Monday August 4th 2014
If it’s August it must be bedding plants… We had decided to split our day at Hampton Court into two as it’s such a large site to visit and would not fit into our 90 minutes rule, so after a pleasant picnic interrupted only by the passage of some magnificent carthorses pulling a double wagon we started following the ‘garden route.’ Both of us are pretty familiar with Hampton Court from childhood onwards and I have an old photo of earnest school girls posed by a conical tree (Very Versailles we thought) dating from an Upper Third (Year 7) end-of -year outing. Those were the days when your ticket had to be punched at each ‘feature’ till you finished with more holes than card.
Enough with the nostalgia. I let Jo write up the house on the basis that her history is way more sophisticated than mine though my horticulture is not that hot either. Talking of hot what catches the eye in the ‘Fountain Gardens’, which is where we started, is the number of hot – that is red and red-and-pink and orange – beds, when the word garish might spring to mind. There is actually only one fountain of the original many remaining but it is in the centre. It also offers a wonderful foreground to the West façade. Wren has already featured strongly in our visits thus far – the Royal Hospital and Kensington Gardens – and now his palace for William and Mary here. Most of the gardens date from that time.
The later monarchs also transformed Henry VIII’s Privy Garden – at the far end of the paths there is a riot of gold, not an intricate climbing plant but Tijou’s wrought iron fantasia of gates, so ornate they present a conservator's nightmare and like the headman’s axe are probably in their third or fourth incarnation. Nowadays you can wander alongside outside on the Thames Path (one of its more memorable bits it has to be said) but I wonder whether that was the case back when they were first erected. I am always amazed when viewing the luxury of former rulers that England never had a revolution a la Française.
From here we could have sneaked through the hornbeam tunnel but instead went along the wall.
The Pond Gardens, so called as they were the original fishponds for Henry VIII (and presumably Wolsey too as the rules about fish eating were pretty strict in those days), had dried out so Queen Mary, who seems to have been something of a driving force horticulturally speaking, had this sunken area planted up with her exotics. Today the ‘Exoticks’ are closer to the Orangery though the shelter allows for a wall of espaliered fruit trees surrounding a tranquil grassy area allowing your eyes to ‘cool’ before the next colour rush.
The Pond Gardens taper somewhat leading you to the pristine earthy patch which represents the area of the great Vine’s root system. Back in 1959 when the Great Vine was a compulsory stop on the school itinerary I remember being desperately unimpressed. Today everything looked very neat and well-tended and sure enough there were enough bunches of red grapes to make you believe it really is a great vine. We were pleased to see an old photo of a previous ‘gardener’, complete with her Horrockses frock (see the entry for the Textile Museum) snipping away genteelly whilst precariously balanced on her high heels.
Back in front of the Orangery which now houses the Mantegna ‘strip cartoon’ are Queen Mary’s ‘exoticks’ including a small crop of lemons and a gardener diligently clipping, not quite with nail scissors but very small tools, the box surround. We hoped he was making his way towards the Knot Garden , which looked slightly fuzzy and in need of a trim . Here are a few designs if you wish to ‘try this at home’ as you really don’t need a lot of space but quite a lot of patience.
I notice looking at my handy map that we actually missed a couple of items, namely the 20th century, formerly Apprentices’ garden, and we did not go into the Banqueting House either.
You cannot actually get round to the front of the Palace this way (small matter of a river being in the way) so we walked back through the various courtyards and out the front. We had already seen the Wilderness, very pleasant but better viewed in Spring when the bulbs are out, on our original toilet trip so went straight to the Rose Garden , which is exactly that. Some were very fragrant, many delicately pastel shades, and several varieties were past their best.
Our last and probably most interesting garden was the kitchen one, recently re-opened after replanting following the 1736 John Roque’s plans. Better known for his maps of London he and his brother (like Tijou, Hugenot refugees) were also garden designers. Dodging the sprinkler which seemed to be on rather erratic circles we enjoyed identifying (or not) the different crops, which are charmingly labelled with script on upturned terracotta pots. A bit stumped by a something called ‘scurvy grass’, which is actually a low lying nondescript weedy (in both senses) looking thing, we asked the gardeners what was what. Scurvy grass, they told us, is very high in Vitamin C (it tastes like horseradish or wasabi) and used to be eaten as salad leaves by sailors back from a spell at sea. This we had muddled with the neighbouring Hartshorn Plantain which looked decorative rather than delicious.
Under the shelter to one side of the garden is a list of all the gardeners and their specialties and it struck us that this is one of those occupations (yes there are electric lawn mowers and hedge cutters but by and large it is a hands-on job) that has changed little over the centuries so it was nice to see previous generations remembered.
The entrance price for Hampton Court is high but you need to bear in mind the costs of conservation within the palace and the labour intensive nature of gardening to see where your money has been spent. The visitor needs to invest his time to get his or her money’s worth, as we more than did.