We visit a restored kitchen garden at the west London palace.
When ‘food’ is mentioned in the same sentence as 'Hampton Court' what generally springs to mind are Henry VIII’s massive Tudor kitchens, groaning with hogs heads, venison and enough pies to satisfy an army. An army that, when not actually fighting potential invaders, spent much of its time playing at it, jousting in the tilt-yards round the back. But if Henry was happy to live on a diet of red meat and machismo, by the time the later Stuarts took over, they were ready for some veg.
Queen Anne was unimpressed with tilting. It hadn’t been fashionable for years. The foreign invaders she was most interested in were the exotic new edibles arriving with every merchant ship.
King Hal’s jousting fields were ripped up and turned into six one-acre, up-to-the-minute kitchen gardens. They were given plenty of walls to provide warmth and shelter for tender new delicacies such as apricots and peaches, and plenty of room for Her Majesty’s every other veg-related whim. Expensive luxuries like potatoes, tomatoes and runner beans. Tender peas, fresh from the pod, not the dried up pebbles that peasants ate. Asparagus, squashes, fancy salad. A lot of fancy salad.
The gardens produced horticultural baubles, edible novelties and actual food between 1702 and 1840, when the palace ceased to be a Royal residence. They were relegated to market nurseries, then ornamental grassland before ending up as a putting green.
Historic Royal Palaces has reinstated one of the six gardens, using old paintings, letters, a plan from 1736 and The Retired Gardener, a 1706 magnum opus that discusses crops ‘suitable for a gentleman’.
Kitchen Garden Keeper Vicki Cooke is in charge of researching and sourcing original varieties, strange old perennials and near-defunct strains of vegetables that were once commonplace. Her last job, with the Heritage Seed Library, came in handy. “I arrived with my pockets full,” she says. “With their permission, of course…”
Walking through the mellow red brick walls of the rose garden (heavily scented at this time of year) into the new Kitchen Garden, the first thing that strikes is its 'low-ness'. We’re used to seeing ornamental vegetable gardens full of pergolas, lattice-work and arches, and it’s slightly odd to see everything so 'ground-level'. Terracotta rhubarb forcers and wicker plant protectors as sketched by John Evelyn are about the tallest part of the garden.
Part of this is, of course, due to its newness; the taller plants are yet to flourish, but we’re looking at an era before fancy-archways; before all the crazy gadgets and interesting 'fertilisers' of the High Victorians, their predecessors were not beyond experimentation. "We wouldn’t actually want to try some of the things they did," says Cooke, "like injecting the stems of peaches with mercury to drive out insects."
Instead they’re going for traditional methods such as simple wigwam beanpoles, fruit trees espaliered against walls and a series of hot melon beds: low hazel frames with a thick layer of fresh manure underneath the soil to heat the fruit enough to ripen.
If Hampton Court’s kitchen garden at the moment is anything to go by, our ancestors lived on salad. James II’s gardener claimed one should contain no fewer than 35 ingredients and it’s Cooke’s dream to be able to serve superior salad the Georgians would have known. Chicory, endive and lettuce jostle with forgotten strains such as hartshorn, costmary, rampion, tripmadam and the unappetisingly-monikered scurvy-grass. A veritable voyage of discovery – if you like salad, of course. The veg will be used in the cafe and they eventually hope to have a little produce stall.
This is a garden to visit and revisit as the seasons wax and wane. Vicki Cooke may only have a team of two as opposed to the armies of gardeners of the past, but like her forbears, she will be growing produce year-round. The good news for repeat visitors is that it is free to visit; you do not need to buy a ticket to the palace to go in. And if you’re local, she’ll be looking for volunteers to help her with a few Georgian-style chores…
Hampton Court Georgian Kitchen Garden will be open daily from 25 June, 7am-8pm (summer) 7am-6pm (all other times) Free. Access to the formal gardens and Maze are included in the normal price of an admission ticket.
By Sandra Lawrence