I SPY LONDON the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing Part 17:Hampton Court Palace
Location: East Molesey, KT8 9AU [map] Open: 10am - 6pm (closes 4:30pm in winter) Admission: £12.30 5-word summary: 500 years of royal magificence Website:http://hrp.org.uk/hampton Time to set aside: a day
You've probably never considered visiting Hampton Court during the winter months. The gardens aren't at their best in February, the renowned flower show is still months away and the palace isn't centrally heated throughout. But this might just be the best time to visit, mercifully free from packs of tourists and staircase-blocking coach parties. Plus there's absolutely tons to see, far more than you probably expect, and it's not all bluff Tudor monarchs and armoured codpieces. Hampton Court wasn't originally a royal palace, not until Henry VIII confiscated it from his disgraced archbishop Thomas Wolsey in 1528. But over the last five centuries it's been repeatedly embellished, extended and rebuilt, so that the palace now comprises several different architectural styles. It certainly has a turreted chimneypot skyline like no other [photo].
Most visitors start their exploration of the palace from the central Clock Court[photo], maybe meeting up with a costumed guide, or else following one of the many audio-wand walks around the building. One of the oldest surviving parts of the palace is close by - the Tudor Kitchens. This mass catering establishment has been recreated for today's visitors as if preparing for a genuine 16th century banquet. The roast boar and savoury pies cooked here would have been served in the Great Hall upstairs, and gobbled down beneath the richly decorated hammer-beam roof. Nextdoor are Henry VIII's state apartments (or at least those which Sir Christopher Wren left alone when modernising the rest of the building a couple of centuries later). Palace guides enjoy leading hapless visitors through the gallery supposedly haunted by Henry's headless Wife-number-5, and this is also where the famous oil painting of The Field of the Cloth of Gold is hung. Close by is the magnificent Chapel Royal, where Henry married his last wife and baptised his only son, and which is still used for regular Sunday services to this day.
And that's only a small part of what there is to see. The southern and eastern sides of the palace, around the Fountain Court and cloisters, house the state apartments of King William III and his wife Queen Mary. You know the sort of thing - chains of vast rooms and long galleries packed with panelled walls, stern-looking portraits, giant tapestries and ornate 4-poster beds, all set out beneath impossibly ornate roofs. And, if you're willing to climb up several rear staircases to reach them, you might be able to take a look inside one of the old grace and favour apartments on the upper floors, close to the seat of the 1986 fire which devastated several of the historic rooms beneath (now restored).
Don't rest yet, there's still loads to see outside. There's Capability Brown's Great Vine for a start, not especially impressive in winter but still the oldest productive vine in the world [photo]. Inside the Lower Orangery are nine priceless (but overlooked) Italian Renaissance canvases depicting the Triumphs of Caesar (I suspect the security guard stationed in here gets very lonely). Round the corner is the famous Royal Tennis Court - a wooden chamber where Henry VIII used to play, and the oldest surviving tennis court anywhere in the world [photo]. And then there are the gardens[photo], acres and acres of them, beautifully laid out in a variety of imposing formal styles. Some lead down to the Thames, others run alongside an artificial channel through the grounds. Look east into the Home Park (above the heads of the swans on the Long Water) and you can just make out the Golden Jubilee Fountains shooting water 100 feet into the air some three quarters of a mile away.
The infamous Hampton Court Maze is located in the northern part of the palace grounds. This was Britain's first hedge maze, planted as long ago as 1690, and crams half a mile of paths into a third of an acre. The labyrinth is considerably more complicated than the sign pictured here suggests, although not so complex that you need fear getting trapped inside forever. Study the map by the entrance as much as you like - it won't help you much once you get disoriented inside. The sanctuary of the centre never seems too far away when viewed through a patchy yew hedge, but selecting the correct route at each junction is far harder than you might expect [photo].
Expect to have to fight your way past yelping children and scattered families, and maybe enjoy directing them down one of the dead ends just for a laugh. Listen out too for a permanent audio art installation called "Trace" which has been embedded around the maze, playing various enigmatic sound effects as you pass by. Just try not to be too disappointed when you finally reach the centre only to discover a few occupied benches, a big tree and far too many over-pleased mummies with pushchairs. It's much easier to get out, thankfully, through a simple exit gate back into the surrounding gardens. You might be ready to go home at this point, but I bet you still won't have seen everything this a-maze-ing palace has to offer. [sorry, I couldn't resist it] by train: Hampton Courtby bus: 111, 216, 411