Eltham Palace

Top choice historic building in London

Rayon heir Stephen Courtauld (of Courtauld Gallery fame) and his wife Virginia (Ginie) built an art-deco mansion next to a 15th-century medieval hall between 1933 and 1937. From the impressive entrance hall with its dome, African black-bean-panelled walls and huge circular carpet with geometric shapes, to the black-marble dining room with silver-foil ceiling and heavy black doors decorated with lacquered animal figures, it appears the couple had taste as well as money.

A £1.7 million refurbishment has opened up areas previously closed to the public. These include the decorated map room off Ginie's boudoir, where the couple plotted their extensive travels, and the basement, converted to a deluxe air-raid shelter during the Blitz. The couple also, rather fashionably for the times, had a pet lemur – the heated cage, complete with tropical murals and a bamboo ladder leading to the ground floor for the spoiled (and vicious) ‘Mah-jongg’ is also on view.

A royal palace was built on this site in 1305 and was, for a time, the boyhood home of Henry VIII, before the Tudors decamped to Greenwich. Little of that palace remains, apart from the restored Great Medieval Hall incorporated into the mansion. Its hammerbeam roof is generally rated the third best in the country, behind those at Westminster Hall and Hampton Court Palace. The 8 hectares of gardens include a rockery and moat with working bridge.

Visitors view the mansion's 20 rooms on a self-paced tour with an entertaining handheld multimedia guide.

Eltham Palace is equidistant – about a 20-minute walk – from Eltham and Mottingham stations (trains from London Bridge).