A Royal Weekend at Hampton Court Palace

Thursday, 1 September 2022

Aside from the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace, Hampton Court Palace is perhaps one of the most sought after, and visited, attractions in London. Set within the stylish borough of Richmond-upon-Thames and perched above the Thames River, the palace boasts a grand display of Tudor and Baroque architecture, along with 60 acres of formal gardens and a whopping 750 acres of parkland.

Within its walls are sumptuous rooms from the Medieval to Georgian time periods. These have a collection of royal paintings, elaborate staircases, and eerie corridors said to be haunted by Catherine Howard and Jane Seymour. Among the palace’s most unique aspects are the largest surviving Renaissance kitchen in Europe and a 500-year-old astronomical clock. It’s without a doubt a palace devoted to hedonism, and to the preservation of Henry VIII’s, and 10 consecutive rulers’, private lives and political machinations.

But beyond Hampton Court’s intimidating façade is an area teeming with history and plenty of activities to occupy an entire weekend. Richmond-upon-Thames has Eel Pie Island – otherwise known as the ‘rock royalty hangout’ – and Bushy Park, London's second-largest of eight royal parks. Plus, travellers can embark on a boat trip along the Thames River, which is similar to how kings and queens reached the palace in bygone times.

With all this on offer, here’s our guide to spending a royal weekend at Hampton Court and in Richmond-upon-Thames.

Part 1: A Guide to Hampton Court Palace

The Tudor Section of Hampton Court Palace

The different architectural styles at Hampton Court are the result of several different owners over seven centuries. Each owner changed the property to suit their individual tastes and demands, and to overwrite their predecessors’ identities – a competitiveness that has resulted in one of the most admired and unique residences in the UK.

At every turn, there are reminders of its turbulent past and eccentric proprietors, starting with Cardinal Wolsey’s grand terracotta entrance, which he built to impress King Henry VIII. Within this cobblestoned courtyard is a recreation of Henry VIII’s wine fountain. And yes, it’s filled with wine on special occasions! The fountain depicts the Field of Cloth of Gold meeting which was the peace summit between the French King Francis I and King Henry VIII in 1520.

From the entrance, the palace leads guests through a series of corridors that follow in the footsteps of ‘the king who made the most headlines in history’. Expect to find the enormous Tudor kitchens that served over 1,200 meals a day to Henry and his courtiers. Here, visitors will discover replicas of food like meat pies and bread loaves, as well as equipment, utensils, and the great roasting fire that Henry’s cooks would have used every day.

Wolsey’s apartments have gilded ceilings and some of the most important paintings from the period, including artwork of Henry’s victories over the French. On the other hand, Henry VIII’s apartments have a Great Hall with Abraham tapestries draped over the walls. These tapestries were commissioned by King Henry himself! Visitors will also find the Great Watching Chamber, and the Chapel Royal which has remained in continuous use these last 500 years. Anne Boleyn’s Gatehouse – known as Clock Court – is where visitors will find Henry’s Astronomical Clock. This depicts a medieval world in which the earth is orbited by the sun.

William III’s Apartments at Hampton Court Palace

As guests approach the baroque rooms of William III’s apartments, they’ll begin to follow the courtier’s route, which mimics the historic protocol of visiting a king. Each visitor starts by ascending the magnificent staircase, passing the gigantic painting of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar competing for a seat beneath the gods’ banquet. Guests then head into the Guard Chamber that displays around 2,850 pieces of armour and weapons.

Access to William’s successive rooms depended on one’s status, and guests today are given the highest of them all as they’re allowed to enter the king’s most intimate spaces. Along the way, they’ll see the reception room, the king’s eating room, and privy chamber. Last, visitors enter the tightly guarded bedchamber, the closet, the richly furnished private drawing room and sumptuous dining room. These were the chambers that only the king’s dearest acquaintances would have visited!

The Georgian Section of Hampton Court Palace

The Georgian part of Hampton Court Palace was built by the talented Sir Christopher Wren and his contemporaries. Within these rooms lived a bitter family feud between George I and his son, George II, and daughter-in-law, Caroline. It was here that George II and his wife set up a rival court to his father’s official court. This resulted in their banishment from the palace and separation from their children.

Within the Georgian rooms, visitors will find the Queen’s Guard Chamber, the public dining room which was created to show off the royal family’s wealth and prestige, and the Queen’s Privy Chamber. In addition, the Queen’s Drawing Room has views of the garden’s 1,200-metre-long water canal; and the Queen’s Gallery marks the beginning of the private apartments that give a snapshot into George II’s and Caroline’s private lives. The final rooms also have the Cumberland Art Gallery, which has a rotating display of artwork from Tudor paintings, Georgian landscapes, and Baroque allegories.

The Gardens at Hampton Court Palace

As any period drama fan will know, the palace’s gardens were used in Netflix’s hit show Bridgerton as Queen Charlotte’s royal residence. But before the grounds became TV famous, it was known for its puzzle maze – the oldest of its kind in the world – and record-breaking grape vine. The latter was planted by Lancelot Capability Brown in 1768 and has the largest vine in the world, with rods stretching around 120 feet. The grapes from here, and the fruit and vegetables from the Royal Kitchen Garden, are sold in a weekly farmers’ market. Here, visitors can purchase fresh produce to take home.

