Hampton Court Palace is impressive at Christmas time. It doesn’t matter whether you arrive via car or public transport, both the car park as well as the nearest bus stop require a walk to Hampton Court Palace through a small part of the impressive gardens. You get to see deer, fountains, statues, and that is only the beginning.
As it was the official opening of the Christmas season at Hampton Court Palace, a Festive Fayre was put together by the team behind the Historic Royal Palaces food festival team. Starting on Friday December 6th, the event could have put the Grinch himself into a festive mood. The palace, just an hour south of London, is truly a place fit for a king, and it could not look any more Christmassy if it had been dreamed up purely to be the backdrop for a romcom.
A lit-up ice rink out front awaits first, accompanied by a café space, where the hot chocolate is slowly stirred in its pot, and fairy lights frame the windows. Then you walk in through the enormous entrance gate, to encounter little stalls, and courtyards filled with lights, a Christmas tree, and a band playing live music.
Stunning stalls all around with exhibitors offering a range of handmade gifts, like scarves and candles, as well as artwork and furniture, to countless options for artisan food and drink. The market is arranged throughout the magnificent palace and grounds, in the shadows of what used to be the residence of Henry VIII.
Walking around with a mulled wine, while taking in the beautiful space and ageless masterpieces is an experience hard to forget. Well, that’s not quite right, you are not allowed to take food or drink into the museum space obviously, but nevertheless you can carry the warm feeling with you, and then gaze at the starry ceiling in the chapel, see Henry’s massive bejewelled crown, or stand next to the kneelers where he married some of his wives.
Around the next corner lies a room so high, my colleague and I were speculating how many floors would fit in there, or whether a single painting out of the several on display, would make a decent sized double-room’s floorplan.
Off to the sides, most of the stone-build hallways are filled with Christmas-themed decorations, including pine branches and other evergreens, dried oranges and cinnamon sticks, which are providing the most welcoming and warming scent.
Dressed up actors were also on hand to take visitors around the rooms, and let them interact and ask questions, as if they had access to the real royals from back in the day. The palace hints on its homepage: “You never know who you might meet from the past as you explore cosy cloisters and vast courtyards.”
Back outside, even a little rain did not deter attendees. Andy Rock of Herby4 tells me, “for us, the colder the better, because we are serving hot samples. People find it really refreshing to be offered something that’s hot and warming at a Christmas do that isn’t alcoholic.”
Andy’s company produces a chai-spiced apple juice, which results in a drink you can heat up to offer as a non-alcoholic alternative to mulled wine, and “that tastes very much like Christmas.”
And Susie West, who is an artist committed to painting all the prettiest places in Britain, explains, “we are painting our way around Britain. 117 places so far.” Susie decides where to paint with the help of a mailing list that lets people send in their votes.
I ask her what she thinks why Hampton Court has been one of them. “I think it’s everything about here,” she tells me. “It’s the look of the place. It’s the history of the place. It’s unique. I don’t think there’s anywhere else quite like it.”
And all while you can enjoy the festive spirit in this beautiful setting, the surroundings remind that some blue-blooded humans have done just the same, 500 years ago. It’s a wonderful opportunity to explore Henry’s palace, with its Great Hall, the Royal Chapel and the Tudor kitchens.
Which include several rooms. There is in fact, a chocolate room AND a chocolate kitchen. The Chocolate Kitchen at Hampton Court Palace was apparently a small but specialised series of rooms used by royally appointed chocolate makers, to prepare what used to be an expensive delicacy at the time for kings and queens.
But even though Henry had several kitchens for his chocolate, he surely would be jealous of the sweet options offered in his palace today. From fudge and cookies to cakes, waffles, ice cream and brownies, sweet-toothed visitors can easily find their dreams fulfilled.
And just as easily you can get carried into the Christmas spirit by experiencing the magic of Christmas at Hampton Court.