The view from Eltham Palace
We visited Eltham Palace the other weekend. Half Tudor hall, half extravagant Art Deco home, surrounded by a moat and beautiful gardens, it is a wonderfully beautiful, odd and unlikely oasis in London.
It is brilliantly disorientating to one minute be in a grand hall walked by kings, the next minute wandering around a 1930s fantasia, to be wandering the grounds as if on a country estate, then view the looming skyscrapers of the City through the trees, then stumble back into the palace’s suburban surroundings. You’re Henry VIII, then Jay Gatsby, then yourself, whoever that might be now.
It is an evocative place, but there are the inevitable distancing elements that you get in these sorts of places. The roped-off areas, the visitor signs, the DO NOT TOUCH plaques resting on the beds, tables, chairs. All constant reminders that you are walking an exhibit, that you are not in the past but in the here and now, observing a relic, an ordered view of what went before.
So, I took to looking through the windows. If I were back in the 1930s, or the 1400s even, I may have had a similar view. The light that fell upon me may have felt the same, on a similarly cloudy, vaguely hazy spring Sunday. The softness of the light, the shadows it cast, will have happened before and will happen again.
Looking out rather than looking in I felt more a part of the building. The building itself feels frozen in time, and rightly so. However, how it relates to the outside world feels more fluid, more timeless. I couldn’t quite pin it down, but there was a nagging something from looking out, to the gardens, to other parts of the palace, to the light and shade that fell upon me. Not quite melancholy, not quite referred nostalgia, not quite an understanding of how the building works. Failing to nail down the feeling was a big part of the feeling.
The building and grounds seem designed to relate to one another. A conversation. An obvious point, I guess. Would you choose the site according to the view, or create the view according to the site. I’m no architect.
The views of the other parts of the palace felt especially right. These tableaux have never really changed. They felt the most authentic for a moment. Then I realised you can never really and truly recreate the past, no matter how hard you try.
Before leaving I passed a circular window. I could see London ahead, the towers and spires and shards and Shards. The modern had crept into the building. You cannot escape the present. And perhaps you shouldn’t try.