Monday, April 6, 2009

Hampton Court Palace celebrates the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession

This past weekend Frank and I decided to take the car and drive to Hampton Court to see the palace there. I am a member of a charity called Historic Royal Palaces ( so for £38 or whatever it was I paid last summer, I get unlimited access during one year to five palaces in London (Tower of London, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, Hampton Court and the Banqueting House). I can highly recommend this, if you are interested in history and preserving some of the greatest palaces built.

Located in Surrey, the Hampton Court Palace is a beautifully situated palace and gardens by the Thames and we were lucky with the weather. The sun was shining and it was a lovely spring day. Frank took a nap on the lawn of the Great Fountain Garden while I took a walk through the palace.

The palace has an interesting history. The estate at Hampton Court once belonged to a religious order founded in the 11th century. They used the area as an agricultural estate and hosted a few administrative buildings and a high-status guesthouse visited by royal guests on occasion. In 1514, the Archbishop of York, Thomas Wolsey, took out a 99-year lease on the property and built a grand bishop’s palace there. Wolsey became Cardinal and Lord Chancellor of England and he was also a close friend of Henry VIII and served as his chief minister for over ten years. In addition to his own private chambers (called the Wolsey Rooms in today’s palace leaflets), Wolsey added three guest suites for the royal family – one for King Henry VIII, one for Queen Katherine of Aragon and their daughter Princess Mary – and built a chapel.

Henry VIII (1509-47) was only 17 when he became King of England, Ireland and France and the Hampton Court Palace is this year celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Tudor king’s accession to the throne with a lot of historical activities, lectures, performances and costumed interpretations. When we were there actors were staging the day of the wedding of King Henry to his sixth wife, Kateryn (Catherine) Parr, in full velvet and embroidered costumes of the period.

Visitors were told how to bow and curtsey in the presence of royal, learned what it was like to work at the court and be a servant, what the clothes fashion was like in the Tudor era etc. It was very interesting.

I visited King Henry’s State Apartments, including the Great Hall with large, impressive tapestries hanging from the walls, and the Chapel Royal which has been in use for over 450 years. It was in this chapel that Henry’s son, Edward VI, was baptized and also where the marriage between Henry VIII and Kateryn Parr took place. The chapel is still in use today.

The Great Hall

I joined a group of people into a room and listened to a questions & answers session around what people at the court were wearing and what materials were used. Apparently one of the fancy velvet and silk gowns with golden-embroidered bodices that a lady at the court would wear would have cost around £10,000 in today’s money and a wealthy lady would own maybe five of those in different colors. Of course these garments couldn’t be washed, only the white cotton or linen under-tunic could. The height of masculinity in the Tudor era was muscular calves – if you were not so well-equipped in this department, you might even have worn padded stockings to hide this deficit. Male fashion namely prescribed tights and padded breeches (instead of today’s trousers) and knee-long mantles to appropriately display your calves.

King Henry had six wives. It was only his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, whom he married in 1509, that lasted over 20 years, the rest followed each other in fairly quick succession: Anne Boleyn in 1532/1533, Jane Seymour in 1536, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard both in the same year (1540) and finally Kateryn Parr in 1543. Henry was a passionate man and a womanizer, but his youthful charm and wits over the years turned into ruthlessness and he had a rather brutal way of dismissing his wives when he got tired of them. The first one he divorced, or rather he had the marriage annulled since Katherine of Aragon failed to produce a male heir and he became obsessed to possess the younger Anne Boleyn with whom he had fallen in love. It was in this period that Hampton Court Palace was appropriated by Henry VIII from Cardinal Wolsey as a result of the king breaking with the Catholic Church, since the Pope refused to grant him the divorce he so desperately wanted.

Queen Anne was beheaded just a few years after the marriage supposedly for ‘high treason’. Jane unfortunately died of postnatal complications after having given birth to Henry’s first male heir (Edward VI). The fourth marriage with Anne of Cleves was never consummated and it was subsequently annulled later that year. The young Catherine, Henry’s fifth wife, had an affair and was executed as a result, as were her lover and an ex-lover. The sixth wife, Kateryn, known as Lady Latimer before she became Henry VIII’s final wife, nursed him by the end when he was crippled and sick, and she was probably glad just to survive him.

When Henry died in 1547 he had three surviving children – the 9-year old Prince Edward and his older sisters Mary and Elizabeth. They have all ruled England and Hampton Court continued to be an important royal palace during the Tudor era. Only half of King Henry’s palace has survived since the 16th century, the rest was rebuilt for William III (William of Orange) and Mary II as a baroque palace during the 18th century.

I also saw Mary II’s Apartments, the palace’s wine cellar and the Tudor kitchens. The latter displayed various cooking utensils, fake log-fires in wood-fire ovens, vegetables, herbs, bread, stuffed rabbits and other food that you would have seen in a medieval kitchen when preparing meals for some 800 people in Henry VIII’s court.

Mary II’s Apartments

The Tudor Kitchens

We took a walk in the beautiful and enormous palace gardens, which are divided into several ones with different character. We didn’t have time to walk through all, but started in the Great Fountain Garden, originally parkland. The yew trees you see on the photo below were planted by Queen Anne (1702-14).

The Great Fountain Garden

We also saw the Privy Garden, the king’s private garden completed for William III in the early 1700’s, and the smaller Knot Garden.

The Privy Garden

The Pond Gardens were originally ponds with freshwater fish for the palace but are now sunken, pretty flower gardens located between the palace and the river. Next to them is the Banqueting House which will have to be the target for another visit.

The Pond Gardens and the Banqueting House

Lower Orangery Garden

We walked down the Orangery Garden to the Great Vine – apparently the oldest and largest grape vine in the world with its respectable 240 years, planted in 1768 – located in a green house close to the river but it was unfortunately not displaying any grapes this time of year.

