Even though Hampton Court Palace has been languishing in my sadly neglected Favourite Places page for years, and I wrote about my visit to some of its outbuildings during Open London weekend a couple years ago, I’ve never actually done a whole post about it. Until now, of course. Since I was doing all things touristy when my ‘rents were here, I thought I might as well take them to Hampton Court, it being one of my “favourite places” and all.
As always when visiting Hampton Court, I took advantage of the National Rail 2 for 1 offer (vouchers available at all London train stations), which is easier to do at there than at some other London attractions, because the easiest way to get there is genuinely the train that runs twice hourly from Waterloo to Hampton Court (conveniently for me, via Wimbledon). I recommend you do the same, if at all possible, because £21 is a lot of money. I mean, you could buy like 5 ice creams for that, even at London prices. But you do get a fair amount for your money, because Hampton Court is big, to the extent that you’ll get sick of walking around before you run out of things to see. This is why, even though I’ve been there at least 5 times, I discover something new every time I go.
Though in some instances, this is because they actually change the exhibits. Case in point: Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, which was definitely not there the last time I visited. These 15th century paintings were acquired by Charles I in 1629, so I’m not quite sure why they only seem to have gone on display in the last few years, but I’m not the greatest fan of Italian Renaissance art, so I can’t honestly say I was missing out on anything on previous visits by not seeing them.
So despite our odd detour into Mantegna land, I suppose the logical place to start is with “Young Henry VIII’s Story,” which has been a fixture here for at least as long as I’ve been visiting Hampton Court. It gives people who haven’t watched Wolf Hall (but seriously, Damian Lewis in a codpiece! How could you not? Even though the codpieces were too disappointingly small to be historically accurate…) or read as many Alison Weir books as I did as a teenager (I was a weird kid) a good grounding in what Henry VIII was like before he became an obese tyrant. Hampton Court was built by Cardinal Wolsey, but it was pretty promptly stolen by Henry when he saw how much ass it kicked compared to his own palaces (ok, technically it was “gifted” to Henry by Wolsey when he realised he was falling from favour, but I suspect that was in response to Henry dropping very pointed hints about what a great palace it was, and how fantastic it would look with a big ol’ throne in it).
Then of course, there are Henry VIII’s actual apartments, which I’ll talk about now, even though we didn’t actually see them next because Hampton Court is like a big maze (it has a hedge maze, but the palace itself is basically a maze too). Only about half the original palace exists, because William III and Mary II hired Christopher Wren to do some major construction work in the late 17th century, but the Great Hall and a few other cool rooms remain, including a gallery, appropriately called the “Haunted Gallery,” which is meant to be haunted by the ghost of Catherine Howard. Though I’ve personally never sensed any supernatural presences there.
Other Tudor attractions here include Henry VIII’s kitchens and wine cellar (always a big hit with children, which is why I don’t have any pictures of the kitchens: there were about three large school groups passing through whilst we were there, so I pretty much ran through them to avoid all the commotion) and the Royal Tennis Court, which is now a members’ club where people can still play real tennis (different from lawn tennis…it’s like a combo of tennis and squash I think. Not sure how much it costs to become a member, but I bet it’s a lot, judging by how much it costs to just enter the palace once and not play tennis). The Tennis Court has been completely redone since the last time I was there, and now contains museum-style displays about monarchs and their tennis skills, which I enjoyed.
I should also mention Henry VIII’s superb astronomical clock, and the wine fountain in the courtyard (it can be seen in the second picture in this post), which is a re-creation of one used at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the famous meeting in 1520 between Henry and Francis I of France. They actually fill the fountain with wine on special occasions, none of which I’ve managed to attend (not that I like wine anyway, but I would drink it from a fountain!). Also, there is the fine topiary version of Henry, pictured above.
But enough about the Tudors; even though Henry was the most famous monarch to inhabit Hampton Court, he certainly wasn’t the only one. There were also William III and Mary II, who, as I mentioned earlier, did a fair bit of remodeling. William and Mary each have their own set of apartments here, but Mary never lived in hers as she died of smallpox before they were completed. And they appear to be undergoing restoration work, because they’re not currently open to the public (they were even wiped from the map, but I definitely remember visiting them on previous occasions, and the internet confirms that I’m not just imagining them). But William’s are open, even though they’re rather dull because not much information is provided inside them (there is a free audio guide, but I have never ever used it, so I can’t tell you what it’s like).
