped of trees. In the mid C17th Sir John Shaw was owner and built a new house, Eltham Lodge, in the Great Park, later to become the clubhouse of Royal Blackheath Golf Club (q.v.). The Palace was used as a farm and the buildings tenanted; Middle and Horne Parks appear not to have been re-enclosed. The Palace declined throughout the C19th into a picturesque ruin, visited by artists and sightseers. In the early C19th a villa was built within the moat walls and gardens and kitchen gardens were laid out in the western and southern moats. A campaign to save the Great Hall from demolition resulted in its restoration in 1828 but it remained a barn.
In the C19th the Palace became a gentleman's residence and glasshouses and gardens were laid out in the western moat, but the parkland had been reduced to two small areas of 50 acres and 70 acres, the rest reverting to arable/pasture land. Parkland trees were cleared in the 70 acre section between 1808 and 1828. By the 1930s the area of Eltham was considerably developed and the Palace almost completely surrounded by housing. In 1911-14 the Great Hall was repaired by Charles Peers, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, and more gardens were planted.
The Palace was made habitable again in 1933 when Stephen and Virginia Courtauld leased the site from the Crown and began repairing the buildings; the Courtauld Wing and a squash court were built, incorporating the Hall and a three-gabled building, designed in 1933-35 by Seely and Paget. Part of the moat was reinstated and seven new garden areas remodelled, retaining most of the trees south and east of the moat but adding ornamental plantations, shrubberies and specimen trees. The Courtaulds' gardens were laid out on two levels within the framework of the Tudor buildings, walls and earthworks, on the terraces surrounding the Palace and at a lower level within the now partly dry moat surrounding the terraces. In 1936 an initial design for the Courtaulds' gardens was produced by Andrew Mawson & Partners, and exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show; this design was modified with assistance from John Gilmour, Assistant Director of Kew Gardens. Their gardens were laid out with shrubberies, lawns on three sides of the house, a mixed border, sunken rose garden and spring bulb meadow, rock garden and woodland garden.
In 1944, the Courtaulds gave up the lease when they left England for Rhodesia, and the site was taken over by the Royal Army Education Corps who remained there until 1992, the grounds being used from 1975-93 as a training facility for the Royal Parks. In 1995 English Heritage took over management of the Palace and in 1999 completed a major programme of repairs and restoration of the 1930s interiors and the gardens. In 1999 Isabelle Van Groeningen won the Contemporary Heritage Gardens competition to re-design the South Moat areas, her planting design based on art deco principles to complement the 1930s gardens of the Courtaulds.
Eltham Palace was opened to the public in June 1999, with the new gardens opening in summer 2000. There are lime-lined approaches and substantial lengths of early brick walls; the northern side of the moat is landscaped with rockwork, shrubs, and has magnificent (probably C18th) London plane trees; the western side was canalised, ending in a 1930s formal pond, on the axis of a formal garden running the length of the western walls, including an axial walk and sunken flower garden.
There are vestiges of the parkland in the surrounding open space and Royal Blackheath Golf Course and The Tarn (q.q.v.), the latter having a mid-C18th ice house in its grounds. The lands around Eltham Palace include farmland, a recreation ground and abandoned fields, with some old hedgerows remaining.
Eltham Palace received Visitor Attraction of the Year Award in 2000. The amalgam of C20th and medieval at Eltham Palace is a feature maintained in the restoration programme for the South Moat garden. As part of the Contemporary Heritage Gardens scheme launched in 1999 by English Heritage, whereby ten contemporary gardens were to be created in historic settings over the subsequent five years, three areas of the South Moat were developed in the spirit of the Courtaulds’ 1930s plantsman’s garden. These areas are the 100-yard-long border, the White Wood and the Theatre lawn. Based on Art Deco principles to reflect the splendid interiors of the house, working with large bold groups and using contrasting colours, the planting design aimed to bring vibrancy from spring to autumn to these parts of Eltham’s gardens.
EH Register: Halstead 'History of Kent' 1798; J C Buckler 'An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Royal Palace at Eltham', 1828; H Dunnage and C Laver, 'Plans, Elevations, Sections, Details and Views . . . Of the Royal Palace of Eltham', 1828; Country Life, 7 April 1906 pp498-500, 15 May 1937 pp534-539; 22 May 1937 pp568-573, 29 May 1937 pp594-599; Architectural Review, August 1911 pp81-86; R Brook 'The Story of Eltham Palace', 1960. Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 2: South (Penguin) 1999; two C16 surveys by John Thorpe; Michael Turner, 'Eltham Palace' (English Heritage). Sue Swales, Meg Game, Ian Yarham, 'Nature Conservation in Greenwich', Ecology Handbook 10 (London Ecology Unit), 1989.