Personally, I used to love History at school. It always had such a heady mix of power-struggles, love-affairs, battles, and clandestine plots designed to further agenda’s in one or all of these dimensions. The challenge with History though, is that it is in the past. Nothing tangible exists aside from books, pictures and artefacts. The nearest we can achieve are the physical structures that still exist today. In Hampton Court Palace, we have an opportunity to glimpse one of the most exciting parts of English history, conveniently manifested in two words: Henry VIII….
A bit of context goes a long way……
Hampton Court Palace is a royal institution. Spread over 700 acres, the palace features a vast array of stately rooms and gardens. It has a plotted history, infused with infedelity, execution, births and marriages. It has travelled through centuries since it was first occupied in 1700, and has been reincarnated several times. Notwithstanding the drama of its own inhabitants, but the building itself has played a central part in its illustrious history. The estate has ensured a fantastical metamorphosis: from peripheral stately home, to a structural epithet of Henry VIII’s villainous plotting, through to princely grounds enjoying the serenity of tourism.
Hampton Court Palace has endured through mutiple attempts to re-work what it stands for, and now forms part of the canon of Brtish heritage sites. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, King William III, Charles I, Sir Cristopher Wren, and Henry VIII, have all played a part of the evolution and are synomous with this majestic place. The remnants of these inhibitants are still laid bare, and each have left their fingerprints on the aesthetics. At seperate points, the palace has been a home, a royal palace, a prison, and in more recent history, a home for stately widows. These manifestations give it unparalled diversity, shrouded in pious deference.
What to expect……
A challenge we all have with these vast historical estates is one of simple economics: time available versus information to consume. We all seek to depart these visitations with a desire to impart our newly acquired knowledge on those who would grant us their ear. The general accepted practice of pitching up, buying the obligatory brochure, thumbing through over a cappuccino, and hoping that some of what you see matches to what you have read. Once home, the newly acquired glossy brochure then finds its new home nestled with other discarded magazines in the bookcase.
Hampton Court Palace, as extensive as it is, proves surprisingly easy to consume its wealth of history. If one sets aside the compulsion to mentally photocopy facts & figures, the audio and visual stimulus is sufficient to present a flavour of its historical chronology. There are an arrangement of audio tours that you provide you a guide as you walk from room-to-room, providing you learning nuggets that are easily digestible.
Another interesting by-product that I found is that of the repetitive nature of a selection of rooms. After all, once you walk through one grand bedroom laced with velvet and decedent artefacts, you have walked through them all. You may find that there is not too much diversity of information to cope with. As I strolled around the rooms, taking in this carousel of aesthetic delights, it soon become clear that the attention to presentation detail is immense. There are several examples of the impressive workmanship on display, and it can visualise the fastidious nature of the occupants. Their hubris and craving for perfection to present a limitless display of opulence, manifests itself all around you.
The ceiling frescoes are a real wonder of creative imagination and imagery. Spend a moment and allow yourself to become utterly absorbed by the mythological worlds above you. I particularly adored the three-dimensional nature of the fresco which cloaks the grand staircase; standing proud for our own delectation. The three scenes, connected by links of luminous clouds and juxtaposed by various characters, is an impressive visual narrative. It is well worth standing for a few minutes to try and describe the plotline to yourself.
Continuing through the gallery of rooms, you can feel the grandeur building. The banquet halls present a portrait of how sumptuous these gastronomic events were. As you stroll through, the interior timber frames provide a visual line from floor to the pinnacle of the ceiling which is quite a marvel. There are examples of typical evening costume what would have been worn at such events, which testify to the avarice of the presiding residents.
As my few hours concluded, there were two rooms which were particularly noteworthy. The Chapel Royal, where Henry VIII married Jane Seymour, offers some beautiful art and architecture to enjoy. A dazzling display of blue and gold intertwines across the ceiling, creating a celestial atmosphere that should not be missed.
Finally, The Cumberland Art Gallery, whether an art buff or not, should be appreciated for the broad range of Baroque artwork on display. Art is a central theme of Hampton Court Palace, and one can sense that perhaps this served a dual purpose: to present a visual statement of wealth, and for the enjoyment of the male gaze (just walk around and see how many neo-classical paintings with half-naked women there are). The Cumberland Art Gallery, metaphorically set-aside from the Palace itself, houses some beautiful pieces from the Baroque titans of Anthony van Dyck, Rembrandt, and Canaletto. I would point out that the gallery promotes a tighter protocol regime than others parts of the Palace, so noise levels and photos are carefully monitored; my cunning, almost panther-like, stealth skills though enabled me to snap the picture above.
The essentials: prices and standards……
Without doubt, the logistics of Hampton Court Palace is one of its greatest tourist assets. It is very easy to connect to, with rail and transportation links exceptionally good. There is a car park on-site, which seemed to amply cope with the demand of the day that we visited. We had booked our tickets online, and for a family of five it cost just under £50. There are eateries about, and the standard shop offering souvenirs.
For those with children, as we are, the amenities and practical aspects of “child-management” are a cornerstone of any cultural event attempt. Hampton Court Palace though offered two things which will immediately resonate with all parents: gardens & playgrounds. After trotting through the many rooms, the girls were soon getting agitated (after all the splendour of describing a mythological narrative has their little eyes glazing over very quickly). The playground is truly impressive, furnished with slides and water-pools, all set within a beautifully spacious garden. If you manage to catch your visit on a warm day, it is a real treat to enjoy this aesthetic promenade. Beware though the flip side to that coin, in that all of the child outlets are mostly outside. A rainy day, and the claustrophobic level could have you reaching for that emergency picnic bottle of Chardonnay that you smuggled into your rucksack.