By Jeremy Miles
Walking across the courtyards of the ancient Royal Palace at Hampton Court you can almost feel the sense of history bearing down on you. Shut your eyes for a moment and let your imagination roam and you are whisked back five centuries to the era of its most famous former resident, the swaggering much-married King Henry VIII. His turbulent Tudor reign is best remembered for its ruthless ambition, treachery and tumbling heads as the executioner’s axe dispatched those who displeased, including a couple of unfortunate wives. But Hampton Court – Henry’s favourite Palace and in its day a by-word for 16th century sophistication – contains more genteel markers of the House of Tudor. To commemorate next month’s (June’s) 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to throne, a special Tudor Garden is being created in a previously unlandscaped courtyard next to the Palace's Chapel Royal.
Although it was still very much a work in progress, a visit to the site of this new garden was one of the highlights of the first of a series of after-hours evening tours of Hampton Court Gardens. Six tours are being staged in conjunction with the National Gardens Scheme as part of a move to offer a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it takes to make these beautiful gardens thrive. The seasonally themed evenings, which started in early April, run through to September. Each takes a maximum of 25 people and is accompanied by one of Hampton Court’s gardening experts.
The inaugural tour was conducted by long-serving horticultural manager Anthony Boulding. It proved a real eye-opener for anyone interested in gardening on almost any level. As we set off Anthony casually remarked that his primary responsibility is “the presentation and upkeep of the gardens here at Hampton Court”. Slowly the enormity of what he was saying dawned on our group.
For Hampton Court not only boasts 60 acres of stunningly beautiful formal gardens running down to the banks of the River Thames but an astonishing history dating back half a millennium. Its presentation and upkeep has to be planned with military precision. The financial constraints of the modern world don’t make it any easier. There were more than 100 staff working in the Palace gardens when Anthony first arrived some 35-years-ago. Today there are around 30. “We used to just throw staff at jobs, but we can’t do that anymore,” he says wistfully. “Everything has to be incredibly well planned.”
As we digested this fact, Anthony took us to see the progress that was being made with the new Tudor Garden project. Designed by landscape architect, historian and author Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, it is based entirely on historic research and studies of the gardens depicted in 16th century paintings in the Palace collection. When it finally opens next month (June) it will include magnificent carvings of heraldic beasts - the symbols of power and status that were so important in the iconography of the Royal Court. There will also be beds of medicinal plants and herbs surrounded by green and white Tudor rails and topiary in the shape of mighty Naval sailing ships.
Stressing that what will finally open in June will be very much an “imagined” garden, Anthony pointed out: “ There is no evidence that an actual Tudor garden ever stood on this site. In fact this project is a complete departure from what we normally do. It’s important that people realise that this is a reproduction and not a restoration.” The project may essentially be a fiction but it is exciting nonetheless, particularly the return to Hampton Court after several centuries of the ‘Kyng’s Beestes’ - the wooden animals, hand-carved in English oak and then painted and gilded in Tudor livery that will guard a central pathway of crushed cockleshells.
The next stop on Anthony’s tour offered an insider’s view of the gardens’ famous Glasshouse Nursery complex. Sited on land that was once Henry VIII’s private orchard and later, in the days of William III and Mary II, a melon-ground, it contains around an acre of glass. In the 1960s greenhouses with low curved roofs were brought in to replace more traditional Victorian growing houses. Anthony is not convinced this was a good idea. “It was very much the time when if something was old you’d simply flatten it and start again. The theory was that the sun would penetrate a curved roof better than a conventional pitched one. Unfortunately the sixties houses are now reaching the end of their useful life. Bits are falling off, they have no roof vents and heat really builds up. They’re quite difficult to manage.” However with no immediate plans for replacement, these are the kind of problems that Anthony and his team just have to work around. It’s a salutary thought for weekend and evening gardeners many of whom enjoy the luxury of modern greenhouses with automatic vents and blinds.
With years of experience and extreme precision, the nursery staff create optimum conditions for rooting, potting-on and planting some 170,000 plants a year. The production of bedding plants for the summer, autumn and spring plantings is paramount. These include traditional favourites like heliotrope, pelargoniums, antirrhinum and begonias. Around 25 per cent of the plants at Hampton Court are grown from seed, a further 20 per cent are raised from cuttings and the rest are bought in from specialist suppliers as plug plants. Times change and methods evolve. “The advent of plugs has compressed our growing season,” says Anthony “It means we’re not heating the houses at great expense over the winter.” Meanwhile biological controls are used to manage pests with good bugs being deliberately introduced to eat the bad ones. This requires the introduction of aphids and other “nasties” to the growing area. “It’s one of those things that some people find difficult to grasp, that you have to keep a small population of pests for your beneficials to live on.”
Chemicals are kept to a minimum and though the Hampton Court gardens team make no claims to be organic, they actively work to use natural methods wherever possible. With a year that effectively runs from July to June, forward planning is the key. “We’re always thinking ahead,” says Anthony. “There are lot of things you only get one chance for in the 12 month cycle and, if you miss it, that’s it.” The Nursery, he says, is the hub of the entire Hampton Court Gardens operation. “It’s the engine room and it’s really at full-throttle for most of March and April.”
The final part of the inaugural tour explored the natural beauty of The Wilderness - an area of land that was originally used as a 16th century orchard but 100 years later evolved into a place for leisure with tall, clipped hedges and intertwining paths - a history kept alive by the famous Hampton Court Maze which still survives in one corner the site.
Today the Wilderness is best known for its natural beauty and, in the spring, its astonishing display of naturalised spring bulbs which were still in full-flowering glory for the April NGS visitors.