Hampton Court Palace review
If you grew up within ten miles of Hampton Court Palace then this place was your educational day out. This is how they'd teach you some British history. They'd cram fifty kids into a big bus and then make you troop around the grounds for two hours counting up the Tudor chimneys (because every single chimney is different, you see -- and if you came here ten thousand times as a kid then you would have remembered that!). At my next school it was even worse: because they made us do five-mile runs along the towpath (or five-mile walks, in my case). So it's amazing that I still love the place. But I definitely do. This is one of my favourite days out.
Whenever I see David Starkey talking about the Tudors on the telly I always end up coming here. He'll be standing outside some windswept castle ruins with one hand in his pocket, or stalking through the dimly-lit corridors of a medieval mansion, and I'll get an urge to see Henry VIII's posh pile by the river. But you need to be a buildings person. And you need to like your history. And the Royal Family. And you probably need to be over thirty as well, because your kids won't thank you for dragging them here. It's the kind of place where you enter a room and then stand there for five minutes listening to the audioguide, then you wander into another room and do it again. Then you do it again, and again, and again, and again, and again, until you've finally exhausted the whole lot. It's all pictures and paintings and views of the garden. But there are enough atmospheric corridors and spectacular set pieces to keep you interested -- just wait until you see the Chapel Royal.
Hampton Court is best known as the 16th-century home of Henry VIII, but there were many more monarchs who lived here. And rather uniquely for a palace, they all seem to have to settled in their own special section of it, adding bits and pieces in their own century's style. It's like an architectural theme park. You've got the Tudor kitchens and State Apartments of Henry VIII, Christopher Wren's baroque buildings for William III, and the rather simple splendour of George I. You step through fifty years of history every time you walk through a door. Two centuries whizz by when you look through a window. This place was standing for the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot, the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. That's 150 years of history straight away -- three centuries before the present day!
When you walk onto the cobbles of Base Court you can easily imagine Henry striding through the gatehouse shouting at some poor sap who's standing in his way. Clock Court is the kind of place I would have sniffed at on all those school trips, but now I just stand here looking at the bricks for twenty minutes. Clock Court is one of my favourite places in London.
You can visit the parts of the palace in any order you like, and skip the bits that don't interest you, but you might want to begin with the Young Henry Story and the original Tudor Kitchens. I definitely recommend trying all the Tudor stuff -- even the kitchens. It might sound boring on paper, but trust me: some of the best corridors and courts are found around there. It's all rusty reds and chestnut browns, with honey coloured lightbulbs swinging in a gibbet. It really is very atmospheric. I came here on one of their Ghost Tours once, and I was still dreaming these scenes a week later.
The kitchens are set-dressed like they were in Tudor times, with bloody cuts of meat and chunky-sized pies lined up on the table. They certainly liked their pies. And they certainly liked their ale as well -- they've got bottles and jugs and mugs enough for a thousand people. Big fatty wax candles are dripping on the table tops, stuffed pheasants on silver plates, and the crackling sound of a roaring fire -- with real flames! You can feel the heat coming off it from the next room.
After the kitchens comes the highlight of your day: the State Apartments of Henry VIII. If you only see two rooms in the entire palace then make sure they're the Chapel Royal and the Great Hall. The Chapel Royal is the one that will really knock your socks off. This is where Henry heard mass with Anne Boleyn (before he chopped her head off).
The Great Hall is probably half the size of Westminster Hall, but with better stained glass and a more ornate roof. It also boasts some of the most expensive artworks around.
If you need to skip a section then make it the State Apartments of William III. The painted ceilings pick up when you reach his bedchamber, and when you head downstairs the cosy rooms fill up with Dutch art and carvings. I like his Private Dining Room the best because he's hung portraits of pretty woman around the walls. They are like pin-up posters, I suppose. Fully-clothed pin-up posters of pretty women, 17th-century style.
I always used to skip the Georgian bit (I've been so many times now that I have an excuse) but it's grown on me as I've got older. It's all plain walls and bare ceilings until you reach the king's private apartments, and then it suddenly steps up a gear with Sistine Chapel-like ceilings and tapestries hanging on the walls. The paintings are really grand: this where you'll see the Ricci's and the Rubens. And the smell! What an amazing smell they have about the place: it's that thick, smoggy incense smell you get in a nighttime church.
You'll probably be totally knackered by this point, but you'll still have the gardens to go. This is another long walk around some fountains and flowerbeds. If you're a gardener then welcome to heaven. If you hate gardening then welcome to hell. Luckily they've got a giant Shire horse to carry you around in a carriage if your feet refuse to do it.
If you're planning on spending some time in the surrounding town then don't bother -- it's surprisingly small. You can find a nice pub or a restaurant for a spot of lunch, but after that it's just a few knick-knack shops and antique emporiums. It's worth having a twenty minute walk along the towpath, though. You can follow the river all the way down the side of the palace to the gardens at the back, and have a peer through the giant grey gates. If you're feeling extremely adventurous then you can even catch a boat back to Westminster -- the landing stage is on the towpath alongside the gardens.
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