As 2020 draws to a close, Lucy Worsley – writer, broadcaster and Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces – shares her thoughts on the wonder of Hampton Court, the huge role our local community can play in securing its future, and why Christmas is such a special time at the palace for her.
Words: Lucy Donoughue
It’s all too easy, when you see it every day, to take the magnificence of Hampton Court Palace for granted. Flanked by the River Thames and Bushy Park, its spectacular mix of grandeur, history and horticultural brilliance attracts visitors from across the world every year. Amazingly, in 2019 alone, over a million people made their way to the beautiful building once inhabited by Henry VIII.
2020, however, has been a difficult and different year for us all, and Hampton Court has suffered the impact of Covid-19. Forced closure of the palace and its grounds has meant a steep decline in much-needed visitor generated income and there are concerns around the future of the palace’s offering.
So now, perhaps more than ever, is the time for our community to look again at the historical venue we’re so lucky to be able to refer to as ‘local’. To revisit the place we think we know, but have possibly only begun to scratch the surface of.
“When you stand in the footsteps of people from history, it’s such a special thing to do.”
Lucy Worsley, writer, broadcaster and Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, is by far the best person to talk to about our palace and inspiration for future visits. She’s deeply passionate about Hampton Court and the impact it can have on all who cross its threshold and she’s only too happy to share this with The Court Circular’s readers.
“It’s such a privilege to work there,” Lucy says, smiling as we begin to talk. “When I first started working for Historic Royal Palaces, I actually lived at Hampton Court Palace as I’d moved down from Scotland and didn’t have anywhere to stay.
“I spent my first night there in the Confectioners Office, Henry VIII’s sweet maker’s den, in the middle of the tudor kitchens. It was a February night, I was all by myself and when I looked out of the window I saw a courtyard full of fog - and it just felt like I was in another world.
“That’s what Hampton Court can do, I think,” Lucy shares enthusiastically.“It’s just thirty minutes away from London’s bustling Waterloo Station, but you can come along and find yourself alone in a part of the Palace that’s 500 or 300 years old and feel completely transported back in time.
“And when you stand in the footsteps of people from history, it’s such a special thing to do,” she continues. “It gives you a kind of sizzly, goose-bumpy feeling. It does to me.”
That special feeling has changed slightly over the course of this year, and Lucy found herself once again, alone in the corridors of Hampton Court, during a period of the palace’s closure. Determined to fly the flag for all Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy filmed a behind the scenes series for American channel PBS (under stringent Covid secure measures), and it was, she shares, a very different experience. “I found it really bittersweet. It was wonderful to be there once again, but sad because there were no visitors and my colleagues weren’t around.”
Lucy’s colleagues, and the palace’s visitors are now back and changes have been made to how the Court operates in order to keep everyone safe in these strange times. Booking before visiting is now essential, and fewer people are admitted to the grounds – which means there are greater opportunities to linger for longer by the tapestries in the famous Great Hall, in front of Henry’s ruby, sapphire and emerald encrusted crown – or, my favourite, the wondrous wine fountain.
“When you buy a ticket, or a membership, you are doing a charitable act.”
Lucy’s favourite place and time of the year to spend her days at the Court is in the kitchens at Christmas. “I get such an overwhelming festive feeling when I go into the Great Kitchen and the huge fire is lit, as it so often is around this time,” she muses. “But the thing that really sticks in my mind is the smell of cinnamon in the corridors at Christmas. We always dress the palace and decorate it.”
As Christmas spirit fills the Court, and the year begins to draw to a close, the team at Historic Royal Palaces will no doubt be hoping – like all of us – that 2021 will be a healthier, happier year than 2020.
If not, the economic impact of Covid could be catastrophic for elements of Hampton Court’s activity, and that’s why local support and membership could make all the difference.
“A lot of people don’t understand that Hampton Court is run by a charity, they think either the Queen pays for it, or their taxes do – and neither of those things are true.” Lucy shares, keen to address the misconceptions around the funding of HRP’s phenomenal buildings.
“Historic Royal Palaces is an independent charity. So when you buy a ticket, or a membership, you are doing a charitable act,” she says. “That’s what pays for the conservation and the work that goes on all the time.”
There are even more perks to being a member now, Lucy says excitedly, as lockdown has inspired a range of new initiatives to enable supporters to access the historic buildings virtually. “We’ve started a series of curated talks on the platform crowdcast, where I interview curators and colleagues from across the palaces about aspects of history and their own work. We’re bringing our expertise out through the digital mediums that we’re all getting more used to now, since lockdown happened.”
“The thing that sticks in my mind is the smell of cinnamon in the corridors at Christmas time”
While digital access to the Court is on the rise, Lucy is greatly cheered by the prospect of opening a number of new exhibitions at the palace itself in 2021, and plans are already underway, including for the splendid sounding ‘Gold & Glory: Henry VIII and the French King.’
After our conversation ends, I’m left with the desire to visit Hampton Court again – and I do, the very next weekend with my Godson. Lucy’s passion for our local palace is infectious and made me realise that there’s always more to explore and share when it comes to history, Henry and his magnificent Tudor residence on the Thames.
Annual membership at Hampton Court Palace starts from £55 and includes year-round entrance to Hampton Court Palace, Tower of London, Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, Hillsborough Castle and Gardens – as well as a programme of exclusive, behind the scenes member events including tours, lunches, lectures and more.
Memberships make great and long-lasting Christmas gifts, and couple, family and individual memberships are available.
Visit hrp.org.uk for more information.
Images of Lucy Worsley: Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces