SE9: Always Hope

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SE9 is Eltham – home to a former Royal Palace and some other famous connections, as we shall see.

We start our walk at Eltham Post Office, 33 Court Yard, which is in Eltham Town Centre just down from the cross roads by the parish church.  Turn left out of the door and follow Court Yard. The road veers off to the left but actually Court Yard continues along to the right. Our first stop is Eltham Palace but do not be tempted by the sign which will take you a long way round via the car park.

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Keep straight on walking along Court Yard and you will eventually get to a gateway to a path which goes over a bridge.

Stop 1: Eltham Palace

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If you want to visit the Palace (which you really should!) you will need to follow the path to the left and go to the Visitor’s centre and cafe area and get a ticket. (I will be posting a piece on the Palace itself in due course on StephensLDN)

Even if you do not have a ticket you can go over the bridge

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Then go into the courtyard area, where the entrance to the house is on your left.

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Eltham became a Royal Palace when the Bishop of Durham gave it to King Edward II in 1305. It was used a Royal residence until the 16th century. By the 17th century Greenwich Palace had been rebuilt and Eltham became ruinous. It would have stayed that way had it not been for Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia who acquired the lease of the palace site in 1933.

Stephen Courtauld (1883–1967) was a member of the wealthy English Courtauld textile family but his wealthy background enabled him and his wife to travel extensively and to pursue cultural and philanthropic interests. They set about restoring the Great Hall and adjoining it they build a large home, decorated in the Art Deco style.

In 1944, the Courtauld family moved to Scotland then to Southern Rhodesia, giving the palace to the Royal Army Educational Corps in March 1945. The Army remained here until 1992. English Heritage took over management of the palace in 1995 and they have restored it magnificently.

Over on the far side of the courtyard are some seats and a view across to the City – You can just about make out St Paul’s Cathedral in the right hand corner of the picture below. But the Shard is clearly visible even on this hazy day.

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Back at the visitor centre there is a pleasant refreshment area which was partly in a greenhouse and when I visited overlooked a wonderful display of tulips.

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Nice carrot cake too…

Go back out of the Palace grounds and immediately outside you will see a walkway called King John’s Walk to the left. Follow this round. This path bends to the left and then you will see another path going right. Go up this and it will lead you a street called Kingsground. Go straight ahead and you will reach a main road which is Eltham Hill. Our next stop is at the corner on the left as you approach.

Stop 2: Mecca Bingo Hall (former Odeon/Gaumont cinema)

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Today this is a bingo hall but it was of course built as a cinema.

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This cinema was built by the Odeon company and opened in April 1938.

According to the wonderful Cinema Treasures site, the facade is covered in sheets of cream and black glass, not that you can tell this today. Inside the auditorium, seating was provided in what is described as semi-stadium style that is it has a separate raised balcony at the rear that did not overhang the stalls seating. This is a somewhat unusual arrangement.

This Odeon was located only about half a mile away from the one at Well Hall, which opened in 1936 and which we shall see shortly. Cinema Treasures says “The Odeon Eltham Hill tended to play the Gaumont release and from 28 November 1949 it was re-named the Gaumont. This was quite a rare event as usually Gaumont’s were re-named Odeon.”

It was closed as a cinema in June 1967 and was converted into Bingo Hall – at first it was a Top Rank Club but today it is a Mecca club.

One of the odd things about this building is how it is stuck on the very edge of the centre of Eltham and is really in a residential area. Perhaps that is why it is still here as the site was not in the right place to be redeveloped as shops or offices.

Now go up Eltham Hill towards the centre of Eltham. Just before you get to the church, you will see a side street to your left called Wythfield Road, go down here a short way

Stop 3: Bob Hope Theatre

Here in this side street on the left hand side is a rather unassuming building which houses the Bob Hope Theatre.

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There is no big sign outside and you have to go right up to the windows to be sure that this is indeed the place.

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There is also a rather large picture of the man himself inside.

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This theatre was formerly Eltham Parish Hall, built 1910. There was a local theatre company called the Eltham Little Theatre formed in November 1943 to promote “drama, music and allied arts in Eltham and its immediate vicinity”. In the early years they were without a permanent home but early in 1946, they came to the Parish Hall and leased this on an annual lease basis. In the late 1970s, funds were short and they approached Bob Hope (who was born in Eltham) for help. The rest they say is history.

The full story can be found on their website http://www.bobhopetheatre.co.uk/aboutus.html This has a link on to a booklet which gives the story in greater detail. Bob Hope was a great supporter of this little venture and visited on occasion.

Now return to the main road and turn right. Our next stop is ahead on the left. you cannot miss it.

