Hampton Court Palace -- Ghost Tour review
Well this is pretty spooky already, and it hasn't even started yet... I'm sitting by the river next to Hampton Court listening to the bangs and crackles of Bonfire Night. There is a battle of booms and rifle shots going off in the sky, but I can't see a thing because of the wall of trees before me. There are no lamplights along the river so everything is dead dark. I can't even see where the water meets the mud. The only lights are from a distant drizzle of cars heading across the bridge.
The cracks are really something now. It's like a fight in the sky. Loud booms and explosions are echoing off the buildings behind me. Now I've got some dog walkers coming up the path with torches, shouting out "Charlie! Charlie! Charlie!" The poor mutt has obviously got scared stiff from the bangs and had a heart attack, or scarpered off sharpish down the path. I can hear the lady holding back her tears as she's screaming for her dog, whilst the bloke is acting like everything's under control. I can still hear them shouting five minutes later, a little distance down the towpath, desperately searching for their dog.
I walk a bit farther down the river myself, until the billowing smoke blows over from the fireworks. They have obviously got a big bonfire going on the other bank, and the bright sparks are spiriting up and over the bushes. The dog walker's torch is still darting left and right as he searches round the bushes.
A final rat-a-tat of bangs and whistles signals the end of the display and I make my way to the palace. He never did find his dog.
I'm hoping that this ghost tour will be good. It takes place late at night after all the tourists have left, and we're getting led around the courtyards by a guide. I'm half-hoping that we'll see some ghosts for real. I paid for a ghost tour so I want to see some real ghosts.
The tour starts off in the Tiltyard Cafe, so you have to walk up the long entrance driveway in the dark, past the front facade of the palace, past a few pretty gardens (too dark to see), and then they give you a free hot drink so you don't freeze to death outside. Even the cafe is in darkness. It's just a little low light from the tea machine. I reckon the tour crowd probably numbers about thirty people, made up of oldies, young couples and me. No ghosts though. Then you get a little pep talk from the boss who tells you what you can and can't do (no photos, no running off screaming through the palace, no dying of fright please). Then you zip up your coat and head out into the wind.
Two hours later...
Okay, I've done it... the tour is all over now. (I couldn't write anything down whilst it was going on because it was pitch black). It was really good!
It was a really generous tour and lasted for a couple of hours, and you got to walk around a fair chunk of the courtyards and rooms, and even a little bit of the gardens. The whole thing was done in the dark, which greatly added to the atmosphere... there were just a few ruby red lanterns hanging on the walls, and an occasional lamplight illuminating one corner of a courtyard. But other than that, it was really just some dim little electric candles lighting our way, picking out the cobbles and corridors -- the kind of lights that struggle to fill up a shadow. If you weren't walking around with a group of thirty people then you'd probably run away in tears after five minutes. I have been to Hampton Court Palace plenty of times during the day, but even I was struggling to recognise the stuff in the darkness. I found myself walking through the State Rooms and only becoming aware of where I was when the guide turned her flashlight onto the wall.
The guide has the only moving light on the tour, and it's a dim little torch that she keeps focused on the floor -- that's how deep down she keeps the dark. She walks you from place to place and stops every few minutes to tell a few ghost stories, pointing out all the doors and windows where the corpses might burst out. I don't believe in ghosts myself, by the way (I'm not an idiot), but even I found myself staring down the dark arch corridors as we passed by, wondering whether an apparition would float into view. If you've ever been to the palace during the day, then you'll already know that some of the corridors around the courts are quite dark and gloomy, even on a sunshine day. So just imagine what those same corridors are like when there is no light at all... just the bouncing beam from the lady's torch as she tiptoes round the corners. And there are loads of stairs and steps and skinny little passageways as well. I am telling you right now... health and safety has gone right out of the window on this tour. I am surprised that they are allowed to illuminate it so low, given how easy it could be to trip up and crack your nut, because you can hardly see the feet at the end of your legs. Unless the ghosts were glowing gold you probably wouldn't be able to see them standing five feet from your face. But dark is scary, isn’t it? Black is the colour of death. Dead like that dog on the towpath.
Let me see if I can remember all of the rooms that we passed through before it fades from my memory... you start off in Base Court, and you definitely enter Clock Court and Fountain Court too. One of the best bits was when we exited a door and found ourselves standing in the ornamental gardens out the back. It was like passing from one kind of darkness into another, and it took me a few seconds to realise that I was now outside (that is how dark the insides are!). When I saw the garden laid out before me it was a really special moment. You don't often see a lot of stars when you live in the city, because the street lights drown them all out, but because the gardens back onto the lightless river and your eyes have already become accustomed to the gloom, the stars suddenly fill the sky like sequins. It's funny how the best bit of the tour turned out to be just walking through a door.
Later on in the evening you exit the east side as well -- where they have all the gravel paths and man-made lake -- and that was where she told one of the best ghost stories. (I won't spoil it by telling you what she said, but when you are standing out there in the cold it is very easy to get the shivers!)
You also enter the wine cellar (spiders) kitchens (bats) and parts of William and Mary's apartments. The standout room is the Great Hall at the end, but it's bathed in such a low light that you can hardly appreciate it. I actually wish that they would have lit it up a bit brighter, because I know how good this room can be, but that is a very minor criticism. (And it's for this reason that I still recommend coming during the day, because you can hardly see a thing by night.) The only top-notch room that you don't get to see is the Chapel Royal. Unfortunately that is also the best room in the entire palace, and is one more reason why you should definitely come back during daylight.
Along the way she stopped at the big double doors where 'Skeletor' was caught on CCTV. If you don't know what I'm talking about then check it out on YouTube before you go -- he is probably the most famous ghost in Hampton Court. She projected some of the footage against a whitewashed wall, and then took us out to the actual double doors themselves. This was the only spot on the tour where I genuinely got a fright... but once again, I will keep my mouth shut so I don't spoil the surprise.
The spookiest and probably the scariest part of the tour was upstairs in the 'Haunted Gallery'. That’s the corridor that passes by the Chapel Royal, where Catherine Howard was dragged out kicking and screaming. What they do here is really rather special... they force you to walk the entire length alone (or in groups of two or three). It's a fairly lengthy walk along a pitch black corridor, with just a little line of candles on the carpet. They literally shove you in one end and shut the door behind you, and then you are totally alone for the entire length of the corridor. And I mean totally alone -- you haven't even got the guide to accompany you. It's just you, the candles, and the same space that Catherine Howard ran screaming down all those years ago. You must admit… that sounds pretty cool. I thought that this bit was worth the cost of the ticket alone. As you tiptoe in the darkness, past the centuries old paintings with their shapeless faces and shadows for hair, you suddenly wonder where the end is... only to find that it's round a few more corners -- the corridor is a lot longer than you think! I don't mind admitting that I was walking faster at the end than when I stepped in.
It's a very good tour and you will learn a lot of history along the way, but if you are an old cynic like me then obviously the ghost stories are a load of pants. I didn't believe a word of it, but that didn't stop me staring down the corridors expecting to see something. If a ghost jumped out, then I wouldn't have been very surprised -- if they are going to jump out of somewhere, then this is where they would do it.
Guest – A group of us went on the tour yesterday evening and you sumed it up perfectly. We don't believe in ghosts but by the end my friend who is a no nonsense school teacher was clinging onto me for dear life! We didn't get to see the gardens sadly but the rest was excellent and very atmospheric. Thank you for your review which sumed up our experience exactly. H Hogan Sunbury on Thames
Admin – It was a shame you didn't get to see the gardens, because I really liked that bit, but the whole thing was pretty special
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