Just fifteen or so miles outside of London in the village of Molesey is Hampton Court Palace, once owned by Cardinal Wolsey before being taken over by Henry VIII. This is where legend has it that Katherine Howard, under arrest for adultery, escaped her guards and ran through the long gallery in an attempt to reach her husband, the King, and beg his forgiveness (her efforts failed, and she was soon beheaded).
Cornelia and Emily, along with Otis and Maud Skinner, visited Hampton Court in 1922, and I made my second visit there last week. Culled from their experiences and mine, here are some tips on planning the perfect trip to the Palace, from those of us who didn’t get it quite right.
Thanks to Maud Skinner’s savvy perusing of Muirhead’s Guide Book (the Frommer’s of its day), she and the rest of her foursome traveled from London to Hampton Court by coach – as in stage coach (or more correctly, mail coach), not coach as in the Anglican word for “bus”.
“One rode on the swaying top of a tally-ho behind four spanking greys, while Lord Somebody drove. This opportunity for displaying four-in-hand skill was, we learned, a pastime of the peerage and a few horsey American millionaires who, in the interests of tradition, kept up the old mail-coach service between London and Hampton Court.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
What sounded like a charming mode of transport to the Palace proved to be rather more harrowing than what the group had bargained for. Add to which the fact that, sitting atop the coach (and not inside it), they got rained on along the way. But in the end, Emily, Cornelia, Maud and Otis made it in good time to Hampton Court.
Mercifully, this tourist experience is no longer offered, not that I would have felt conflicted about whether or not to travel in this fashion myself. I had already gotten it wrong by taking the riverboat to Hampton Court when I visited the Palace for the first time back in the early 1990s.
Oh, yes, it does sound picturesque, traveling by boat, and it is, for a while. But this ferry down the river inexplicably takes anywhere from three to four hours, something I didn’t know when I hopped onto the boat that day, expecting it to whisk me down the Thames in short order to Hampton Court, where I could spend the day.
Instead, I got there with 50 minutes left until closing. I raced through the Palace, practically matching the speed of poor Katherine Howard in the gallery. I didn’t get to explore the grounds, let alone the maze, which I had been hoping to do, because of Cornelia and Emily. Even as early as the 1990s, I wanted to walk in their footsteps.
Travel tip: Central London to Hampton Court Palace by car, 40 minutes. Train, 45 minutes. Bus, one hour. Any of them will do. Just no boat. Or horse drawn mail coaches.
Cornelia and Emily don’t go into too much detail about their tour through Hampton Court Palace, but they are effusive in the impression it made on them, from the magnificent public rooms to the kitchens with “the forests of chimney pots”, which are all still there, possibly in the same sort of display that the girls would have seen them in.
I was thrilled to have more than 50 minutes this time to tour the Palace, and I poked my head into every nook and cranny that wasn’t marked “Private” or “Staff Only”. I took pictures of tapestries, and architectural details, and stone passages where lords and ladies, as well as pages and chambermaids, would have walked. A photo that quickly became my favorite is a selfie I took in one of the hallways, which appears to have a couple of green orbs floating in it, right around my neck. Skeptics, call them dust or whatever you like. I know they are spirits of those from a different time who are showing themselves in my photo, even making an effort to coordinate with my blouse. You can tell by looking.
Although I’m sure Hampton Court was a lovely place to visit in the girls’ day, I have to think they would have enjoyed in far more today. Audio tours, good food to be had at the restaurants, and multiple, excellent gift shops. The kitchen gift shop was my favorite, and it took a tremendous amount of restraint for me to not purchase the enchanting set of measuring spoons they had for sale.
All of the Palace and its grounds is a treat, from the perfectly manicured formal gardens to the extensive lush and luscious flower beds, to the indoor tennis court, which is still used today by those belonging to what I’m sure must be a pretty exclusive club. I explored every bit of it and, just like Cornelia and Emily, managed to do it without coming down with what they call “museum legs”. Throughout the day, I thought of them (and Maud and Otis too), knowing their eyes had fallen on all of these same, remarkable things.
“And then we came to the maze, or labyrinth. It was my idea to go into it.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner
This time it was my idea to go into it, and I whispered to Cornelia and Emily that they were coming with me, and that everything would be all right. I would get us out.
