It was whilst we were on our way to Eltham Palace & Gardens, an English Heritage property about a 45 minute walk from where I live in South East London, that I began to have the feeling we were being watched. It was strange because we were on what looked to be a quiet, practically deserted track along the Green Chain Walk, a walkers’ path that leads across 300 open spaces (massively recommended if you’re looking for some explorer’s inspiration). We were also right next to the A20 motorway – I knew because I could hear the roar of the traffic, and we’d only just left Grove Park, entering a small wooded area close to the Quaggy River and following it towards Mottingham. What was it?
Suddenly, there was flurry of sound – leaves rustled and twigs cracked and the sound of a metal knocking on wood as we rounded the corner, underneath the pounding of hooves on the autumnal ground – a sound I never thought I would hear this close to central London. I should probably say at this point – having lived in Whitechapel (which is very central London) for over 7 years, you are not accustomed to running into loose horses when you live in the city! This particular steed was cheeky and frisky and very pleased with himself. He was cantering around and snuffling between the leaves and fence posts right beside us. Looking closer, we spotted more horses – a chestnut and a piebald – standing with their ears pricked in the copse. I poked my hand through bracken and let him nuzzle me with his big pink nose. This is one of the things I love about London – you never know when you are going to bump into something (or someone!) that is totally incongruous to its surroundings. As we ventured on further up the path, over the motorway and entering a stretch of hilly land on a track called ‘King John’s Walk’, we made an even bigger discovery.
Welcome to Donkey Land, the field with the most donkeys in it that I have ever seen. I named this one Bluebell, for reasons best known to myself. They are so happy for you to pet them and feed them grass plucked from the fields around you, which is what I did for ages, it was kind of hard to tear me away.
How could you leave when someone’s ears are this big?!
As we walked on (finally) up King John’s Path and over the crest of the hill towards Eltham, we were greeted with a panoramic view of London’s skyline – the Shard, the London Eye, Canary Wharf and the City were all visible from here, all beguilingly peaceful from this distance. But what made it so strange was that you could see all this – the landmarks of noise and construction and finance and crowds and fast, fast life – and then you turned around and found… this.
A fully-functioning riding stables, smelly and sweet with the scent of damp straw, manure, horses, and tack leather. I was transported in the millisecond it took me to take in the scene, back to my childhood growing up on a farm, frequenting countless riding stables and horse shows to be greeted with these sights and sounds of bustling children and whinnying ponies, mothers in yard boots covered in bits of hay pushing wheel barrows and shouting instructions about the ride they were about to embark on.
All along the route we were greeted with these rural tableaus – the bolshy fat pony who just won’t get its head out of the bank on the way back to the stable, demanding more grass and tugging a disgruntled child with pigtails along with it whilst parents chat nearby; a poo-picker skipping out a field; two boys struggling with a water bucket, water sloshing everywhere. I walked through it dumbfounded, and all the while with London’s skyline just sitting there like a film still in the background.
In the picture above, although you can’t really see it, there was a mare and her young foal tottering about everywhere on its spindly legs. Having done some research after stumbling across this treasure trove of four-legged friends, it turns out that South East London is home to several riding stables, so you can go for a ride with advance booking within just a 30-minute train ride of the city.
Eltham Palace Riding Stables (which is only for livery, not for riding lessons – if you are lucky enough to own your own horse in London, you can keep it here. But you can still walk through the horses and say hello to the donkeys!)
This is perfect if you are looking for something unusual to do in London, or to give yourself a little equine therapy with a breather from the city.
We did eventually get to Eltham Palace, thankfully the person I was with was very patient with my exclamations and frequent clambering over of things to get to the ponies.
So, back to my original purpose on this walk – Eltham Palace & Gardens is a beautiful English Heritage property with a history that can be traced all the way back to 1086, when the manor of Eltham was held by Hamo, the Sheriff of Kent (how great is this name?! It was all very Robin Hood back then) on behalf of Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William the Conqueror’s (!!) half-brother. The palace that stands there now, which is surrounded by the most verdant, nature-filled moat, is part-medieval royal palace, part-1930s Art Deco luxury home, all set within 19 acres of award-winning gardens.
We didn’t go inside, not today – it was getting late and we had to buy some mead for a friend (very important). I was also really distracted by the arrival of the above two puppies, which my mother had picked up earlier that day, and who we actually named ‘Jeeves’ for the black and ‘Wooster’ for the brown and white on the walk that day – right on the crest of the hill looking out over London. However, we did sample some of the little garden restaurant’s cakes, which I can truthfully say were divine.
English Heritage do some lovely meads (a honey-flavoured wine – a drink from medieval times), which are all made in England and can be found here.
If you would like to visit Eltham Palace & Gardens by taking in the lovely walk I described above from Grove Park (and so that you can meet and greet our four-legged friends!) then please click here for a map made by moi!