Turn off Eltham High Street at McDonald's, head down a leafy lane, across a cobbled bridge over a moat and you instantly feel as if you are a million miles away from suburban south-east London. In days of old, Eltham Palace was one of England's largest medieval royal palaces and Henry VIII spent much of his childhood here - but that is just part of the story. In the 1930s wealthy textile magnates Stephen and Virginia Courtauld built a luxurious Art Deco mansion alongside the Tudor Great Hall and created a masterpiece of 20th-century design.
The Courtaulds were great animal lovers and there are two free children's trails guided by the couple's favourite pets. Caesar's Trail, named after their beloved Great Dane, explores the gardens, while Mah-Jongg's trail takes you around the interior. Jongy, as he was usually known, was the Courtaulds' ring-tailed lemur who was very much one of the family. He even had his own centrally heated sleeping quarters decorated with forest scenes.
In the Venetian Suite you can see more of the Courtaulds' pets' lives and travels in clips from their home movies. The beautiful 19-acre moated gardens are also a great place for a family picnic.
You may get a little house envy as you wander from the stunning glass-domed entrance hall into the dining room with its Belgian marble fireplace, pink leather upholstered chairs, maple-veneered walls and silver-adorned ceiling. In Virginia's exotic en suite bathroom the taps are gold plated and the walls are lined with onyx. Their home also had all the latest mod cons including underfloor heating and a loudspeaker system all over the ground floor. It is all quite a contrast to the magnificent oak roofed Great Hall that was originally built for Edward IV in the 1470s as a dining room.
Not surprisingly, Art Deco fairs and 1930s themed days are a regular feature on Eltham's events calendar which also includes a Tudor Times weekend with music, dancing and cookery (27 May) and open air theatre in the gardens in August.
In the 1930s tea room, the staff are dressed in Lyons Corner House-style uniforms and serve lunch-time meals such as lasagne or leek and macaroni cheese (£6.95) followed by bread and butter pudding (£3.25). It also offers home-made cakes and sandwiches. The tea room is open all day. In summer you can buy refreshments in the Orangery.
The gardens and ground and first floor of the house are accessible to wheelchair users. There is disabled parking. Visitor wheelchairs, hearing loops and a touch list for the blind are available. No pushchairs are allowed in the house but hip seats can be borrowed.
From next Sunday it opens Sunday-Wednesday 10am-4pm and until 5pm from April. House and garden entry, adults £7.60, concs £5.70, children £3.80, under fives free.
How to get there
Eltham Palace, Court Road, London SE9 5QE (020-8294 2548; elthampalace.org.uk). By rail: 20 minutes from London Bridge, Charing Cross and Victoria. Eltham railway station is a 15-minute walk. By road: Junction 3 on the M25, then signposted from the A20. Free car parking. By foot: Eltham Palace is on the Green Chain Walk (greenchain.com), a 40-mile network of footpaths.