Our previous visit was to RHS Flower Show when the grass was withering in the heat and notices everywhere announced free water. This time the grass was recovering from inundation, cue for heads to roll if Henry VIII had been around. The in-period guided tour later that day might just have suggested as much.
Travelzoo and half-price admission may have increased attendance but there was no crowding anywhere, just a small queue and restricted choice of tables in the Tiltyard Cafe, first port of call for many a chilled visitor after the winter’s first snow.
A hot cup of coffee stimulates the planning process, much needed with a wealth of possibilities in this huge complex of many generations and dynasties. Depending on taste, educational or family need, there are the Tudor apartments, the young Henry VIII route, Henry’s kitchens, or the William III and 18th century developments, not to ignore the wonderful art collection.
With time to spare all are possible, and it is easy to imagine a need to get as much as possible out of a visit, but there is also the matter of stamina, in inverse proportion to the amount of silver in the hair.
We chose Henry VIII, as first royal owner after persuading Thomas Wolsey to make a gift of Hampton Court. The base court, with its fountain in Tudor colours that would have been dispensing wine to loyal citizenry – mulled on such a day, we thought – leads left into the kitchens or ahead into the Undercroft, a splendid hall fit for royal banquets and receptions, not to mention the dancing and revels to follow. There are audio guides, free to use in a variety of languages, and in many places somewhere to sit and contemplate the grandeur. Not only children found themselves drawn to seats at the high table – nothing to eat, unfortunately. Wolsey is still commemorated in stained glass despite his fall from grace.
If Wolsey had been notorious for his girth, the Elizabethan guard was astonishing for height: a life-size portrait dwarfs anyone who looks at it, as he stood 7 feet 6 inches.
In the depth of the building is the chapel royal, that day offering a free recital of music. The stairs are undergoing repair so some of the building’s grandeur is – if not diminished – compromised. Nonetheless, old buildings need maintenance, and the older and larger they are the more they need.
While much of the palace may freely be photographed the paintings, because of their age perhaps, and the chapel for other reasons, may not be. We just have to offer on trust that Artemisia Gentilesschi, subject of a sensitive tv documentary by Michael Palin recently, bears comparison even with Rembrandt. Two self portraits, one by each, may be seen in the same small room. Artemisia’s father has a work nearby as well; so does the very different Caravaggio. In period with the Tudors there are two Holbein portraits, Erasmus and a friend who kept both in the same room.
Artistic height and architectural contrasts were to be indulged before the kitchens brought us down to earthly delights. A piquant contrast was to look back across the 17th century fountain court and see the Tudor roofline and chimneys beyond. A few moments of music in the chapel then the warren of the kitchens followed. Before the Tudors, the Georgian delights of chocolate – a draw for almost every child, surprise as much as delight to find how chocolate as they know it was (and is, give or take refinements of process) made.
As they say of the tour, if you make the wrong decision you could be in the maze. Each part of a sumptuous banquet had to be prepared in a separate kitchen, with its own dishes, tables, sinks and fires or ovens. Up a few steps in one and what looks like a bubbling well turns out to be a vat of water heated by the stove beneath. There was even a real fire, with a fortunate attendant standing by – ostensibly for public safety. He, like all the others, was in costume, as visitors are invited to be, and on a January day that had reverted to convention a felted cloak drawn tight around the body seemed a good idea, even necessity.
There are, as in every such attraction, shops in plenty. Some “authentic” stock is on sale everywhere but for connoiseurs of the “Merry Monarch” what better than the grossly – in every sense – inauthentic cook’s apron?