Cocktails with the Courtaulds

I’ve always loved poking around stately homes at weekends and now I’m also always on the lookout for potential locations for grisly scenes in my London Murder Mystery Series, so it was great fun visiting Eltham Palace recently. Unfortunately, we picked a perishingly cold Sunday for our trip, not realising that English Heritage would consider it entirely unnecessary to heat the place.

Eltham Palace is a curious hybrid of 1030s show home and medieval palace, partly the kind of place where the cast of an Agatha Christie whodunit would assemble for cocktails before a good stabbing, and partly somewhere where you can vividly imagine the swish of hooped velvet gowns across ancient flagstones.

First recorded in the Domesday book, Eltham Palace was the childhood home of Henry VIII, and maybe the arctic temperatures contributed to his famously bad temper in later years. Elizabeth I preferred to hang out in Greenwich and Eltham began a long slow decline, only being rescued from decay centuries later by the fabulously wealthy Stephen and Virginia Courtauld. They rapidly refurbished the place, cladding it in beautiful woods, fitting it out with the last word in bathroom luxury, including the first shower in the UK, which still looks pretty good today, and an amazing gold-tiled en suite which the gods themselves probably wouldn’t refuse to bathe in.

As well as a library fit for a denouement, there was a map room where the intrepid couple planned their global excursions, guest bedrooms as neat as cabins on a luxury liner and, of course, a sumptuously appointed cage for their pet lemur, Mah-Jongg, complete with tropical mural and a bamboo stepladder down to the ground floor.

Mah-Jongg, the Courtauld’s pet lemur, relaxing in his deckchair

I’d thoroughly recommend a poke around Eltham Palace. It’s only open on Sundays until the spring, so do take a warm coat. Apparently there’s a new Eltham Palace Experience, where you are given an invitation to one of Stephen and Virginia’s famous soirees, in the name of one of the original invitees, which sounds like fun. There are also beautiful grounds to look at, which were closed when we went round as there was an event planned that afternoon. They do weddings here – and I didn’t ask about murders, but it definitely had that look about it.

Death in Dulwich, The Girl in the Gallery 


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