But six weekends a year, essentially as a post-pandemic thankyou to the local community, the palace hosts Open Days and all the gardens are free to visit. These weekends fall in the odd-numbered months, allowing full exposure to the seasons, and one of them just happens to be this weekend. There's no need to pre-book, nor even to be local, you just walk round to the Rose Garden and a lady with a clicker counts you rather than charging you a small fortune.
And they are glorious gardens, acres and acres of them, both formal and informal. What's more they were being made good use of yesterday with all sorts of family groups and couples wandering round, some inspecting the flowerbeds, some playing hide and seek behind the urns, some whipping out their watercolours, some having an impromptu game of cricket on the formal lawns, some settling down on the grass and unwrapping cheese rolls from tinfoil, others just enjoying a gossip as they strolled round. It was great to reacquaintmyself with these regal surroundings, and also to smile at all those emerging from the rear of the palace who'd paid full price to see the interior and the gardens.
Rose Garden: The only way in and out on an Open Day. It's a little early for the roses but some of the pink ones were out, and it is a lovely place for a picnic. Kitchen Garden: Again too early for much more than leaves, but the asparagus patch had a "please do not pick" notice and a lot of contented OAPs were wandering between the plots looking appreciatively at the soil. Magic Garden: This historical-themed children's playground was definitely not free but you could hear the shrieks of delight over the wall. The Tiltyard: No jousting, not any more, but yes to wicker knights and the obligatory cafe. The Wilderness: In olden days this was where courtiers would slink off for trysts in the woods, and these days it's a sylvan meadowy patch with dandelions. It also contains the best bit of the grounds...
Hampton Court Maze: The cashier's booth was closed so hell yes, I nipped in to tackle England's quintessential labyrinthinechallenge. It still threw me, I still walked down all the wrong pathways even though I know how it's supposed to work because once you're inside all logic fails. I passed the odd lumbering child and a mother exhorting her offspring to keep left, twice, but most of the freeloaders hadn't realised it was open so when I finally reached the fabled centre I had it all to myself. The photo frame and the Jerome K Jerome quote have changed format since I last middled. With its pristine yew hedges and its genius design, it remains Hampton's perfect patch.
Great Fountain Garden: This is the main formal garden, an enormous semicircle on the east side of the palace with avenues of trees radiating out from a central focus. And what trees. These sculpted yews have been topiaried to within an inch of their ancient lives and resemble verdant ghosts or rippling jellies, because this is landscape gardening on a massive scale. The Long Water panning out on the far side is vast, disappearing into the Home Park where the non-paying plebs can picnic any time, whereas over here impressionable tourists are being driven around in carriages behind shaggy white horses and palace crew in black bowler hats. Royal Tennis Court: William and Mary's indoor smash-room was being used for an actual game by two ruddy men who could have been extras from The Crown.
The Privy Garden: This long symmetrical 17th-century-style garden leads down to some seriously gilded gates beside the Thames Path (locked, obv). Please keep to the paths when taking family portraits with a fabulousbackdrop. Knot Garden/Lower Orangery Garden/Pond Gardens: ...and on, and on. The Great Vine: And finally it's the world's largest grapevine, now 255 summers old, which produces quarter of a ton of grapes every year. They keep a separate patch of earth outside the greenhouse for the exclusive use of its roots. And on the wall alongside is The Great Wisteria, which admittedly is only great for two weeks every May but hurrah, the Open Days fell during the right fortnight.
At this point you have to backtrack and walk all the way back round to the Rose Garden to exit, but that's no hardship because it's value for money all the way. After today the next Open Days are 4-9 July, 16-17 September and 18-19 November if you too would like to save £26.10.