Hampton Court Palace is an easy train ride from London and a great day out. Visitors interested in garden history will enjoy this chance to see how English garden style has changed over the centuries. There are over sixty acres of gardens to wander in.
Hampton Court Palace was partly built by Cardinal Wolsey back in the early 1500’s. When Wolsey failed to help Henry VIII get a divorce from his first wife so Henry could marry Anne Boleyn, Wolsey gave Henry the Palace as a peace offering. It’s been owned by royalty ever since. Queen Victoria opened it to the public in 1838.
The Pond Gardens were once used to stock fish to feed the 1000 or so people who lived at the Palace whenever Henry VIII was in residence. They are now neatly maintained sunken gardens, featuring colorful bulbs in spring and annual beds in the summer.
Those interested in roses should visit The Tiltyard. This was built by Henry VIII for jousting tournaments and was later made into smaller garden beds.
A highlight of the gardens is The Maze, which was planted in 1702. The yew hedges would be nearly half a mile long if laid out in a straight line. A few years ago, the maze was updated to include music and sound effects. At first I thought this was a travesty – why tamper with a classic? But then I visited and found I liked it. Mazes were originally popular trysting spots (meet me in the maze, you’d say to your lover) and so the sound effects include voices whispering on the other side of the hedge as you walk along, and the music is generally from the Elizabethan period. It’s very nicely done.
In 1689 William III asked Christopher Wren to demolish the palace and build a new one. Luckily, this plan was too costly to carry out, and part of the original Tudor building was kept and survives today. William and his wife, Mary, were responsible for the largely Dutch and French influences that constitute the Privy (private) garden. Full of parterres and sculptures, this garden extended the view from Wren’s state apartments down to the river.
Near the Privy garden is a small knot garden planted in 1924. The knot is made of boxwood and is representative of the type of garden that might have been at the Palace in the 16th century.
The pride of the gardens is the Black Hamburgh vine planted by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, in 1768. It’s the oldest known vine in Great Britain (and possibly in the world) and still bears over 500 pounds of grapes a year. Of special interest is the bare expanse of ground outside the greenhouse that supports the Great Vine. The roots of the vine are underground here, and the ground is deliberately left bare to protect, feed, and water the roots.
Of course, you want to leave time to visit the Palace itself, so you should set aside a whole day here. And, if you’re visiting in July, order tickets in advance to attend the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Sponsored by the Royal Horticultural Society, this show is more casual than the Chelsea Flower Show, but just as enjoyable. It takes place in the back of the palace, where some of the yews date back to the 1700’s.