Day Twelve

My cheeky squirrel buddy is back this morning.  Still can’t coax him any closer though.

We are headed to Hampton Court today, something we’ve been meaning to do each time we are in London, but we always seem to run out of time.

Chris has been many years before, but I know almost nothing about it.  Having seen the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace, I thought that was it for royal history, old and new.  But no!  There are centuries to be added, all to be found at Hampton Court. Its two most famous residents were Henry VIII and William III.   Others, of course, but it’s these two Kings who have left an indelible mark on the Court’s history and appearance.

Walking in, it’s a Tudor red brick masterpiece, with royal livery guards, lion, dragon and bull statues guarding the entrance.  Inside, it’s comprised of four wings, forming a square and creating an internal courtyard.  We collect our audio guides.  You can get dressed up too, velvet cloaks are on offer, but Chris declines.  There go many photo opportunities…

Our first stop is the kitchen wing.  It’s extensive, ranging many rooms, each with their own purpose.  There are rooms for baking, pie making, seafood, meat, vegetables, roasting, a wine cellar, as well as a central kitchen.  Each has a storage room and a preparation area, enabling the cooks of the day to service 600+ meals, twice daily, one at 10am, another at 4pm.  It must have been a herculean task.  In the main room, a spit roast is in progress, set in a fireplace you could fit a football team in.  The guide describes the process of feeding the court while a boy from the crowd turns the spit.  Delighted at the start, he soon seems daunted by the task this represents some 5 minutes later.   There would have been a child, no doubt, who did this job for the better part of 15 hours a day, 500 years ago.  The kitchen wing also boasts not one, but two chocolate kitchens, then a very exotic and rare drinking treat that had to be prepared from scratch.  A task that took many hours.  I know my friend Tracy would approve.  Just the thing one needs.

Our next stop is Henry VIII’s wing, atop a glorious wide staircase, overlooked by intricately painted walls and ceilings.  The custom in Henry’s time was that anyone was welcome at court.  The King needed to be seen as an accessible and generous host; provided you were well presented anyone could make it up the stairs and into the first receiving hall.  Making your way into the five or six rooms that follow, each more private and exclusive than their predecessor was another matter.  Being well dressed might gain you access to the second, being a gentlemen, the third, but the last few and inner most sanctum were reserved for trusted advisors and those of influence at court.  The last of these was serviced by a small private staircase for matters of utmost secrecy.

Henry’s personal quarters follow the same theme, public and private versions of studies, gaming rooms and even bedrooms.  I’ll bet the very most private bedroom bore witness to some version nervous wives, fearful for their futures and their necks.

William’s wing is not dissimilar, albeit furnished in the Stuart style, some 100+ years later.   We’re lucky in fact to have any of Henry’s wing left at all – it is only there through the grace of dwindling finances.  William ran out of money when renovating the Court on ascending to the throne.

By all accounts he was a man who shunned the limelight, preferring a private life to one at court.  His life though followed the same path of public rooms and private though, down to the smallest private rooms, no bigger than a modern bedroom, which where his refuge of choice.  These are paneled in oak with an impressive selection of paintings, personal favourites of the King. His wing also features an Orangery, an area where exercise could be had inclement weather and citrus trees brought in from the cold.

Both wings are sumptuously decorated with the best of their time.  Royal blues, maroons, gold, velvet and brocade prevail.  The most magnificently decorated is the Chapel Royal. It joins the two wings, part Henry’s (a magnificent vaulted ceiling in a deep blue and gold) and part William (wood paneling and seating) which also has Henry’s crown on display.  A room guide tells me that if Henry was to visit today, the ceiling would be the only thing recognizable to him.  Sadly, this is one spot where no photos are allowed.

From William’s wing we find our way to a royal art gallery, a collection spanning the ages, from many royal houses, which includes three Rembrants and a Michelangelo.  No budget constraints there, then.

It’s been raining on and off and we’re running out of time, but we are really keen to see some of the gardens.   They’re extensive and there’s no way we will do them justice – it’s clear that another visit will be called for.  What we do see are excellent examples of man’s triumph of nature.  Manicured in the extreme, the gardens are divided into discreet areas, each with their own theme.  Topiary features as well as fountains (although many of these appear modern).  There is an ancient row of topiary yews of extraordinary size, sunken gardens, a pond garden, a citrus garden, a kitchen garden, a maze; the list is vast.  There’s also an ancient vine that covered the length of an enormous greenhouse and an adjacent field.   The gardens are bisected by canals, an unfinished project under William, very reminiscent of Versailles.

With all we see, the map tells us we have seen but a mere fraction.  It’s time to go though as we still have some distance to cover to make our ferry in two days.  The drive east, on the edge of London proper takes us through some rather fabulous areas.  Grand homes in leafy suburbs change to more suburban, then to less fortunate.  The gap between those with and those without, is vast.

My day it seems, is to be punctuated with squirrels at both ends.  We settle again in another delightfully green site with well established trees, home to many squirrel babies who frisk about in twilight.  I do love them so.