Stop 4: St John the Baptist Church

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This was the old parish church which, according to architectural guru Pevsner, was rebuilt in the late 17th century and replaced in 1872 by a large Early English style building. The tower and spire are however later.

If you walk up into the Churchyard you will see a small plaque on the side of the Church.

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This is a memorial to one Thomas Doggett, actor, theatre manager and author who founded a race on the Thames called Doggett’s Coat and Badge.  This is apparently the oldest rowing race in the world and it has been held every year since 1715. It goes between London Bridge and Cadogan Pier, Chelsea. Originally, it was raced every 1 August against the outgoing tide, in the boats used by watermen to ferry passengers across the Thames. Today it is raced at a date and time in late July that coincides with the incoming tide, in more modern style boats, known as sculls.

Useless fact: There is a pub by Blackfriars Bridge called the Doggett’s Coat and Badge – not sure why because the race does not start here but just passes by.

Go on to the corner of the churchyard and you will see diagonally across the junction is our next stop.

Stop 5: The Banker’s Draft pub

This Wetherspoons pub is called the Banker’s Draft because it used to be a bank.

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It is quite small for a Wetherspoons and like many branches of this chain it celebrates some local connection. There are actually plenty of well known people to choose from, apart from Bob Hope – for example singers Boy George and Kate Bush, actor Jude Law, politician Dennis Healy and artist Rex Whistler. But the local connection they celebrate is comedian Frankie Howerd. He grew up and went to school nearby. There are a number of pictures of him dotted around.

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And curiously there is a poster for some live shows in April 1991, in Bournemouth, Crawley and Swansea – an odd combination of locations don’t you think?

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Interesting that they did not call the pub “The Frankie Howerd” or even better “The Titter-ye-not Tavern”.

Now take the road by the church as if you had turned left off Eltham Hill. This is Well Hall Road. Soon you will see our next stop on your right.

Stop 6: Eltham Bus and Railway Station

This transport interchange is a rare example of one built in the 1980s.

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There is a large featureless and rather unattractive expanse of tarmac where buses turn round and on the far side is a glass box housing the station entrance. The station is worth a wander round. It shows they had the right ideas when it came to creating a transport interchange but somehow it does not quite come off like later examples (eg North Greenwich).

Up on the platforms there is a canopy on the London bound side (right hand platform on picture below).

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But on the country bound side the concrete covering only goes over the slope up from the ticket hall and does not extend over the platform.

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What were they thinking of? Was the idea that you sheltered from the rain on the slope coming up to the platform?

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Now look down the platform away from London and you see a bridge over the track with a parade of shops, and you can just make out it almost says “Station Parade”. But there is no station there and we shall be finding out why shortly as we head that way.

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By the way this photograph totally misrepresents the view by foreshortening the image. It is actually quite a way to that bridge as you are about to find out.

So exit the station building and turn left away from Well Hall Road. Go along “Station Approach Path” (such an original name) and you will reach a road.

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Notice as you reach Glenlea Road there is a footbridge over a dual carriageway below. Looking back you can see how the bus station is built on a concrete raft sitting above the road.

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The transport interchange was built as part of the A2 Rochester Way Relief Road. This road was built in late 1980s. It is only a two lane dual carriageway and is a scaled back version of what was originally planned.

Keep going until you reach a cross roads. Here turn left (into Westmount Road) and soon you will be by that Station Parade building. This is our next stop.

Stop 7: Site of Eltham Park station

This was clearly an old station building which stood on the bridge over the tracks.

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The station was called Eltham Park and opened in 1908. We are about 500 yards east of the current station.  And to give you a better idea of the distance back to Eltham station here is a shot back down the railway bridge without a zoom.

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In fact until 1985 there were two railway stations in Eltham. The other one was called Eltham Well Hall which opened on 1 May 1895 and was just over 200 yards to the west of the current station

Both railway stations were closed and replaced by the present station (with its bus station) by British Rail in March 1985 at the same time as the nearby A2 Rochester Way Relief Road opened.

Whilst the abandoned Eltham Park station building still exists, there is apparently no trace of Eltham Well Hall station.

Continue along Westmount Road and take the fourth turning on the left (Craigton Road). Follow this along and as the road bends you will find our next stop on the left.

Stop 8: Number 44 Craigton Road

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This modest house has an unusual plaque.

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So this marks the Bob Hope connection to Eltham. It was his birthplace. However his family emigrated to the States in 1908, so in effect he grew up in America. He was named Leslie Townes Hope by his parents but he decided to rename himself Bob in the late 1920s. One story goes, this was after racing car driver Bob Burman; another story was because he wanted a name with a “friendly ‘Hiya, fellas!’ sound” to it.