I do have to quickly show you his loo though (on the left, the other room is just some sort of study, not a weird communal pooping room), because who doesn’t want to poo whilst sitting on a comfy velvet-lined seat (oh, just me then?)?!
Another section of the palace I had absolutely no past recollection of was the Cumberland Art Gallery. (No photos were allowed in the gallery, so these are from the hall outside.) Unfortunately, most of the art seemed to be Italian Renaissance stuff, so I quickly lost interest and wandered outside to the row of Lely paintings (many of which were of Charles II’s various mistresses) leading the way to the Cartoon Gallery (another disappointment, as it wasn’t the Hogarthian type of cartoons I was hoping for, but rather some paintings Raphael did. Snoozefest).
Although Mary II’s younger sister Anne (pictured above), who was also queen, lived here too, Hampton Court nowadays skips right from William III to the Georgians (and I guess as well they might, if it leads to napkins that fabulous, but Anne’s personal life is fairly interesting in its own right). The Georgian rooms also seemed to have been changed since my last visit, and redone more in the style of the Georgian stuff at Kensington Palace, which I guess makes sense since they’re all part of Historic Royal Palaces (but still, for that kind of money, I expect more individuality!).
Georges I and II seem to have been a thoroughly unpleasant pair, always fighting with each other, and George II carried on the feud with his own child, Frederick (who died before becoming king, thus the crown passed to his son, who became George III). Still, bickering makes for entertaining reading, and I was especially interested to learn about Caroline of Ansbach’s (George II’s wife) hernia, from which her bowels apparently eventually protruded (I assume through a layer of skin, not that her bowels were literally hanging out of her body, because I’m pretty sure that would kill you), making her extra cranky (understandably enough, though she never seemed particularly pleasant).
And so let’s move on this fairly brief tour of the palace itself to the gardens, which are numerous and enormous. In fact, you can buy admission to just the gardens (which I’ve never really seen the point of, but whatever); they include the privy garden, kitchen garden, orangery garden, and Tudor garden, amongst others.
The gardens also include the Great Vine. It is certified as the largest vine in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records, and I can confirm that it is indeed a really big vine, though not quite the tourist attraction it apparently was in the 19th century, when Victoria first opened the palace to visitors, and people queued for hours just to see the vine (which I find kind of charming, in a way. They lived in an age that saw the creation of railroads, telephones, photography, electric lights, etc. and yet people would still patiently wait half a day to look at a damn vine). We were the only people looking at it when I was there, but it is fairly tucked away, which is probably why this was my first time seeing it.
Despite not really being a garden person, I have to concede that the ones here are pretty cool (not least because of that drawing of Henry VIII, which, no joke, is probably my favourite thing in the palace, tied only with the Henry topiary (I have a reprint of an old Hampton Court tram poster in my living room with a very similar looking Henry on it, only without him being angered by a fish).
But of course the best part of the gardens is the hedge maze. I won’t go for the obvious pun and call it a-maze-ing, because frankly, I’ve been to better (the one at Leeds Castle, which has a grotto at the centre, springs to mind), but it’s still pretty fun, especially relative to the other attractions available at the palace (don’t get me wrong, I enjoy looking at old palace rooms, but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a barrel of laughs most of the time). There is also a “magic garden,” but that appears to be some sort of playground for small children, so I didn’t investigate further.
So concludes what is by necessity (so I don’t bore you all to pieces) an abbreviated tour of this very large palace. It is expensive, yes, but you can easily spend half a day or more here and still not see everything, and I still think it is the best (by far) of all the Historic Royal Palaces (these include Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, et al), so I firmly believe that if you’re doing the whole tourist thing in London, it is well worth a visit. Even for Londoners, it’s worth coming here every few years or so, because exhibits do change, and you’ll probably discover something new. Also, the palace just looks really cool, and I think we’re all a little fascinated by Henry VIII, even though he was one of the biggest jerks ever. 4/5.