Walking round London pt14: Eltham Palace to Grove Park
Up and down the class scale at the 120km circumnavigation of the capital continues
(ICYMI: on Sat 5 May, the writer walked 36km as the first quarter of a 120km circumnavigation of the capital for charity; on Sat 26 May, he walked the next quarter. These blogs are to publicise the fundraising and consider the vernacular. There’s a full list of chapter/sections at the end of each blog.)
Eltham Palace isn’t one of those royal residences that sits on a hilltop visible for miles around. I can sense its presence as I walk along Tilt Yard Approach and Court Yard; not just the names — a tiltyard is an enclosed jousting area, like Horseguards Parade — but the brickwork, bravely bulging and unmistakably old in texture. The walls I’m passing are themselves listed buildings, dating back to the 16th century.
Then I round the corner and… yeah, I think that’s it. Blending into the hill with unusual subtlety, the palace is set back behind a moat and, more obstructively to the eye if not the invader, large gates. Entirely fittingly, the Google Streetview camera-car captured a bloke sticking his head through the railings, as so many must, for a better view.
Eltham Palace came into royal hands in 1305 from Anthony Bek, the legendarily extravagant Bishop of Durham (his own retinue included 140 knights). An advisor to King Edward I who was excommunicated by the Archbishop of York for allowing the king’s men to arrest two clerks — an excommunication quickly and humiliatingly overturned by regal pressure — Bek gave Eltham Palace to the heir apparent Edward II in 1305, just in time to conduct the old king’s funeral service.
Eltham Palace, across the moat (and through the fence).
Various Edwards, Richards and Henrys enjoyed Eltham Palace thereafter: it was a particularly Plantaganet-pleasing pitstop en route to their true home of France, and in the 1470s Edward IV added a great hall which still stands. Henry VII (1485–1509) made a special effort to tart the place up, plumbing and all, and his lad Henry (soon to become VIII) regarded Eltham as his childhood home.
The Lord Chancellor’s Lodging, opposite the Palace.
With later Tudor monarchs preferring Greenwich, the place declined in the 16th century and was ransacked by Roundheads in the civil war: the palace became a farm, Edward’s great hall a barn. It stayed that way, gradually falling apart, until the 1930s when textile magnate Sir Stephen Courtald and his wife Virginia moved in, building a stunning Art Deco mansion while restoring the medieval bits as best they could, a process continued by English Heritage who finally opened it to the public in 1995.
Not that I have time to step inside and pad around. Instead, I skirt the outside, past the Grade II*-listed Lord Chancellor’s Lodging — probably 16th-century, but looking frighteningly like a modern fake — and down the hill to go up again.
Suddenly the air is thick with the stench of horse-shit, which for some reason — presumably class-based — is a wholly acceptable order of ordure. I can cope with the two teenage girls clip-clopping up the lane ahead of me, less so the idiot in the van who can’t wait to overtake me in order to wait annoyingly close to the horses — then to block off the entire lane so he can chat to someone in a passing car.
Passing van, horses and what seems to still be a working farm, I’m now alone to enjoy, across the paddock, a somewhat humid smoggy view of Canary Wharf. I’m cresting this latest hill — there are many, dear reader, dear God, there are many — via King John’s Walk. An ancient rural lane that once linked the palace with its hunting estates of Middle Park and the Great Park, Coldharbour, Mottingham and Chislehurst. The name could refer to Prince John, born at the palace in 1316 to Edward ll and Queen Isabella; given that young John never took the crown, it’s more likely to be the French monarch Jean Le Bon, who was kept as a courtly captive at the palace after the 1356 Battle of Poitier and was said to have wandered happily along the lane.
These days, the lane seems to be the site of alternative leisure pursuits, judging by the line of 17 lager cans spiked atop the paddock fence — plus a crisp bag, presumably for sustenance — and, further on, the burnt-out scooter.
As King John’s Walk rapidly dips down the hill and the social scale, we cross a 1930s council-estate street with the somewhat uninspired name Joan Crescent. Turns out this is where Jeremiah and Dinah O’Dowd brought up their boy George, later Boy George. But there’s no sign of Culture Club gaeity here: with lager cans, dumped furniture and carefully covered railway bridges, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more, Toto.