Interesting he was still alive when this plaque was put up in 1996. In fact he lived to be just over 100, dying on 27 July 2003.

Continue along Craigton Road and at the end you will be back at Well Hall Road. Our next stop is across the road.

Stop 9: Well Hall Pleasaunce

Well Hall Pleasaunce is a public park which was originally the grounds of a house.

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It is very well kept but sadly it is not peaceful as there is a constant hum of traffic from the nearby A2.

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In the middle near where you came in is a moated area through a gate.

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This is where the house once stood.

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And it has a famous connection – this was the home of Edith Nesbit who wrote the well known children’s book “The Railway Children”

Within the grounds just to the north of the moat is what is described as the Tudor Barn. This is now an attractive looking tea room.

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Now return to Well Hall Road and go as if you are turning left out of the park. Just past a parade of shops on the left you will see our next stop.

Stop 10: Former Odeon Cinema

This is what remains of a very 1930s looking cinema. This was the other Odeon in Eltham.

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This Odeon opened in May 1936. The entrance was located on a corner of the building and had a wrap around canopy over a single storey entrance hall. The glass tower to the right contained the stairs leading to the circle.. And the auditorium block was to the left.

The auditorium block was plain brick but much of the rest of the cinema was covered in the Odeon’s familiar creamy coloured faience tiles. It seated 1,028 downstairs in the stalls and 578 in the circle.

It was divided into two screens in January 1973 and in November 1981 was taken over by an independent operator who renamed it the Coronet Cinema. The Coronet carried on until January 2000. It then remained unused for just over 10 years. Eventually it was redeveloped in 2011 but sadly this involved the demolition of the auditorium. But at least the distinctive corner survives – today it is a gym.

Our next stop is just over the road.

Stop 11: St Barnabas Church

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This church has had a somewhat eventful history. It was originally designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the late 1850s. (Gilbert Scott is perhaps best known for the Hotel at the front of St Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial and what is now the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall).

But this church was not originally built at this spot. According to the Southwark Diocese website. it was built “as the Naval Dockyard Church at Woolwich Dockyard. It stood for 74 years at the Woolwich Dockyard and was taken down and rebuilt in modified form at Eltham in 1932-33. The church was gutted by fire as a result of enemy action in 1944 and was restored in 1956 under the direction of Thomas Ford with a new roof and remodelled interior.”

If you can, do try to go in because this Church has an interesting mural by the German Jewish artist Hans Feibusch. The church is not normally open outside services but I struck it lucky, so was able to get some pictures of the interior.

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It is quite cavernous and in the apse is the Feibusch mural.

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(You may recall we saw another of his murals at St James Merton in SW20)

Now head up Well Hall Road away from the church and the former cinema.

This is the Well Hall Estate and is described by architectural expert Pevsner as “the first and most spectacular of the garden suburbs built by the government during the First World War to house munitions workers. The Well Hall estate was conceived, planned and built in less than twelve months in 1915.”

He goes on “Variety of materials and finishes … was matched by complexity of shape and silhouette, and combined with period details such as the raised pavement to produce a virtuoso re-creation of the ‘old English Village’.”

Here are a couple of pictures.

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Sadly this kind of development proved too costly and so was not the model adopted for later public housing estates.

Our next stop is a little way up on the right hand side of the road.

Stop 12: Stephen Lawrence Memorial plaque

We have heard about a number of well known people connected to Eltham but here we have a memorial to someone who only became famous because of the manner of his death – and that is black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

It took me a while to locate the Stephen Lawrence memorial plaque as it is very low key – just a stone set in the pavement. It is very easy to miss.

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It is outside number 320 Well Hall Road just to the south of Arbroath Road bus stop.

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This commemorates the place where Stephen Lawrence, was murdered on 22 April 1993.

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He was murdered in a racially motivated attack while waiting for a bus here. The case became very high profile as it exposed institutional racism within the police and prosecution services. Wikipedia as an extensive article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Stephen_Lawrence

It used to be that once found not guilty of a crime, you could not retried for the same offence (so-called “double jeopardy”), But as a result of the Lawrence case there was a partial revocation of double jeopardy laws to allow for a retrial if there was compelling new evidence.

Thus even though they had already been tried and acquitted once, two men were finally convicted in 2012 – almost 20 years after the murder. So I guess there can always be hope, even in the darkest hour.

Well that brings us to the end of our SE9 walk. There was a lot more here than I was expecting and so there were a few famous connections we did not manage to cover.

For onward travel it is probably best to head back down Well Hall Road to Eltham station.