Travel UK: Another side of Eltham

Eltham is only associated with one thing in people's minds. But can a historic palace help it overcome its notoriety?
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The Independent Culture
ELTHAM IS well-known these days - unfortunately, largely due to the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence at a bus stop. But the area does have a more favourable history and much of it can still be seen.

Lying close to Blackheath and Greenwich Park, Eltham was once a leafy village on one of the main roads to Kent. In the Middle Ages this was part of the great highway from London to Europe and as early as 1270 the manor of Eltham was a royal stopover.

Now it's a litter-strewn busy suburb with shops, houses, and a railway station but Eltham Palace once sprawled where the shops and bus stops stand. To find it, start at the west end of the high street outside McDonald's and head south along Court Yard, taking the right fork a few yards ahead. Along the way is Tilt Yard Approach. The last few houses here were built as the medieval residences of royal officials and behind a gate across a moat, sits the Palace.

Eltham Palace has been altered many times since 1305 but the main survivors are the moat bridge and the great hall of about 1480. Erasmus dined here in 1500 and Henry VIII came for Christmas in 1515. The hall retains one of the largest hammer-beamed roofs in Europe but the palace has been in ruins for centuries.

The trouble was its proximity to Greenwich, which Henry VIII preferred. The Civil War left it in "miserable ruins" according to John Evelyn who visited in 1656 and it found no favour under William and Mary, unlike Hampton Court. The ruins might not have survived at all had they not been leased to Stephen Courtauld in 1931, by which time only the great hall, the bridge and the moat were left. His art-deco house is now oddly juxtaposed with the hall and forms part of the English Heritage property.

However, the Palace is currently being repaired and opens to the public on 16 June. Plans are afoot to make this a showpiece garden for the millennium but, even so, it is visible from Court Yard and it makes a pleasant diversion from Dixons and the Co-op.

With such a mighty residence it isn't surprising that Eltham was associated with families close to the crown. Trot back past McDonald's and walk north downhill along the Well Hall Road. Along the way divert up the footpath beside the police station and enjoy the astonishing 18th-century neo- classical orangery at the back of the Marks and Spencer car park. These days the only remnant of a once-imposing house, it resides under corrugated iron, festooned with sweet wrappers.

Back to the Well Hall road. Just past the railway bridge is the Well Hall itself, a 16th- century barn which once stood next to a moated manor house half a mile from the Palace. It was owned by William Roper, son-in-law to Sir Thomas More.

The barn survived but the house was demolished in 1733 and replaced. Between 1899 and 1922 the new house became the home of E Nesbit, author of The Railway Children and The Story of the Amulet. That's gone too but the barn is still there, serving as a restaurant and bar in the middle of a park.

The fictional connections of Eltham aren't confined to Edwardian fantasies, though. Close by is Shooters Hill, once the Roman road from Kent to London and scene of the stupendously vivid opening to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. In reality it was no less grim. In April 1661 Pepys "rode under the man that hangs upon Shooters hill; and a filthy sight it was to see how his flesh is shrunk to his bones".

Eltham Station is on the Bexleyheath line from Charing Cross and Victoria. Eltham Palace will be open from 16 June to 30 September from 10am-6pm on Wed-Fri and Sun, from 1 to 31 October from 10am-5pm on Wed-Fri and Sun, and from 1 November to 31 March from 10am-4pm on Wed-Fri and Sun. Entrance to the house and grounds is pounds 5.50 for adults, pounds 4.10 concessions and pounds 2.75 for children