It might seem odd to spend a day at Hampton Court when one is in London for just a few days, but I chose to do so for a couple of reasons. One, it was the only one of the top London sites in 1001 Places to See Before You Die that I had never visited. Two, originally built by Cardinal Wolsey and later serving as one of the palaces of Henry VIII, it plays a major role in Wolf Hall (which I really will finish one of these days—really, truly). It also serves as the setting for much of the action in A Man for All Seasons, which I read for my Royals and Rulers book salon.
Visiting the palace does take a bit of effort as it is located in the borough of Richmond Upon Thames at the extreme southwest edge of Greater London. It takes well over 30 minutes by train from Waterloo, but the station is just a short walk from the palace, so overall the trip is not too bad. You can also arrive by boat, but then the travel time is extremely unpredictable (and can be hours).
As you can see in the above photo (taken from a postcard), the palace is quite extensive, as are the grounds. In fact, the palace itself is a bit confusing to navigate, so, once you make it through Anne Boleyn’s gateway and arrive in the Clock Court, you may want to take the time to figure out what you most want to see and then head there directly using your map.
Really, use the map. I know that we ended up in a part of the palace that my friend had never seen before, and there were interesting things that I realized later we never saw. My favorite spots were the Great Hall and the Chapel Royal in Henry VIII’s State Apartments, the King’s Staircase and the King’s Guard Chamber (weapons!) in William III’s Apartments, and the gardens, especially The Maze.
The Great Hall, as its name indicates, is one of those huge medieval halls that served many purposes besides being a communal dining room, for example, Shakespeare’s company performed here for King James I. The hall is lined with magnificent Flemish tapestries depicting the story of Abraham and has an elaborately carved wooden ceiling. At the end of the hall is an incredible stained glass window from the mid-1800s depicting the arms of Henry VIII and his six wives.
The King’s Staircase in William III’s Apartments is the most mind-blowing mural I’ve ever seen in a setting like this. It’s perhaps hard to see in this photo, but the painting, by Antonio Verrio, wraps around the stairwell and onto the ceiling. It depicts William III dominating a group of Roman emperors (representing the king’s Catholic enemies) as well as a banquet of the Gods (representing the peace and prosperity of William’s reign).
The Hampton Court Maze is the oldest hedge maze in the United Kingdom. And I guess that might mean the world, because where else would they have hedge mazes that are older? Do the Chinese have some sort of hedge maze tradition that I’m unaware of? (Because, if so, China will move way up on my must-see list.) In any case, even though I am still recovering from the difficulties I encountered in the pineapple maze on Oahu, I love mazes of all kinds, so this is where we headed first.
Other lovely spots on the grounds include the Privy Garden, which was the private garden of the king and has a very geometric style, the Pond Gardens, which are sunken flower gardens that were originally ornamental ponds used for holding fish, and the Great Vine, a grape vine planted in the 1760s by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. [Side note: I’m really not sure which is worse, having the name Lancelot, or being called Capability.]
In short, there is much to see and do here, and Hampton Court is certainly worth the detour!