In July 2018, we took a tour of Fulham Palace with Community Archaeologist Alexis Haslam during a £3.8million restoration project.
A Tudor Palace? In London? Still standing? Yep — Fulham Palace is still standing, and very much open to visitors.
In medieval times, the status of the church was right up there with the status of the monarch. Bishops ruled in style and, like any other toff, needed their own London pad. The Archbishop of Canterbury had the best one, of course, at Lambeth; the Bishops of York and Winchester enjoyed sumptuous residences in Battersea and Southwark. As for the Bishop of London — well, he was home already, next to St Paul’s, so he took himself out of the capital, to a summer palace in the countryside, down the river at Fulham.
It’s still eerily country-like today. A few metres from Putney Bridge tube station, across the road and into greenery, the traffic and noise disappear. Take the steps down to and through All Saints’ churchyard, or, for the full grandeur, choose the fancy gates closer to the river and nip into Bishops Park. Keep to the path on the right. You’ll pass a locked-looking gate. If it’s before 4.30pm it won’t be, and you could sneak in the back — but, first time, don’t be tempted. Carry on.
You’ll begin to catch glimpses of the palace through thick woodland. This is the remains of the moat, full of water until the 1920s when local residents were invited to fill it with rubbish.
Just before you turn the corner, peer into the undergrowth to see a recently-discovered 19th century sluice-pump. From 1618, the moat was regularly emptied of, well, the sort of thing bishops used to dump into it — not least flushings from the abattoir directly above.
The moat’s been excavated by the grand entrance and entering the compound still carries the feel of walking onto an island.
The palace is built around a four-sided, red-brick courtyard. It’s in a delicate state, especially around the Tudor-arched entrance, not helped by an earlier ‘restoration’ that used cement instead of traditional lime-mortar.
As you pass through, turn back and look up. The cement’s been removed for re-pointing, revealing a little-known 16th century brickie’s trick — wedging oyster shells (a cheap meal in those days) to hold bricks in place until the lime set.
“The timbers have a fell-date of 1495,” says Alexis Haslam, Community Archaeologist at Fulham Palace, of the Great Hall. “It had rooms above it and the windows would have been in a different place.” The wood panelling screen is also an interloper, brought in from a stately home after the war.
“I’ve never been in the Great Hall roof,” admits Haslam. “Access is very difficult.” A ladder, sadly not open to the public, leads up through a tiny hatch into what would, once, have been bedrooms. The ‘purlins’ — horizontal beams that run the entire length of the building — still bear carpenters’ marks, revealing their construction. Slotted, pre-made components were fitted into each other and fixed with wooden pegs, “like a flat-pack,” says Haslam.
Every bishop since 704AD has changed, remodelled, shifted or rebuilt this site to his own taste. Thanks to the hot, dry summer, the changes are particularly clear during our visit, as parch-marks on the lawn reveal the footings of a lost medieval chapel.
The last bishop left in 1973. The Palace was taken over by the council and some of the building was turned into offices. The rest quietly mouldered. By the 1980s, Fulham Palace was nigh-on deserted.
Happily a £3.8m restoration is now in full swing. It’s an exciting time, especially for an archaeologist. “It’s a scheduled ancient monument so every time a new path or hole needs to be dug deeper than 30cm, I have to be present,” says Alexis Haslam.“We get something every time.” Pottery, animal bones, coins, keys… the team found a pile of ancient mouldings recently, probably dumped during a re-fit by Bishop Sherlock in 1740-50.
The most recent discovery is in some ex-offices released to Fulham Palace Trust a week ago. Removing some dry-walling for a new museum, Haslam’s team discovered early wood panelling and some mid-20th century chinoiserie wallpaper. Upstairs, some offices are being refitted; renting them commercially will enable the public to visit for free.
Some of Fulham Palace is already open. Bishop Howley’s Drawing Room is now a café. Don’t miss the chapel’s latest, 19th century incarnation, if only for some very peculiar 1950s murals. In the library, check-out the fake bookshelf-door and ecclesiastical-looking stained-glass.
It used to be a Strawberry Hill Gothic chapel, ironically never consecrated. Another grand Georgian room, built by Bishop Sherlock, rediscovered its magnificent rococo ceiling a few years ago, concealed by a dodgy false one.
Make sure you leave enough time to see the grounds too, including the enormous walled garden.
Don’t go straight there, though. Follow the wall opposite the palace to the right to see three bee-boles, once housing little wicker hives called skeps. The stately Holm Oak, thought to be planted by Bishop Grindal nearly 500 years ago, is a Great Tree of London. Grindal also sent grapes from the palace to Elizabeth I. She accused them of harbouring plague.
Take the Tudor archway into the garden, enjoying the restored bothy and chimneys set into the wall to heat the glass houses.
“I’m certain there’s an important Roman structure somewhere round here,” says Haslam, moving from the garden’s lush formality to the walled orchard. Pottery and coins from the last years of the Roman occupation show this almost-island stayed popular to its end. More recent finds include livery buttons lost by palace gardeners and a couple of comedy clay pipes in the shape of early cartoon character Ally Sloper.
Right at the back of the walled garden another gate leads to wilderness. This area’s been abandoned for decades, but won’t be for much longer. In October 2018, Alexis Haslam will be conducting a new dig, in preparation for another project, this time to re-establish the 17th century botanical menagerie created by exotic plant lover Bishop Compton.
Expect rare-plant marvels next spring and a whole new palace next summer, but visit Fulham Palace now for a curious, once–in-a-lifetime work-in-progress.
Fulham Palace, Bishop's Avenue, Fulham, SW6 6EA.