You see, Cornelia and Emily went into that famous hedge maze which had been at Hampton Court for hundreds of years… and quickly proceeded to get lost. There was no one else in there that day to help them out. There were only Maud and Otis, waiting for them on a bench outside of the maze, who could hear the girls, but not tell them how to get out. Emily and Cornelia were lost in the maze for 45 minutes (during which there was a torrential rainstorm), before a member of staff climbed onto a platform and shouted instructions to lead them out.
I certainly didn’t want a repeat of the girls’ misfortune, which was entirely possible because the weather on the day of my visit matched theirs: sunshine with periods of fast moving rain showers. As a precaution, I had the good sense to take a picture of an aerial view of the maze, that happened to be on the sign outside the entry (by the way, I had to pay to enter the maze – I don’t recall the girls mentioning that they were charged for this pleasure).
Yes, very smart of me to take a picture. What would have been even smarter was if I had checked to make sure the picture had actually taken and was in my phone (turns out it hadn’t, which I discovered only after I was well into the bowels of the maze). My healthy faith in my navigational ability and my memory had already been wiped out in just a few short turns along the hedges, and I quickly began to fear that I was about to recreate Cornelia’s and Emily’s experience.
Travel tip: Don’t go into the maze without taking a picture of the aerial photo of it first.
Then in one lucky turn, I found myself at the exit, which was only steps from the center of the maze. With extreme satisfaction in having reached both, I put on an air of nonchalance as I breezed out of the labyrinth, in case anyone happened to be nearby to witness my escape.
Right near the exit, tucked away in a small dead end of hedges, was a set of steps with a small platform on it, where staff members could stand and call out instructions to lost tourists, just as someone had done for Cornelia and Emily. And just outside the exit was a long hedge with an inset carved into it, which held a lone bench, probably in precisely the same spot where Otis and Maud had sat waiting for the girls.
In 1922, after the girls had emerged from the labyrinth, they and Cornelia’s parents left Hampton Court Palace. Cornelia describes, “Drenched and soaked, we scuttled across to a quaint-looking inn which hung precariously over the green bank of the Thames.” I took my exit from the maze as my cue to leave the Palace as well, even though I had escaped the rain.
It was pretty easy to sort out which might be the inn Cornelia describes, as there is only one that fits the bill. Directly across the street from Hampton Court Palace is The Mitre Hotel, which has the same name and roughly the same appearance as it did in 1922, with the restaurant being located at the far end of the building, more adjacent to the hotel than part of it. When I arrived, I found a sign stating that the restaurant (now called the “Riverside Brasserie” was closed, but that the bar downstairs was open. So I ventured down the stairs to a nice, airy space with a large patio right on the river (where I took the opportunity, after hours of walking, to stick my feet in the cold water).
Travel tip: After a full day at the Palace, stop in for a drink (or more) at the Riverside Brasserie just across the street. A great place to refresh one’s sore tootsies.
Though I was disappointed that I wasn’t where my 1922 traveling companions had gone for tea, I decided to stay for a bit and have a drink. Which led to a conversation with a couple of members of the staff (it was the middle of a rather slow afternoon at the bar). I asked them if there was a fireplace in the restaurant upstairs. I didn’t know if they looked surprised because I knew this, or just because I was asking such a weird question, but the manager said, yes, there was. I explained the reason for my question, and she offered to take me upstairs to see the restaurant. Once I had finished my drink (and soaking my feet), I took her up on the offer.
Things were almost identical to how Cornelia and Emily had described them. The configuration of the entrance had been changed, but other than that, it could have been 1922 in that room. “Tables were set, but there was nobody to wait on them. A fire was laid in a vast fireplace but it wasn’t going”. Exactly. A match I would call perfect.
Postscript to the day: On the train back to London, I met a very interesting woman named Ysanne, who gave me a copy of her book called, “The Time Catcher”. Though her book is about “how to time your actions to turn challenges into opportunities”, the title seemed to fit in well with my own journey.
Below: Lords and ladies made of Tyvek populate a royal cards room; me in the hall with a couple of orb friends; emergency stairs hidden within the maze; from the bridge, a view of the Riverside Brasserie (formerly the Mitre Bar) today; the Mitre Inn, circa 1920s; a refuge from the weather for Cornelia, Emily, Otis and Maud.