IF there’s one good present to give this year, it’s a return flight to London — especially with prices reduced for January to March.
And there’s more to do than visit the shops — instead, go the history and gardens route and you won’t be disappointed — especially in one location on the bank of the Thames, in Surrey.
Top of the list and to satisfy a Wolf Hall obsession, (as well as a long Irish race memory, perhaps), is Hampton Court Palace.
It’s probably not well known but this is two palaces in one, the Tudor facade at the front, west entrance and the William and Mary end to the east.
The elegant, grown-up Baroque extension at the back of the Tudor palace gives gives a great insight into the lives of the first cousins and joint rulers - and the Court thrums with Tudor history.
Block off a good day to enjoy both — and you might just get to visit the gardens, which are quite simply, vast.
Hampton Court was Cardinal Wolsey’s self-made man’s self-build, but as his power waned he offered it to Henry as a sucky-uppy gift, when he couldn’t get the Pope to assent to the King’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. It didn’t work long-term, but Henry VIII installed his new queen, Anne Boleyn, there and set about making it his own.
The palace is very English compared to the European rear, and sits on the main artery to the city at the time, the Thames, in what was then a rural and healthy location away from the pestilential capital.
Its luxury is slight by our en suite standards, with only one garde robe (toilet) in the entire palace and this in the great waiting room, next to the king’s bedchamber, where courtiers tried to catch the monarch on his way in, or out.
Those who’ve read Hilary Mantel’s novel or caught last year’s BBC adaptation will be familiar with the history of this building and its gardens, and the series was filmed there.
Hampton Court was built at a time when England was at the point of becoming a major player on the European stage and that emerging power is shown in the carved heraldic beasts at the west entrance and on a more prosaic level in the Clock Court fountain which flowed with free wine for the king’s retainers.
The long, barley-stick chimneys, which are the main feature of the palace and which trumpet a fireplace in every room, are the perfect statement of wealth and the work of a master mason, as is the diaper, or diamond pattern of over-fired and rust bricks that make up its facade. It’s a very pretty and a very human-sized space.
Behind the palace and tacked on to it, is the beautiful, Baroque creation of Queen Mary and King William, who disdained the old palace and decided to knock and re-build to the European manner — good King Billy wanted his own gaff, it would appear.
However, the funds didn’t run to a brand new palace so the couple decided to add an extension — knitted into the Tudor end.
And as a practising gay man (with Mary’s blessing, it appears), he was the first to break with royal protocol and install locks to the inside of his private chambers, commissioning a new mechanism from one Thoma Key and the name stuck.
The new rulers spent a king’s ransom on Sir Christopher Wren’s design and the gardens were by pupils of André Le Nôtre, who created the landscape at Versailles.
The palace and gardens deserve a visit to soak up the atmosphere. Check out http://www.hrp.org.uk/