Hampton Court Castle - Enchanting Havens
In mid September 2020, I went and stayed at a manor house in Herefordshire with a companion for a much needed getaway. We were struggling to find somewhere to go as we would usually fill our time with museums and bookshops but they were all shut, or worse in the case of Ross Books, closed down.
But I found at random, about an hour away from where we were staying, a place called Hampton Court Castle. I didn't look very much into it, I saw a couple of photos, phoned them to see if they were open and if we could arrive without an appointment, hopped in the car and after driving through just over 26 miles of apple orchards and red brick cottages, we were there. Much like my first visit to The Wallace Collection, I was wholly unprepared for the beauty I was about to be faced with.
We arrived and the carpark was all but empty, we had the entire place almost all to ourselves. The castle rested peacefully in gentle parkland at the edge of a forest, cut off by the river Lugg. We entered into a Victorian walled garden to be greeted by fading summer splendour, the last of the vegetables glowing quietly in the beds, the air smelt strongly of lavender and then mint.
The flower beds in the kitchen garden were spilling over in a mass of colour, there were pink dahlias planted in rows against the glasshouses, tomatoes were growing over old wooden gates, the pleached avenues growing over 20 different varieties of apples and pears and delicate blue flowers were planted amongst the lavender making a dreamy sea of purples and blues.
The Rose Garden was adorned with the last sweet smelling blooms clinging on to summer. There were little bridges that led to pavilions, giving different perspectives of the gardens, the water trickling from various water features, creating ponds and little rivers that run between the planting of agapanthus. The Dutch Garden was symmetry at its finest.
I could see beyond the trees a gothic tower. It was at the centre of the maze of 1,000 yew trees. I'm sure the view from the top was spectacular and there was apparently a secret entrance to some other wonderful surprise but the Triwizard Tournament has ruined maze's for me so on to the next part of the garden.
We were then faced with a green tunnel of wisteria, it was over 160 years old and created what felt like the perfect place to share secrets and romances. I'm sure in the spring the exquisite blooms and heady fragrance must be overwhelming. The Wisteria Arch takes us from the Formal Garden onto the South Lawns, which is said to be at its best in May-June with lilac and white flowers, more divine fragrance.
By wandering down a path of cascading stepping stones you would find The Sunken Garden. It features huge lily pads on the water surrounded by lush greenery and a waterfall with a secret path that runs behind it.
Finally a clear view of the house appears amongst the expansive South Lawns with views across to the forest backdrop. There is a gateway to the river walk, where there are wooden bridges, a zip wire and tree swings, beneath a spectacular London Plane.
The house, bathing in the afternoon sun, is dotted with Virginia Creeper, its walls made of speckled stone of red and warm sand. Under neath an immense copper beech there is a door in the wall. We enter a courtyard with rows of white roses, undisturbed by the changing of the seasons.
We now enter the house, whose interiors vary from the beautiful to the bizarre. The Hampton Court Estate has a chequered history dating back to the 15th Century.
Henry IV began building on the site before giving it to Sir Rowland Lenthall at the time of his marriage to Margaret Fitzalan, daughter of the Earl of Arundel and a cousin of the King. Lenthall built a quadrangular manor house in 1427, twelve years after his knighthood at the battle of Agincourt. In 1434 he was granted a licence to crenellate (licence to fortify) the house by Henry VI.
Sir Rowland was succeeded by his daughter who married the Baron of Burford and it was their grandson who sold Hampton Court to Sir Humphrey Coningsby in 1510. Hampton Court remained in the Coningsby family, a prominent noble Herefordshire family, until the early 19th Century when the estate was purchased by Richard Arkwright, the son of the famous inventor.
Richard Arkwright's son, John, then commissioned the remodelling of the house in the 1830's and 40's, the work being designed and carried out by Charles Hanbury Tracy, later Lord Sudeley. The Arkwrights lived at Hampton Court until 1912.
In the 20th Century it passed through various hands and much of the original furniture was sold. It was rescued in the 1990s by the American millionaire, Robert Van Kampen , who refurnished the interior according to his interpretation of how an English castle should look.
I was not remotely ready for Van Kampen's interpretation. We were to be left to our own devices in the house, the tour guide explained at the door that she could not accompany us but she had prepared a laminated guide for us that would point out the details and interesting points. We had the entire castle to ourselves, it was heavenly. There was no one sinisterly appearing out from a dark shadowy corner to tell us that the sconces were from 1882, we could walk around at our leisure and take everything in.
We walked down a long hall of armour and were in a courtyard, clematis climbing the walls and roses tumbling beneath the gothic windows.
Through to the tower that held the main gate to the castle with an immense vaulted ceiling, bosses of sculpted ivy, painted an arsenic green at the joins.
On the right was a small door and through it held the first section of Van Kampen's vision. There were heads everywhere.
Every corridor in the house had it's walls lined with taxidermy, there were so many gazelles I am genuinely surprised they haven't gone extinct. In the great staircase were lions, at the end of small passageways were bisons watching you judgementally from above the doors, I have never seen anything like it. It was such a shocking contrast to the gentleness to the gardens I am sure that everyone within a five mile radius could hear the echos of my cries of horror ringing though the great halls.
In between the lions and gazelles were knights on horseback, great shields and swords splayed into the shape of fans and in the middle of the dining hall hung a large spiked flail that was supposedly used for knocking people off of their elephants in India. Each chandelier and light fitting was made to look like a medieval castle and crimson red flags floated on the walls.
As we moved further into the castle the interiors became more subdued and delicate. The Chapel had soft blue painted pews, tall stained glass windows that filtered the afternoon light and the alter was draped with an embroidery of stars and woodland animals in gold, silver cream and blue. The ceiling above the altar was spectacular.
Through a few more corridors and we were in the mirrored ballroom, decorated in blues and creams it looked out onto the lawn and was set up as though a wedding was taking place, with a floral arrangement tumbling over the marble mantelpiece and chandeliers sparkling in all their glory.
Through a door in the ballroom we entered my favourite room in every house, the Library. Painted in yellow it was a warm and cozy room, the sun streamed in through the windows making the gilt lettering on the books glow. A grand piano stood at one end of the room and one of the bookcases was a secret door, the green brocade armchairs faced the fireplace where a great gold mirror rested reflecting the light.
The final room was the dinning room, the walls were painted to look like wood panelling with still life paintings in heavy gold frames. The chandelier matched the same magnificence as the ones in the ballroom and a long mahogany table and chairs sat beneath it, waiting patiently for the next feast.
And suddenly we were back outside beneath the Virginia Creeper. It all ended a little too quickly and I can only let my imagination run wild as to what the other rooms look like. This is a wonderful place, just the garden alone is worth traveling for and the horse chestnut trees have the largest conkers I have ever seen. Now I know to most conkers aren't worth traveling for but in my world they are. To top it off down the road is the Queenswood Arboretum where they have an autumn garden filled with acer's and maples which in the height of autumn blaze in a fire of reds, yellows and oranges.