The path crosses two more capital-to-Kent arteries — the Dartford Loop trainline and the New-Cross-to-Dover hitch-hiker’s friend the A20 — before climbing again, literally and apparently figuratively. The former village of Mottingham Lane is the sort of place where, to quote Elvis Costello, “there are names, not numbers, on the gateposts”, even if they don’t make much sense: Alvescot, Penleigh, Karind, Norlesden, Brookfield, Mulberry, the Gothic coach-house Cedar Mount, the modish burnt-larch Grange View (£1.4m), Badgers Mount (unapostrophised as a noun-verb statement of fact). Two riding schools range opposite the junior school of Eltham College, an £18kpa independent whose extensive fields I will pass shortly.
But first it’s a brief detour off the Capital Ring, past the extravagantly-bearded cricket legend WG Grace’s former house Fairmount (now a nursing home), past the rubbish-strewn 1970s estate atop Carters Hill and down to the second Capital Trail Challenge checkpoint for a well-earned bakewell flapjack, a refill of water and a brief removal of the shoes to air the aching tootsies. Only brief, though, and not just because I can quickly feel the lactic acid building up: it’s 1.30pm and I’m 20km into a 35km walk, so there’s a way to go yet.
As I recrest Carters Hill to rejoin the Capital Ring on a hot Bank Holiday Saturday afternoon, two cars zip past broadcasting loud music: Gary Numan’s inexplicably enduring Cars and Bonnie Tyler’s considerably less po-faced Total Eclipse of the Heart.
Leaving behind the early 1980s I turn down one of those byways at which England excels, between two fences; beyond the left one is the extensive sports grounds of Eltham College, where Eric Chariots of Fire Liddell presumably ran his baggy-panted heart out for God and country.
This being a very old byway it’s lined with mature boundary trees which make it pleasingly breezy, gladed and shaded; it’s also exactly the right sort of downhill — not steep enough to hurt the calves but enough to preserve a steady momentum. Better yet, down at the bottom there’s a cricket match going on, which only adds to the quintessential Englishness of it all.
I think the whites won.
As is so often the case, at the bottom of the hill is a river. The chalky surrounds of Eltham and Mottingham don’t go big on watercourses and the mighty Mississippi isn’t going to lose any sleep over the Quaggy River, a childlike name that appears to come from the same root as quagmire. It’s known for flooding but is quiet today: even culverted it’s all of two inches deep, just about enough to cover the golf balls if not quite the cricket balls. But it’s clean enough for mayfly nymphs to have been recorded.
There’s a river down that runway; you can just about see it chugging past on the left.
Pausing only to record a curious hidden world glimpsed through a gap where a fence has collapsed into the Quaggy, I turn right onto Marvels Lane. Out of the shade and into the sun, I’m beginning to seriously regret that I’ve forgotten my sun-hat (and ibuprofen). Suddenly homesick, I take the phone out of battery-saving airplane mode and clock a missed call from a daughter; I call back to find she’s “Just checking you’re alright, Dad”, and the spring re-enters my step.
Further along Marvels Lane, a phalanx of for-sale signs can’t quite mask some intriguing buildings. Subsequent investigation proves this is a site with a history of being an unwanted destination. It was built in 1902 as an overspill workhouse, but poor-relief changes left it largely empty. In 1919 it was bought to house TB patients but again remained empty until 1926, when it was renamed Grove Park Hospital.
After seven decades as a thoracic and later mental-health centre, it closed in the mid-90s and was sold for housing, but the entrance lodges and main admin building survive to give the estate a welcome grace; in a nice touch, Thomas Dinwiddy Road is named after the architect who designed the main block.
As it was in days gone by (pic: Lewisham)
Coming up next: Edwardian idylls and interwar optimism
The Mencap Capital Challenge is a charity walk circling London in four quarters, each roughly 30km. You can donate or sponsor the writer at justgiving.com/garyparkinson1974. You can also join in: the South quarter (Crystal Palace to Richmond) will take place on Sat 9 June, the West quarter (Richmond to Hendon) on Sat 7 July.
Pt1: Wembley to East Finchley • Pt2: East Finchley to Finsbury Park • Pt3: Finsbury Park to Clissold Park • Pt4: Clissold Park to Springfield Park• Pt5: Springfield Park to Hackney Wick • Pt6: Hackney Wick to Bow Back River • Pt7: Bow Back River to Channelsea River • Pt8: Channelsea River to Royal Victoria Dock • Pt9: Royal Victoria Dock to North Woolwich Pier • Pt10: North Woolwich Pier to Maryon Park • Pt11: Maryon Park to Hornfair Park • Pt12: Hornfair Park to Oxleas Wood • Pt13: Oxleas Wood to Eltham Palace • Pt14: Eltham Palace to Grove Park