Hampton Court Palace (Nr London): paying to repair the chimney pots

A house of two parts: Tudor charm and chimneys at the front dating back to the 16th C, backed up by a whole baroque wing built & finished by William & Mary at the end of the 17th C.

Royal Palaces know how to offer a full day out while trying to sell as much as possible along the way (there’s as many shops as toilet blocks).  Scathing criticism aside, it would be easy to stay here all day.

Having cycled to Hampton Court (I recommend the riverside route from Kingston) I was impressed to find a locker room and buggy store.  I was able to free myself of carting my panniers and helmet around.  There’s also a play room and lots of areas in which to picnic.  “Impressive start Hampton Court” I thought.

There’s so much to grasp from the palace map and leaflet of the day’s events that comes with the admission that I was a little overwhelmed.  It would have really been worth planning for 15 mins to take in some of the events in an organised fashion.

What I really liked was that a whole theatre full of actors were laid on, dressed in 16th C dress and performing both some documented scenes and others clearly taking artistic licence (e.g. “Join Henry as he bathes his son for the first time”).

You can imagine the surprise of many tourists as Henry VIII (a very good likeness) walked out into the main courtyard in full conversation with his courtiers!

Hampton Court is one of those places where I’d guess many visitors are starting from a low knowledge base but if you want more information it is possible to get it – just ask one of the room stewards or visit the exhibition of Young Henry, where some fabulous 16th C paintings are on display, including of the Field of Gold.   I must admit, I learned a lot.

Shame to see so many people aimless wandering around just taking pictures instead of actually looking at things with their eyes.

The Tudor part of the palace is what most people think of when Hampton Court is mentioned.  Built by Thomas Wolsey (c. 1473 – 1530) it is a respectable legacy for Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor.   Work on Hampton Court started in 1514 and Henry ‘acquired’ it in the 1520s.  Royal Palaces present the Hampton Court as though Henry were still there.

The building sits grandly on the river and consists of elaborate kitchens, private quarters, cloisters and extensive gardens.  It was lovely that the kitchens were being used when I visited – a real spit roast.  Thankfully Royal Palaces don’t feel the complete need to create a museum and they’re prepared to use the fireplaces.  Health & safety prevents any of the food being sold to the public though :(.

The rooms are sparsely furnished for the large part so this is really a visit about architecture, but there are some gems: the weapons room has an excellent display of swords and guns and there’s some interesting Chinese porcelain in the 17th C wing.

The gardens were to my mind more interesting than the buildings. There’s a beautiful landscape garden with 500 year old yew trees (perfect for a spot of dozing on a hot day), a superbly reconstructed topiary garden that a lot of work has gone into, an infant recreation of a knot garden and bulbs galore flowering in Spring.

The garden also boasts the world’s largest vine (proven by the Guinness Word Record certificate displayed proudly on the wall).  It might be a good idea to time your visit to late August/early September when the grape crop is sold off to the public.  Of course, there’s also a maze: a little easy in my opinion (I only got lost twice) but fun for children.

Horse drawn carriage rides were on offer when I visited (though at an extra cost: I did warn you that Royal Palace know how to make money).  Can’t really blame them though having watched the a TV series about how much it costs simply to restore one chimney pot. 

William & Mary completed an entirely new wing at Hampton Court at the end of the 17th century so if you interest lies beyond the 16th century there’s something for you too.

Again, there’s not much furniture in this part and the decor is standard (egg and dart cornicing etc).  I’m pretty sure something could be done to improve this wing by bringing in some period furniture and pictures from elsewhere – perhaps a couple of Reynolds from the picture gallery at Windsor?

Hampton Court isn’t cheap but it is worth it, with or without children.  It’s great for anyone interested in history, the Royals, architecture, gardens, and particularly for children studying the Tudors at school  (some of whom I overheard describing historic events in great detail to largely ignorant parents).

All in all, I’ll be back again and I wouldn’t be fearful of taking children with me.

When visited: 2011

Stars out of 5 (house): ****

Stars out of 5 (garden): *****

Nearest town: London (or Hampton Court/Kingston-Upon-Thames)

Website: http://www.hrp.org.uk/hamptoncourtpalace/