We ended our visit with tea and scones at the Tiltyard Café. During Henry VIII’s reign this area was used for tournaments. In the 17th century it became kitchen gardens, supplying the palace with fresh produce.

Hampton Court Palace is well worth a visit and you can even take a boat ride here from either Westminster Pier in central London or from Richmond. That will probably be our chosen transportation on our next visit.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

High and low marks of London restaurants and bars

I’ve recently been trying different restaurants, bars and clubs across London, including the areas of Richmond, Chiswick, Earls Court, Kensington High Street, SoHo and Camden Town. There have definitely been both high marks and low marks and I’ll share a few of my experiences.

High marks

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in SoHo – this club is celebrating 50 this year and is a fantastic hang-out for a Friday night. My boyfriend and I went there on a whim, ended up chatting with a German man named Peter in the queue and sat together with him in the club. It has some tables for regular dinner closest to the stage and then there are a number of benches and long tables stretching like shelves along the sides of the room where you can order cocktails, wine, beer or snack food, but most importantly, remain focused on the performance on stage.

On Friday when we were there they had two different bands playing and a jazz drummer who had his birthday sat in for a song. The first band had wonderful musicians but in the second set we were in for an even better treat: Sarah Jane Morris. If you haven’t seen / heard her, I can warmly recommend an evening of her music, which is not pure jazz, but rather a mix of rock / funk / jazz. She managed to totally mesmerize me within the first 30 seconds on stage with her amazing stage presence, charisma, warm and rich voice and by performing one great song after another. Check out for more info on Sarah and her music. I bought a CD – “Where it hurts” – and had Sarah sign it for me.

I was very impressed also with the impeccable sound at Ronnie Scott’s – compliments to the sound engineer. This club is a really nice and cosy place. Try it! Even the bouncers were polite and helpful.

Bingham Hotel in Richmond – this peaceful haven by the Thames, 5 min walk from Richmond Bridge, away from the busyness of central Richmond, hosts a terrace facing the river with stone tables and chairs on pebbles, making it look like a serene Japanese garden. They often have functions on the first floor and in the garden – wedding receptions, birthday celebrations and similar – but there is a very nice bar on the second floor with stylish sofas and a view over the river, well-trained bar staff and excellent service. Here you can enjoy a glass of champagne, a cocktail or afternoon tea and really relax.

Spring blossom in Richmond

The Pembroke on Old Brompton Road in Earls Court – this used to be a gay bar, but the place recently underwent a make-over and seems to have changed owners and clientele completely. Although I quite liked the slightly kitsch design with big chandeliers before, it is now a stylish bar with cosy lamps, a room further in with quite trendy wallpaper and a fireplace. It’s now a place where you can come in and enjoy a glass of wine, a beer or an Irish coffee while reading the Sunday paper or a good book and chill. They also serve food with a slightly more advanced menu than regular British pubs.


Tarantella Ristorante Pizzeria on Elliott Road in Chiswick – this is a very small and narrow place where you can look into the kitchen or have the chef watching you and taking notice of your needs before the waitress does. They don’t have a very extensive menu, the food is fairly simple in a typical Italian style, but surprisingly good for the very reasonable price you pay. Despite being an Italian restaurant with Italian speaking staff and menu, they had some sort of a Gypsy theme art on the walls and played salsa music through the loud speakers…

The Bollo House on Bollo Lane in Chiswick – a quite nice, welcoming and large bar in the middle of a residential area, with a nice circular ceiling with windows letting in light. They serve quite decent steak, burgers, fish and chips etc. Don’t go there on a Wednesday night though – it’s their big quiz night and it’s impossible to keep a conversation because it’s annoyingly loud and busy.

Floridita on Wardour Street in SoHo – this little Bohemian, café-style bar serves only fairly basic wine, beer and drinks, but the staff is friendly and you don’t have to dress up to meet friends.

Côte on Wardour Street in SoHo – a large French restaurant in two floors. This seems to be very popular, you’ll need to make a reservation; when we came there with friends on a Saturday evening, they were full. It was a quite nice place with linen table cloths and decent food, albeit perhaps a little touristy.

Low marks

L Restaurant & Bar on Abingdon Road, a side street to Kensington High Street – the so-called cocktails as well as the fish I ordered for main course were absolutely horrible. It's a pity because I thought the place had potential at the first impression: the staff was very friendly and welcoming, they played salsa music through the loud speakers (always makes a salsa dancer happy) and the restaurant area had very funky design, with a rather narrow inner room with dinner tables basically under a small loft which also had seating. The Mint Fizz I ordered was granted a wild card, but it reminded me of wind-screen washing liquid and I don't think it's supposed to. I don’t know what they had done to the poor fish and sadly it was accompanied by too hard potatoes and watery green beans. The main course was simply revolting. Eating and drinking well is too important to me, so this place will sadly not get a second chance.

The Canal Side Bar at Lock 17 in Camden Town – located next to the locks in the canal in Camden Town as the name indicates, this bar has a steady stream of tourists as well as local hippie Londoners. If the weather is nice and the windows open towards the canal in summer-time this can be quite a nice spot for a cool beer, but the length of time it takes to order at the bar on a typical Saturday here – the bar staff is quite slow and disorganized – and the poor food disappoints you. I made the mistake of ordering potato wedges with cheese and this was just the most pathetic bowl of shrivelled and dried potato “puffs” I’ve ever been served. It took them two minutes to bring the bowl out to the table, so I guess they had just heated the old wedges in the microwave – the cheese on top had not even melted properly.

Boat in the canal at Camden locks