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A house fit for a King
Hampton Court Palace (Surrey)
Member Name: silverbird44
Hampton Court Palace (Surrey)
Advantages: The scale, the history, the gardens
Disadvantages: Poorly laid out cafe, sometimes did not get a feel for how it would have looked at the time
I love history, and since junior school one of my favourite historical characters has to be Henry the VIII. He's always seemed an enthralling (if slight mad) character, and one who massively changed the course of English history. So I was quite excited to be able to visit the London home of this most extraordinary of Kings - the famous Hampton Court Palace.
A Little History
The layout of Hampton Court Palace can be divided into two primary styles. The older part of the palace is the Tudor section, completed in 1525 for the then archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey was a great favourite of King Henry the VIII, explaining how he was able to build such a magnificent and decadent house: but as we all know, Henry VIII was not the most temporally consistent of gentlemen in terms of mood, and when Wolsey later fell from grace Hampton Court fell into the hands of the King. The subsequent Tudor monarchs, but particularly Henry VIII, engaged in a process of expansion so that the palace was able to accommodate the whole of court, with additions including the Great Hall and the impressive kitchen network. The Palace then acted as background to some important events of the Tudor period - the birth of Henry VIII only son Edward and the following death of his wife Jane Seymour, the arrest of Henry's fifth wife Catherine Howard for adultery, and the honeymoon of Mary I after her politically motivated marriage to Philip II of Spain.
Sadly Mary's union was not fated to result in any children, and with her sister Elizabeth remaining unmarried and childless Hampton Court Palace fell into the hands of the Stuart monarchy. The palace was used James I for meeting with religious leaders, and was a luxurious prison for Charles I prior to his execution: but the second heyday of Hampton Court came in the period of the joint reign of Mary II and William of Orange. Although still a sprawling giant of mansion, by this time Hampton Court Palace was seen as being old fashioned, and so a massive building project was begun with the help of architects such as Christopher Wren and with the palace of Versailles as an inspiration. Sadly at this time a large part of the Tudor palace was lost. The extension may have been even more dramatic, had it not been for Queen Mary's death from smallpox in 1694. At this point, a distraught William lost interest in grand plans, although smaller scale redecorations continued during the residence of Queen Anne and Kings George I and George II. George II was the final British monarch to live at Hampton Court. From the point where he and his wife vacated the palace, the structure has remained largely unchanged up to the present day.
Inside the House
We came to Hampton Court with six hours to spare, knowing this to be normally more than enough to explore a stately home. This shows how little we understood of this extraordinary construction. To examine everything properly would probably need a good couple of days. With this in mind, I just give a brief description of the areas we visited - Henry VIII's quarters, Queen Mary II's state rooms, William II's state rooms and the Tudor kitchens. We were unable to see the Triumphs of Caesar, painted by Magneta, or the exhibitions on Thomas Wolsey or the childhood of Henry VIII.
The first area we visited was the apartments of Henry VIII, which is a pretty show stopping beginning. From the stairs you walk straight into the Great Hall, which is where meals would have been served to several hundred Tudor courtiers and where large events where held. You then walk into the Great Watching Chamber and through into Henry VIII's own apartments, including a walking gallery and the old council room. This is an impressive and intriguing section of the house, with intricately carved ceilings and walls covered in ancient, faded tapestries. It is decadent, but you can still feel the age. There are also some impressive interactive features, such as providing replica musical instruments in the watching chamber that you can have a go at and a film of four men in the council chamber acting out debates that may have occurred there. There are also reconstructions staged in the house - a little surreal, really, as every now and then Henry VIII or Catherine Parr wanders past you.
The darker apartments of Henry VIII are in stark contrast to those of William and Mary, where everything seems to be about light and large windows - although this may simply be because the fittings are newer and less faded. There is a lot of really interesting art work on the walls in this part of the house, especially the paintings on the walls of the one of the major staircases. Another brilliant room is the Guardroom, which has been decorated using over 1000 items of weaponry from the Stuart era and makes a very impressive display.
