Those looking to do something completely different from the bustling streets of London will certainly enjoy a day out at Hampton Court.
Located 13 miles west of London on the banks of the River Thames, part of the pleasure is making the trip at a leisurely pace by riverboat.
Cruises can be boarded at Westminster Bridge and the delightful journey through stunning English countryside and mature gardens takes a couple of hours. Along the way, the river is lined with warehouses, now converted into trendy pieds-à-terre, old houseboats at their moorings and fine homes built on the “aits” or small islands within the Thames. In summer, manicured lawns and colourful flower gardens run down to the riverbank with grand houses partly screened by weeping willows. There are also several waterfront pubs along the way which are worth earmarking for summer evenings, dining on the waterfront.
The unmistakable Tudor towers of Hampton Court eventually come into sight and the boat conveniently moors right outside the gates. The magnificent redbrick palace was built in 1514 by Cardinal Wolsey who intended it to be “the most lavish palace in all England”. Unfortunately, it was so superb that Henry VIII set his heart on living there and “persuaded” Thomas Wolsey to give it to him. However, Wolsey’s personal seal can still be seen above the archway of the clock tower.
King Henry subsequently lived at Hampton Court Palace with five of his six wives, several of whom are said to haunt the chilly palace. One recent chilling tale was that after fire alarms were triggered, security guards checked the footage from the closed circuit cameras. They saw a figure in a long black cloak apparently walk through doors which had opened by themselves!
As time is of the essence in order to catch the return ferry, opt for a guided tour with the excellent costumed guides who will greatly add to the pleasure of your visit. Hampton Court is quite extensive and one not-to-be-missed highlight is the magnificent Great Hall hung with tapestries which are 500 years old. You can almost smell the hog roasting in the cavernous fireplace and hear the chatter of inebriated guests sipping mead at the long tables. Imagine the atmosphere when William Shakepeare’s theatre company performed here back in 1603.
Take a peek at the indoor tennis courts, where a game similar to squash was played. Imagine sitting on the velvet cushions in the royal box and watching well-dressed courtiers play.
The separate king’s and queen’s apartments are the highpoint of the visit, filled with priceless artworks and collections of antique furniture. Decorated in baroque style, these lavish rooms were the later work of William and Mary who added the arcaded Fountain Court, designed by Christopher Wren of St Paul’s fame. Look for the stone yeoman on constant guard, propping up the fireplace.
The huge Tudor kitchens are well worth a visit as they are laid out ready to prepare 8200 sheep, 2330 deer, 1870 pigs and more than 2000 oxen each year to the extensive royal household.
With time to spare, head out to the fabulous gardens with their herbaceous borders and thousand year old oak tree. There is an Elizabethan knot garden and a great vine, planted by Capability Brown in 1768 which still produces luscious grapes. Hampton Court Palace hosts the RHS Flower Show each July which is well worth a return visit to see. Stroll along Long Water, admire the fountains and venture into the maze, but don’t get lost or you may miss the last boat home!