There are another 14 types of gardens at Hampton Court. Any green-fingered enthusiast will adore the world-renowned Great Fountain Garden. Here, there are several gravel avenues

featuring ancient yew trees that converge at an enormous fountain before expanding into the Long Water Garden. The latter has a 12-mile-long canal constructed for Charles II.

Bridgerton fans will find familiar scenes at the half-mile Broad Walk, the Privy Garden, and the Pond Garden. Fans of unusual things should head to the nearby Lower Orangery Garden, which exhibits Queen Mary’s exotics. Children must try the Magic Garden: a play area with castle turrets, battlements, a secret grotto, and a fire-breathing dragon!

Part 2: Beyond The Palace - A Guide To Richmond-Upon-Thames

The Thames River Boat Ride

During the 1500s, the king’s house was the area that the nation revolved around. Courtiers, servants, and royalty were expected to upend their lives and move to whichever palace the monarch turned into a court. During Henry VIII’s time, Hampton Court was such a place. One of the principal ways to reach the palace from London was to travel in a royal barge along the Thames River, surrounded by smaller vessels carrying servants and luggage.

Today, there are many options for arriving at Hampton Court, with bus and train services being among the most popular. But why not travel like royalty and set sail along the Thames River for an hour or three before docking at the palace itself. Depending on the boat ride you select, travellers have the chance to stop off at Westminster, Kew Gardens, Richmond, Kensington, Syon House, Teddington Lock, and many more key London sites!

Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare

A 20-minute walk from Hampton Court Palace is Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare. Built by the actor-manager David Garrick in 1756 on Hampton’s riverside, this temple commemorates the genius of Britain’s king of theatre and most celebrated playwright.

This Grade-I-listed garden folly, with its octagonal, domed roof and pantheon-like entrance is an imposing structure and can be seen from miles away. It’s open to the public on Sunday afternoons from March to October; otherwise, visitors can view its impressive exterior while feeding the ducks. To enter the building is free, and a must, as visitors can look at the Garrick Exhibition. This features reproductions of works by 18th-century artists, including Hogarth, and a display of Garrick’s acting career and life at Hampton.

Bushy Park

Bushy Park is a tapestry of English history with its mixture of 320 roaming and grazing red and fallow deer, a long list of birds including native woodpeckers, woodland and water gardens, and opulent water fountains. The park’s 1,000-plus acres represent a thousand years of English heritage, having started as a royal park in 1529 when it was gifted to Henry VIII by Cardinal Wolsey, along with the nearby Hampton Court Palace.

Today, it is considered the second largest of the royal parks, and visitors can still see the remnants of medieval farming systems. They will also discover the continuation of a Tudor deer park, which is where King Henry liked to hunt. The 17th-century additions highlight the

people’s love of neoclassicism, especially the Longford River – a 12-mile canal created to supply water to Hampton Court. Christopher Wren’s Diana Fountain is another key feature, displaying a bronze statue of the goddess sitting atop an elaborate stone and marble structure with carved nymphs. The newly renovated, Baroque-style Upper Lodge Water Gardens has a series of cascades and pools, and was a military camp during the World Wars. The Woodland Gardens are ideal for a leisurely stroll, a picnic, or to explore the Pheasantry Welcome Centre.

Eel Pie Island

Around 20 minutes (driving) from Hampton Court is Eel Pie Island which is almost nine acres in size and is only accessible by boat or footbridge from the north bank. It is believed to be the site of a monastery, and was used by King Henry VIII as a courting ground. In the 17th Century, the island became known for its titular pies, until it developed into a hangout space for rock and jazz musicians like The Rolling Stones.

Today, it is the location for London’s oldest rowing club, the Twickenham Rowing Club; a working boatyard; and artists’ studios. However, most of the island is private property, with creatively spooky gardens – so, unless you’re visiting when the artists’ studios are open to the public (only twice a year), please be respectful of the residences.

Kew Gardens

Known for housing the ‘largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world’, Kew Gardens is a must-see for nature lovers and plant enthusiasts. There are over 8.5 million fungal species and preserved plants; and within its 326 acres visitors can discover the garden’s famous glasshouses, including the Temperate House. This has 10,000 plants from locations across the world, like South America and Africa. The Palm House has the oldest living potted plant in the world, while the Arboretum has around 14,000 trees, some of which date to the 18th Century.

As you’ve probably realised, there’s a lot to see here, and we haven’t even covered half of it yet. Expect to find the longest double herbaceous borders in the UK, a 17-metre-high beehive, the Great Pagoda (which has 253 steps and views across Kew and London), and the red-brick Kew Palace. The palace provides insight into the life of King George III (the so-called Mad King). It is considered the ‘smallest and most intimate of the royal palaces’, which is a wonderful way to end a royal weekend in Richmond-upon-Thames!