The final indoor section we visited was the Tudor kitchens, which is one of the largest if not the largest set of Tudor kitchens anywhere. It is the scale that makes them so impressive - the facilities of these kitchens would have served a household over a thousand strong, so there are stew pans you could lie down in, huge furnaces, spits to roast whole pigs and so on. Hampton Court also hosts a cookery research project to look at how the kitchens would have functioned when fully working. Luckily for us, one of the volunteers was on hand and told us some really interesting stories about the food that would have been cooked there and who would have cooked it.
Visitors have two ways of getting information about what they are seeing, either by reading the displays or by getting one of the audio guides included in the ticket price. We chose to stick to reading, but a friend who opted for the audio guide informs me that it does the job equally well.
Outside the House
I should confess at this point that we did not attempt Hampton Court's famous maze, on the reasoning that given my sense of direction we might well never get out again! Still, the gardens have plenty to offer even if you don't fancy getting hopefully lost! Particular mention should go to the Great Vine, the world's largest single vine which was planted in the 1700s and now covers an entire greenhouse. Although the roses were largely over, you could see how beautiful the garden would be when in full bloom: and the sunken gardens planted where the ponds used to be are absolutely stunning. There are plenty of nice easy walks that visitors can undertake, either through the 'wilderness' area with its many scattered, ancient trees, or through the carefully laid out formal gardens. As far as I could see pathways were generally accessible to wheelchair users and those with prams.
While in the garden visitors should track down the real tennis court. This completely incomprehensible game is the forbear of modern lawn tennis and looks on the surface like a mixture of tennis and squash. You can either use the notice boards to try and translate the rules (you may be there a while) or just watch the members of the Real Tennis Association who still use the court.
There are toilet facilities dotted all over the site, although they can sometimes be a challenge to find and the maps aren't entirely helpful. However, facilities were at least clean and tidy and there were enough that the hundreds of visitors didn't end up queuing.
In terms of food, the main cafe is the Tiltyard Cafe, which is where we chose buy lunch. The food here was of decent quality, but the pricing was classic London (a fiver for a sandwich and so on) and the layout very confusing, so you ended up with people carrying trays and confusedly wandering in all directions trying to work out how to queue for the till. There is also a small coffee shop near to the Tudor kitchens, and in good weather there are ice cream tarts towed around by exhausted looking cyclists (who, although looking very cute, sometimes have trouble when cornering).
An adult ticket for Hampton Court will set you back a relatively reasonable £14.00, while concessions (including students) cost £11.50 and children are £7. You can save money by buying online or as a group, or families can buy a £38.00 family ticket.
How to get there
Driving in central London is obviously not the world's most enticing prospect, but for those willing to brave the traffic there are good parking facilities both at the palace itself and five minutes walk away across part of the old Hampton Court grounds. Alternatively, you can grab yourself a tube map and get to Hampton Court tube station, which I'm told is about five minutes from the house itself.
Hampton Court is, undoubtedly, amazing. The architecture, the history, the presentation and information provided, all are absolutely brilliant. You could waste multiple days here just wandering in the grounds or exploring the fabulous apartments, and you could not fail to be impressed.
The only reason why I can't give Hampton Court five stars is that this is very much stately home as museum. Those who've visited a lot of stately homes will understand what I mean when I say that in many of them you can almost feel that the home is still lived in - that the Lord or Lady of the manor might wander by at any moment, or that someone really is in the middle of the library book that has been left on the table. But at Hampton Court many of the rooms were unfurnished, or used to show historical artefacts which were certainly interesting but which would have looked very different when William, for example, were still in residence. Perhaps it's a personal preference thing - although I love learning history, I also like a historical house to fire my imagination. In this respect Hampton Court just didn't measure up to places like Cragside or Alnwick Castle. For that reason, I give Hampton Court Palace four very impressed Dooyoo stars.
Thanks for reading :)
Written only for Dooyoo
Summary: Very much worth your while
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