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History at Its Best
Hampton Court Palace (Surrey)
Member Name: Meggysmum
Hampton Court Palace (Surrey)
Advantages: Lots to see
Disadvantages: Maze was very small
I had always glanced at the atlas and seen Hampton Court within the M25 and assumed it would be difficult to get to. In fact it is remarkably easy to find, we followed the M25 around to the M3 and then followed the brown and white tourist signs. The only problem we had was trying to work out where to park, the signs seemed to point in several directions, and I presume one car park is for the gardens only so we turned right at the final roundabout and headed toward the parking for the palace.
The entrance to the car park is extremely narrow and between two walls, my 4x4 fitted snuggly but if we had decided to travel in my in-laws camper van instead we would have had to investigate the other car parks as it would not have made the turning.
I was surprised to see that the car park was pay for exit, although I had read the website I hadn't noticed this and have just had a look again and the information is there but it is not very obvious. The car park was quite small; I presume the other parking area is larger. We stayed from about 10.00 until 3.00 and paid £5.
When we left at the end of the day we were using my father-in-laws Sat nav which tried very hard to turn us into the Thames and then wanted us to do u-turns and right-turns where they were strictly prohibited so getting out of Richmond was definitely trickier than getting in!
I used Tesco reward vouchers to pay for most of our entry but I didn't think the prices were too expensive. Our party consisted of two adults, two OAPs, one student and one child (14) and it came to less than £80 which is not bad considering how much some national Trust places charge. It is also good to see child's prices up to under 16s as I get fed up paying adult prices for my son. Children under 5 go in free. Discounts were available if you purchased online (but then I couldn't use my Tesco vouchers) and there were also family tickets. The ticket I purchased was for the palace, the maze and the gardens but it also seemed possible to buy a gardens or a maze ticket separately. All ticket price information is available at http://www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/hamptonco urtadmission.aspx
From the ticket office we walked down the main entrance drive which gave a great first impression of the property. I am not a history buff but I loved the idea of so much history on one site. I had watched a television programme about the palace fairly recently and was aware that it started it ascent into grandeur under the tenancy of Cardinal Wolsey in the early 1500s followed by Henry VIII who extended the property adding a tennis courts, pleasure gardens and enormous kitchens in the mid-1500s. Henrys children then changed Hampton Court very little and it wasn't until the reign of William III and Queen Mary II in the late 1600s when the palace saw more changes. They had their architect change the magnificent Tudor towers for a more baroque style frontage that can be seen at the back of the palace.
We entered under the famous archway and immediately took a sharp left to visit the huge kitchens that Henry had built. An enormous fire was raging in one of the grates and there were lots of pieces of kitchen equipment on show in the various rooms, although I believe they do offer cooking demonstrations there did not appear to be any on the day we visited. From the kitchens we walked into the vast wine cellar.
We then passed into the Chapel Court Garden, this strange little square had several poles adorned with gilded animal statues but I wasn't quite sure what it was supposed to be. We entered another door and came upon the stunning, two-storey Chapel Royal. No cameras are allowed in the chapel and entrance is restricted on Sundays. The ceiling is magnificent with gold gilding on a blue background, I thought the whole place was beautiful and you could feel the 450 years of history that it held. The royal pew is upstairs so they could pray in private whilst being part of the service.
We then found ourselves in the pretty fountain court which was obviously one of the baroque-style additions with a covered walkway around a square. From this courtyard we found our way back into part of the main body of the house and followed the various routes which took in separate sets of apartments. The various routes took us through William IIIs apartments, Mary IIs apartments, the Georgian Private Apartments and Henry VIIIs apartments. I was amazed by how much of the palace was open. So often I find that we visit these sorts of places and we see four rooms in 10 minutes and then have finished the visit but here we found ourselves wondering around inside for nearly two hours as there was so much to see. All of the apartments had a different feel and were decorated differently so you could get a real feel for the time in which they were used. We found all of the room attendants helpful and knowledgeable; one even opened a window fully for me so that I could get a better photograph of the lunar clock on the tower in the Clock court. Photography without a flash is allowed in all of the rooms but it was very hard to capture the wonderfully intricate paintings on the walls and ceilings.
One of the most impressive parts of the palace for me was the Great Hall, this is the largest medieval hall in Britain and it is certainly awe-inspiring in its size.
We also went to an exhibition entitled Young Henry VIIIs Story. This was an excellent way of introducing Henry as a young, handsome Royal and then following his story through his desperate quest for a strong male heir whilst hanging on to his royal title to produce the larger than life figure that we all know through his portraits and the story of his wives.
By the time we had finished in the Palace we headed back on a short walk to our car to collect a picnic. There appeared to be a couple of small places to eat on the site but picnics are very welcome and there were lots of areas near The Tiltyard and the Rose garden where you could stop and eat, either on their benches or on your own blanket on the grass. I felt this made a nice change rather than having to eat in the car in places where picnics are frowned up. There were also lots of litter bins so the place stayed looking tidy.
We walked through the rose garden which was quite large but unfortunately late August is probably not its best time and it did look like a lot of dead-heading needed doing.
We came upon the Maze and I was terribly disappointed by how small it was, I expected a huge maze but it was tiny and we were in and out within 5 minutes.
We decided to head to the more formal gardens at the East side of the palace. These were beautifully laid out with gravel paths and hundreds of triangular shaped Yew trees. There was an impressive fountain and beautiful flower beds. We never made it to the 20th Century Garden which was slightly further from the house but is supposed to be very tranquil. The strikingly different facades of the East and West gates of the palace were most evident from the main garden and personally I prefer the Tudor redbrick style to the columns and paler façade of the baroque influence.
Horse carriage rides are available outside the palace for an extra charge. The Royal tennis court was also open for viewing although there was a match on so it was quite difficult to get an idea of the size of the court from the viewing area.
We then moved to The Knot Garden with more ornate flower beds and fountains, the size of all of these gardens were very impressive. The herbaceous border in the main garden was probably deeper than the whole of my back garden!
By this time we seemed to have lost most of the crowds and we had a peaceful walk around the picturesque Pond gardens, you cannot go in but you have lovely views of the sunken gardens from the paths. Finally we went into the greenhouse to look at the Great Vine. This beast of a plant was in the Guinness Book of Records a few years ago for being the largest vine, it is really huge and was covered in dark bunches of grapes and these can be purchased in one of the palace shops.
Hampton Court palace hosts a lot of entertainment to help people imagine life at the time. I am not a real fan of this sort of thing but it is particularly brilliant for young children who can appreciate history so much better if they see it for "real". On the day we visited there was lots going on including sword-fighting demonstrations, falconry and armour displays. We were given a leaflet of times and although we didn't go out of our way to watch any of these they certainly gave a great buzz to the atmosphere. Many people were wearing cloaks which I presumed you borrowed from the information centre (I think my teens would have died if I suggested they wore one!). We did however end up seeing one of the Fools shows which was much better than I expected and very funny, we also bumped into a young Henry VIII in the Great Hall and Ann Boleyn on a staircase who did a great job of staying in character.
Audioguides are available in several languages including English. There were several shops dotted around but these were unobtrusive and amazingly didn't seem horrendously over-priced either.
We used the Tiltyard café for refreshments just before we left and a large cup of tea was £1.50 which also seemed quite reasonable, especially considering that you are in the area of Richmond which is notoriously expensive.
There were lots of stairs and gravel tracks so I am not sure how accessible the site is although I did notice a couple of discreet lifts tucked away in some of the buildings.
I am so pleased that I eventually made the effort to visit Hampton Court. We had a lovely time and all three generations of our family proclaimed the day a great success and we all felt we had increased our historical knowledge as well as having a pleasurable time. I would recommend a visit to anyone and my only regret is that I didn't take my children when they were younger as I think they would have loved the re-enactments and would have remembered lots ready for their school history lessons.
Summary: A great family day out