Saturday, August 07, 2010

Visiting the home of King Henry VIII

Having spent the last few weekends lurking around central London and my immediate neighbourhood, I was in the mood to branch out a bit today. I decided to take the train to Hampton Court and tour through Hampton Court Palace. I also thought I might do a bit of a leisurely walk around the outskirts of the property (following a trail of about 5 miles or something), but when I set off from home this morning the weather was looking ominous so I figured I’d just play it all by ear.

I bought a coffee at the station in an effort to wake myself up but thanks to a rather ill-fitting lid, I slopped a sizeable amount of the liquid gold straight down the front of me. By then I was wide awake and fortunately wearing a black tshirt so the evidence of my clumsiness was not immediately obvious. Unfortunately I started wondering how long it would be before I started to smell like sour milk. Fabulous. On the upside though, I caught the right train and at this point in my tourist experience, that counts for a lot.

Disembarking at Hampton Court, finding the Palace itself could not have been easier. Observing the well-marked street signs, I led a relatively small contingent of fellow tourists across a bridge (over the Thames), and turned right into the Palace’s main entrance.

At the risk of sounding like a guide book, it probably helps to give a bit of background commentary on the Palace at this point, so here we go. The grounds of Hampton Court Palace used to be farmland, way back as far as 1338. The earliest parts of the Palace were constructed around 1494 when one of King Henry VIII’s courtiers leased the property. In 1514, Thomas Wolsey acquired the Palace. He was of humble birth, but rose to become a dominant figure in the church and politics of the period. He became Henry VIII’s administrator and cardinal, and was therefore greatly influential and wealthy. Wolsey moved into the Palace and started building extra rooms to accommodate the throngs of foreign dignitaries that his position required him to entertain. The Tudor façade of Hampton Court Palace is evidence of this building work. Wolsey formally presented Hampton Court to the King in 1525 but he stayed on and kept up the building work. When Wolsey was unsuccessful in his bid to have Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, the King banished Wolsey from Hampton Court forever. The King then set about to remove all the Wolsey-isms from the property (including coats of arms etc) and replaced them with his own insignias. Hampton Court was then home to Henry VIII, his revolving door of wives, and his son Edward VI. Since then, many monarchs have spent time at the Palace, though very few lived there for longer than a few months at a time. King William III and his wife Queen Mary II lived at the property and contracted celebrated architect Sir Christopher Wren to make substantial additions to the Palace. To this day, you can easily see where the Tudor section of the Palace ends and the Baroque section begins. All the same, it doesn’t look tacky – it all just seems to fit together as a sign of the times. By the end of the 1700s, the Palace was empty of Royal inhabitants and for the next 200 years, the site was opened to public tours (restricted viewing), while private apartments were occupied by well-to-do ladies (mostly widows) who were friends of the Royal Family. Now, the Palace receives an estimated 450,000 guests per year – even on rainy days like today!

The first area that modern visitors see when they get to the Palace is called Base Court. It is the central courtyard from which you can access all the major parts of the Tudor palace. They have even reinstated the 16th century wine fountain, which actually flows with real wine on weekends and Bank Holidays. Because of the pouring rain and my own bad attitude towards other tourists, I didn’t get to sample any fountain wine today. Another time, maybe.

The good thing about Hampton Court palace is that with your admission ticket, you receive a free audio guide that tells you all about the major rooms in the Palace, including:

  • Henry VIII’s Apartments;
  • Henry VIII’s Kitchens;
  • Young Henry VIII’s Story;
  • Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar;
  • William III’s Apartments;
  • Mary II’s Apartments; and
  • The Georgian Private Apartments.

In addition to the audio guide, on weekends there are actors at the Palace who recreate the wedding of King Henry VIII and his sixth and final wife, Kateryn Parr. From 11am to 4.30pm, tourists can basically stalk the actors as they move through the Palace providing commentary on key activities during the celebration day. This sort of entertainment is usually provided for the benefit of children of course, so I wasn’t too eager to follow the troupe. That said, my audio guide commentary was interrupted on a number of occasions by actors and stalkers bursting into the room I was occupying and launching into the next act of their pantomime. Needless to say, when that happened I took my cue and made a hasty exit, stage left.

The excellent audio guide comprehensively covers the interior of the Palace but it does not provide commentary on the 60 acres of exterior Palace grounds. This hardly matters because the grounds are very extensive, well sign-posted and are easy to navigate on your own. The map that the guides give you is easy enough for even a knucklehead like me to read!

By the time I got out to the Gardens, the weather was turning pretty rotten. In retrospect I probably should have toured the grounds first and then retreated indoors to tour the Palace. Oh well, hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

During the summertime, Hampton Court Palace has horse carriage rides and I decided that it would be a fun diversion. So I paid my fare, piled onto the carriage and was immediately adopted by an Indonesian family who happily took photos and chatted to each other over the voice of the tour guide who was trying desperately to share with us all the weird and wonderful sights of the Palace gardens. I didn’t mind not being able to hear her because I was just happy to be out of the rain, but still seeing the sights. We saw the grounds that King Henry VIII used to hunt in, and where deer and rabbits and foxes can still be found. We passed 200-year old yew trees that have been shaped to look like umbrellas (very a propos for today’s climatic conditions, I felt). And we could see into the Privy Garden, which has been restored to how it would have looked in King William III’s day, and was used as the monarch’s private retreat area, even though it is now swarming with tourists.

Having enjoyed the carriage ride, and noticing that the weather had somewhat improved, I set off on foot. I walked to The Great Vine, an amazing mass of grape vines, planted in 1768. The vines are still producing fruit and the vines are even in the Guinness Book of Records! Pretty amazing stuff. Staying outside, I skirted around the back of the Palace and to King Henry VIII’s indoor tennis court, which looks as you would expect. Even today members of the Royal Tennis Club are allowed to practice on the court (and two guys were there doing exactly that, but they were old, slow, and stopping to chat every 2 seconds so I couldn’t be bothered hanging around to watch them).

I was going to see the famous Hampton Court hedge maze, but the clouds were greying rapidly. As I had no intention of actually doing the maze itself, I figured I probably didn’t really need to see it. Instead, I retreated into The Tiltyard Café and settled in with my lunch at an outdoor table, under the protection of a gigantic umbrella. There I remained for probably an hour or so, watching silly tourists run back and forth under the English summer rain.

Finishing my lunch, I became one of those silly tourists that I had earlier derided and made a mad dash for the souvenir shop, in the pouring rain, before legging it to the train station.

From the safety of my apartment, I looked back over the photos I took today, to relive the enormity of the Hampton Court Palace. The site is truly impressive in size and it has been lovingly restored to give people an insight into the characters that built it and lived there.

You can view some of my Hampton Court photos by clicking here. Enjoy!

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