Things To Do at Hampton Court Palace
Be treated like a courtly guest in the mighty halls of Henry VIII in Hampton Court Palace in London.
A short journey to the outskirts of London is all that’s required to engage with one of the most historically important landmarks of UK history: Hampton Court Palace (avoid the faux pas, it’s not ‘Hampton Court Castle’: castles were built for defensive purposes whereas palaces are built to showcase wealth) . Currently celebrating its 500th anniversary, the continuation of courtly activities though its events allows the public to have a brief glimpse into the distant world of not only Tudor Britain, but also of a wider royal narrative.
A brief version of Hampton Court History is thus: construction began under Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, in 1514 with the intention of replicating a Roman cardinal’s palace. Striving to cement a position as a court favourite, it contained the state apartments reserved for visitation by King Henry VIII and his family. Although this may have worked for a while, Wolsey, sensing that foul-play could be afoot, gifted the palace to the king in 1528 in order to avoid a political downfall (he died regardless 2 years later). Henry VIII undertook the majority of expansions to the palace in order to re-locate his court of 1,000 to a larger, more appropriate building (no doubt taking into account the added bonus of the expansive hunting grounds which surrounded it that can still be visited today just outside of the palace gates).
It is this Tudor era that the Palace is best known for. The vast majority of original features have managed to survive the toll of the centuries and have been lovingly conserved and transformed into a useful building of great cultural importance for all to be inspired by. There is the annual Hampton Court Palace Festival that takes place in June, featuring an eclectic selection of live music that electrifies the still summer air by the Thames. Performers range from Paloma Faith, to the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, Alan Davies and Paul Merton’s Improv Chums, via Peter Andre (if one were to draw it out, all of the past performers would make for an incredibly strange Venn Diagram). July sees the arrival of the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, a fierce and worthy competitor to the Chelsea Flower Show. The winter is taken advantage of by a stunning ice rink that references the rinks that have been set up at the Palace since the 16th century. Though if you’ve missed these larger events, go past your point of no return in the Hampton Court Kitchens, or would like to bring the family along for a more personalized visit, there are a range of fascinating things to see and do.
The Hampton Court Palace Maze has been a favourite activity amongst visitors since 1700. The UK’s oldest surviving hedge maze covers a third of an acre and guarantees just the right level of confusion to still be considered fun. The King’s Beasts stoically guard the vast gardens that allow the visitor to take a walk through 500 years’ worth of horticultural design trends (and feed the ducks). Indoors lies one of the world’s most prolific art compendiums in the Cumberland Art Gallery which displays some of the best works from the Royal Collection. Here you can see incredible masterpieces from Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Holbein, van Dyck and Canaletto, on top of the entire series of ‘The Triumphs of Caesar’ by Mantegna. In fact, the collection of Old Masters is so superb that even a National Gallery curator would be tempted to rob the palace.
Tours and historical re-creations are a great strength of Hampton Court Palace. They’ve recently re-vamped their tours, and have now transformed them into interactive experiences where you are led through the palace by members of Henry VIII’s court and plunged straight into the heart of political intrigue. If you’re lucky you’ll run into the food archaeologists from Historia who are in the midst of organizing food experiments in the original Tudor kitchens. A Hampton Court ghost tour runs regularly throughout the winter to add a touch of the macabre to the already dark season. In fact, there was recently a viral on-line phenomenon of ‘Skeletor’ the ghost of Hampton Court Palace who was allegedly caught in CCTV (but the Hampton Court Palace ghost was obviously just a bloke who worked there dressed in a costume along with the other period actors).
To further the sensation of having just emerged from some sort of primordial time-travel goo, you can also see a game of ‘real’ tennis being played during the daytime in summer. This rare activity is seldom seen today, but is the original game from which our version of tennis is derived. The difference is that ‘real’ tennis is insane: the court is almost twice as large, it’s played inside a huge hall, and there is no such thing as the ball going ‘out’. If you feel the sudden Tudor urge to play a game, you can become a member of The Royal Tennis Court and have full access to the palatial court which is part of the Hampton Court Palace gardens. Additionally, if the sun gods are in your favour, you can also take a Hampton Court boat trip from the flowing river just outside the gates.
Hawk-eyed design and architecture buffs will spot that the palace consists of two clashing architectural styles: the Domestic Tudor and the Baroque (due to King William III’s unfinished restoration project intending to allow Hampton Court Palace to rival Versailles). The stylistic clash is reminiscent of the turbulent history the palace has been at the forefront of since its conception. There is far too much history to be even briefly condensed here, though you can round off your visit by buying one of the first-rate books written about it in the gift shop as a memento of your traipse into the gilded past.
You can visit Hampton Court Palace at Molesey, East Molesey, KT8 9AU
The simplest way to travel to travel to Hampton Court is to Hampton Court Train Station just across the river.
Hampton Court tickets for the palace may be bought on-line on the official website here (there are often Hampton Court 2 for 1 tickets available), or on the door for £9.50 – £19.