John Carter takes in Hampton Court Palace and enjoys a river trip on a short break to Kingston upon Thames
Grand, imposing and full of splendour, Hampton Court Palace was once the perfect stage for Henry VIII to show off his power. It was here the King would hold court with Europe’s most noble figures, plying them with the finest wines and the most magnificent feasts money could buy.
Today, as you step into the Great Hall where giant tapestries still hang from those Tudor times, it’s impossible not to be swept up in the history and imagine what it would have been like to be part of those decadent banquets that could last for days on end.
How fitting then, that this was one of the places we visited during a two-night stay in nearby Kingston upon Thames, during which we were made to feel every inch the King and Queen. We’d chosen the White Hart Hotel in Hampton Wick as our base and it set the scene perfectly. True to the theme of our few days, we were allocated one of their recently-refurbished bridal suites — this one named after Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr.
With its elegant four-poster bed, chaise longue, adjoining sitting room and giant bathroom with possibly the most powerful shower I’ve ever experienced, it was an absolute treat.
Already feeling spoiled, we summoned a carriage — sorry, a taxi — to take us for afternoon tea at nearby Warren House.
A beautiful Victorian house set within immaculate landscaped gardens, the stately home shone magnificently in the late afternoon sunshine.
As we took our seats on the terrace, a waiter brought champagne and offered a selection of teas as we tucked into chocolate-covered strawberries, delicate finger sandwiches, beautiful pastries and miniature scones with clotted cream and a choice of preserves.
Afterwards, it seemed only fitting to round off this quintessentially English afternoon in style with a game of croquet and a promenade around the manicured gardens.
Hampton Court Palace was on the itinerary for the next day and there’s no finer way to arrive at this palatial home than by boat, as Henry and his various conquests would have often done all those years ago.
Turk Launches have been operating on the Thames for more than 300 years, and with the sun shining again for our 35-minute cruise from Kingston to Hampton Court, we took time to relax and enjoy this most scenic part of the river, admiring some of the luxury properties edging the water. One glittering glass-fronted affair was on the market, but at more than £1m you’d need a King’s ransom to buy.
At least at the palace we could go back to pretending we were royalty.
Audio guides are free and an absolute must to learn all about the royal apartments, kitchens and the early years of Henry’s reign. But the most enjoyable part of the day was following a humorous but educational re-enactment charting Henry’s love for Catherine Howard and the young lady’s dilemma as she weighed up the king’s advances against enjoying the fruits of a somewhat more promiscuous life. Scenes were played out through the day and we found ourselves obsessed with seeing what course the path of love would take. If only we could have warned ‘Young Cat’ that in time her actions would cost her her head!
No trip to Hampton Court is complete without a visit to the maze but, even though we succeeded in a relatively quick exit, we still missed out on parts of this fascinating property — we’ll be heading back to properly explore the grounds, the chocolate kitchens and King William III’s apartments.
Back in Kingston we’d worked up a Henry VIII-sized appetite and we were definitely spoilt for choice. Just 12 miles from central London, this historic market town has undergone a rejuvenation in recent years and now presents itself as a top-class destination for shopping, arts and culture, and dining.
There’s a real vibrancy to the place and a freshness that can be felt wherever you walk, a feeling best experienced at the Riverside, where more than a dozen bars and restaurants cater for all tastes, all of which were buzzing even on a Monday night.
In the High Street is Jamie’s Italian. I’d heard plenty of positive feedback about Jamie Oliver’s chain of restaurants and was keen to find out if the experience was indeed ‘pukka’.
A delight: Warren House
For starters we agreed on a sharing plank crammed with cured meats including fennel salami, pistachio mortadella, prosciutto and schiacciata piccante. Loaded with buffalo mozzarella, pecorino and chilli jam, and a selection of pickles and olives, it was a cut above most first courses.
For mains I eventually plumped for lamb lollipops, which I could pick up and rip apart with my teeth, à la Henry. My partner had been dreaming of a juicy steak since visiting the Royal kitchen earlier in the day and, despite plenty of other temptations, couldn’t be swayed from a rare 8oz hunk of rump. The polenta chips (covered in parmesan) and primavera salad (peas, broad beans, rocket and asparagus with ricotta and Sicilian orange dressing) were as good as they sounded.
Sadly it meant no room for desserts, but with delights like raspberry and chocolate-rippled pavlova, and Amalfi lemon meringue cheesecake, a return visit to one of Jamie’s outlets is definitely on the menu.
Our final day in Kingston meant ... shopping.
The Bentall Centre is a modern arcade packed with shops to suit all tastes, and with a giant John Lewis, the Eden Walk Shopping Centre and all the top high street chains, you’d better arrive with a giant bag of gold coins.
Despite our over-indulgence at Jamie’s and another delightful cooked breakfast at the White Hart Hotel, a few hours of shopping left us wanting yet more food. It was the perfect excuse to head back to the Riverside for the chance to try some Lebanese dishes at the newly-opened Comptoir Libanais.
Comptoir Libanais on the bank of the Thames in Kingston
Here I was forced to step out from my usual food comfort zone but was happy to try some of the recommendations of manager Gane Ordevski. Having consumed enough alcohol to sink a ship over the previous two days, lemonade was the order of the day. My partner tried Toufaha (apple, mint and ginger), while I was recommended Mira (fresh mint, lemon, lime and orange blossom lemonade).It was lovely to embrace the Lebanese experience with these two thirst-quenchers.
A mezze platter for two, packed with baba ghanuj, hummos, tabbouleh, falafel, lentil salad, cheese sambousek, pickles and pitta bread, would have easily sufficed for lunch. But as was the theme for these never-to-be-forgotten few days, we followed up with mains to make the short walk back to our hotel more of a waddle than a walk.
My Mana’eash (Lebanese flat bread) was a definite hit, topped with spicy Armenian lamb sausage, halloumi cheese and tomato. And my partner did her very best to get through a spiced salmon dish with vermicelli rice but was beaten by the sheer size of the feast.
We considered taking a doggy bag home to feed the servants, but then realised our time as King and Queen of Kingston was coming to an end. It was just as well — my Henry VIII-sized stomach was coming on nicely.
- Tourist Information: kingstonfirst.co.uk
- Accommodation: Rooms at The White Hart, Hampton Wick start from £75 per room, per night including breakfast. Reservations: call 020 8977 1786/ whiteharthoteluk.co.uk
- -Jamie’s Italian: 0203 326 4300 or go to jamieoliver.com/italian/Kingston
- -Comptoir Libanais Kingston: 0207 657 1966 or go to lecomptoir.co.uk
- -Afternoon Tea: At Warren House starts from £23.50 for the Classic Tea and £38.50 for the Champagne Tea. Call 020 8547 1777 or go to warrenhouse.com
- Attractions/activities: A river cruise to Hampton Court with Turks Cruises starts from £6 per adult or £4 per child for a single and £7.50 per adult or £5.50 per child return. Contact turks.co.uk
- - Tickets to Hampton Court Palace are £17.05 for adults and £8.52 for children. Visit hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/