We woke up on our first morning in London to find that the rain had cleared and the weather was sunny and clear. Breakfast was on-the-go and consisted of almond croissants and flat whites (basically a cappuccino without foam) from Costa, a UK coffee chain shop right around the corner from our hotel. We stopped into the St. James’ Park tube station to purchase a one-day Travelcard for zones 1-6 (cost: £17 each), which enabled us to take the train out to our destination, Hampton Court (London is divided into six fare zones; Travelcards are available for either zones 1 & 2, 1-4, or 1-6 and can be purchased as peak or off-peak). Because it was a beautiful day and we were ahead of schedule, we walked to the Westminster tube stop, rather than taking the tube from St. James’ Park and switching lines. We took the tube from Westminster to Waterloo, then caught the National Rail for a 30 minute ride to Hampton Court Station. Note: make sure to check the departure time of your train; every other departure stops at Surbiton and you have to change trains to get to Hampton Court. The alternating trains are direct but are about 5 minutes longer.
Hampton Court Palace, one of the homes of Henry VIII, is about a ten-minute walk across a picturesque bridge over the Thames River from the train station. Trains arrive and depart about every 30 minutes to and from London.
Buying a Travelcard (and/or buying the Gatwick Express ticket) allows access to the 2FOR1 Days Out Guide entertainment deals. We ended up taking advantage of these savings twice during this trip–the first time was at Hampton Court Palace. The tickets are £18.20 for two adults (the price of one regular admission ticket). You have to print out a voucher before going to the attraction, so it is best to plan these before you go (as of now, they don’t accept mobile vouchers). When you get to the attraction, you also have to have your train ticket to be able to capitalize on the deal.
The palace came to its glory under Henry VIII and has a lot of Tudor history (the initial building was started by Cardinal Wolsey, then taken over by Henry VIII). The tour begins in Base Court, a large stone courtyard. You enter the palace initially through an antechamber and pick up the free audio guide. One of my favorite authors, Alison Weir (I have mentioned her in previous posts) narrates the audio guide tour, which was a huge bonus for me. After getting the audio guide, you can put on velvet cloaks to get into the spirit of being a courtier in Henry VIII’s court (and you can wear them throughout your visit, which was a very cute touch, especially for children and families).
Before starting the tour, a video about Henry VIII’s six wives plays in a small room. The tour takes you through the Great Hall (the center of entertaining and eating) and into a stunning chapel (no photography allowed). One of the last remaining symbols of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn remains, carved into a wood panel. We spent about 15 minutes hunting for this symbol before asking a palace employee to point it out (as it turns out, it was right in front of our faces–so frustrating!).
Many actors dressed in Tudor garb walk the halls of the palace, answering questions and doing reenactments every few hours (the daily schedule can be found in your brochure when you obtain tickets).
Towards the end of the tour, you find yourself in the kitchens of the court, highlighting food storage, preparation, and service. The kitchens of Hampton Court bring to mind the tremendous amount of work required to feed the enormous entourage that comprised the court of Henry VIII. A working fireplace definitely softened the damp chill that probably permeates Hampton Court for the majority of the year. After warming up in front of the fire, we continued on our walk through the palace.
Unfortunately, Henry VIII’s tennis courts were closed during our visit, but watching this documentary on PBS (and some episodes of The Tudors) made us feel like we had already seen it, but it was a bummer nonetheless. We stayed at Hampton Court for about three and a half hours and ended our visit by going through the hedge maze in the garden (apparently the oldest surviving hedge maze in the UK–where apparently hedge mazes and their age are a ‘thing’).
Even though it was mid-February and the hedge was not incredibly dense, the maze was still fairly difficult to get through. Just as claustrophobia was setting in, we found the center of the maze and exited.
We made our way back over the bridge to the train station and caught the train back to London, about 30 minutes ahead of our planned schedule. We made it back to our hotel and changed into our evening attire and made our way back to St. James’ Park tube station.
Coming up: part two of our second day in London–afternoon tea and a West End musical