I thought I'd venture a bit further afield today, so I ended up at Hampton Court Palace. It's not too far away from London, only about half-an-hour on the train. I used to go on cross-country runs down the river when I was at school so I've got unhappy memories of this place. I don't normally go there, for fear that the teachers are still waiting to pounce on me whenever they see me slacking off. But I braved it.
I've actually done the tour a few times now so I skimmed a few bits quick today, but it still took me the best part of 3 hours. I don't think it's possible to do it any quicker that that -- and that is super quick speed. That takes in every room and the gardens out the back, including the maze. But if you actually take the time to stop and listen to the audio guide for every room, and have a cup of tea too, then you'll be there for 4 or 5 hours (at least). There's really no need to rush anyway because there's so much good stuff to look at. Lots of people ask me if it's possible to do Hampton Court and Windsor Castle on the same day, but take it from me -- you can't. It's impossible. Even I couldn't do it, and I've been plenty of times before. You'd end up running around so quick that you'll miss most of the stuff.
So what's worth seeing? Loads of things. The first thing you need to do is pick up an audio guide from a little room in Base Court. They've got narration for pretty much every room in the palace giving you the history of the building, the people, and little dramatisations of famous events too. A lot of the time you will enter what looks like a tiny little room and then stand there for 5 minutes listening to the guide. In my opinion, it sometimes gets a bit boring, so you end up picking and choosing the bits you want to listen to. But you really do need to listen to it to get the best of the place. You could end up walking through Henry VIII's apartments and not have a clue what they are, for example.
The palace spans a few hundred years of history so you need to try and do it in order, going from king to king, otherwise the stories won't follow on. So start with the Henry VIII stuff. You can see everything from his wine cellars and kitchen, to the Great Hall and Council Chamber. First up are a couple of exhibitions, which tell the story of Henry's life and how the palace came to be built. The Henry one is well worth a visit, but I thought the palace one was a bit dry. It was full of maps and plans and dry dusty bricks.
The Tudor kitchens however, are very well done.. they're all laid out with thick crusty pies and bloody butchered meat on the wooden tables. They've got a real roaring fire crackling smoke up the chimney too, with staff lugging big heavy logs on to keep it burning. You can really feel the heat coming of it and get the smell of smoke licking up the walls.
Things get even better when you wander into the political rooms. The Great Hall comes first, which is reminiscent of Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament. It's got a spectacular hammerbeam roof towering fifty feet in the sky, with tapestries hung all around the walls. Then comes the Great Watching Chamber, where people queued up in the hope of getting an audience with the king.
After that you have a great little corridor which leads to the Chapel Royal. If you listen to the guide then you'll learn that it's haunted - Henry's missus Catherine Howard was dragged out screaming when she learnt she was getting the chop (literally). The first time I visited this corridor many moons ago they actually had a lady dressd up as Catherine fleeing down the carpet, which gave many people the willies. I didn't see her this time, but there were still plenty of characters dressed up all around the palace. Much like Disneyland has Mickey Mouse and Pluto, when you visit Hampton Court you'll catch a glimpse of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII walking around the grounds, stopping every now and then for photo snaps.
The Chapel Royal is one of the few places in the palace where you're not allowed to take a photo, which is a shame because it's probably the best room in the place. It's still a working church, you see, so you have to doff your cap and pay some respect, but you can wander around at will and see the king and queen's private pew and amazing blue and gold vaulted ceiling.
After that you leave the world of Henry VIII and jump forward a couple of hundred years to Charles II and William III. I thought this was one of the best bits, because you can wander the entire route that the privileged did, from the watching chamber all the way through to the Throne Room, their private bedroom, bathroom, and where they sat and ate their dinner. All the rooms are done out and decorated exactly as they had them, and some of the paintings on the wall and ceilings and quite monumental.
They had a little art exhibition running in this section too which collected together all the court beauties. Apparently the king liked his women and had pictures done of all the good looking ones, so he could stick them up in his rooms. The most famous ones are from Charles II's reign (like Nell Gwyn and Barbara Villiers) but fashions must have changed a bit from then because most of them are ugly. Maybe he needed glasses, or maybe I do. I don't think they'd make my wall of court beauties.
After that it's on to Mary II (more of the same, really), and the private apartments from Georgian times. If time is pressing, then you can leave these bits out and you won't miss much.
After that it's onto the gardens out the back. Being a bloke, I don't appreciate landscaped gardens and flowers much, so this was probably lost on me, but even I can see that the plants and very poshly laid out. It's all marble statues and fountains, and little hedgerows around pink and yellow buttercups (or whatever they are called). They've got a lake that stretches as far as the eye can see too, it would take you about thirty minutes to walk around it. And that is no joke -- that is how big it is. They've got a little cart to take people around the place, pulled by two great big shire horses.
As well as the formal gardens, they've also got some wilds ones outside the palace. These ones are actually free to enter, and you can come and see them for nothing if you want. I have never seen so many daffodils in my life. There must be about a million billion of them, at least. And that is no joke either. They literally fill your view from here to there, right to where your eyes can reach. There are stuffed tight around trees and bushes, plants and flowers, millions and millions of white, yellow and orange daffodils. I thought these wild gardens were better than the formal ones.
After that there's just one more thing to do -- the maze. The maze at Hampton Court is quite famous, but I don't know why. It's quite small and pokey inside, with bushes rising seven feet in the sky. This was the first time that I actually tried it properly, and it took me all of three minutes. It's highly unlikely that you will be stuck in there all night, so don't go worrying about that. Once you get to the middle you can take a photo and then skidaddle out of there, to the restaurant for a cup of tea.