Monday, March 15, 2010

Hampton Court Palace

One year, I made the mistake of buying family membership of the National Trust. I'm sure there are children who love visiting historic buildings, but I suspect that most are bored rigid and can't wait until it's time to visit the gift shop.

When I told my oldest son that we were going to Hampton Court Palace before visiting Grandma, he was nonplussed. "Do you know, Henry VIII used to live there!" I added, naively thinking that this would make a difference.

My son sighed and rolled his eyes.

I was just about to launch into my standard "Well we're going there anyway" routine, when I suddenly had a brainwave. "You do know that it's haunted, don't you? Look at this YouTube clip..."

By the end of the clip, my son solemnly concluded that "it must be true" and decided that on reflection, he would like to visit Hampton Court Palace.

I should have quit while I was ahead, but ended up over-egging the paranormal pudding to the point where both sons were in a state of mortal terror. My wife gave me one of her "Now look what you've done" expressions.

By the next day, my sons seemed to have forgotten their fear - I think they were too preoccupied with feeling travelsick - and I dared to hope that the visit would go smoothly.

It was still fairly quiet when we arrived and although I don't believe in ghosts, the oldest parts of Hampton Court had an incredible presence. As we entered the huge Tudor kitchen, I saw a strange, ghostly figure with a white beard, standing by the fire:

It turned out to be Warren - someone I used to work with at Waterstone's when it was still owned by Tim Waterstone. Warren didn't suffer fools gladly and could be spectacularly rude to customers that incurred his wrath. He worked on the top floor and I often remember people walking down the stairs in a stunned silence, unable to process what had just happened to them.

But when he wasn't assaulting the Daily Mail-reading Betty Shine fans, Warren could be great fun to work with. One day an extremely malodorous tramp entered the shop and started shouting at people in Welsh, before knocking over a display of books. Warren turned to the queue of customers and calmly said "Oh I do wish my father wouldn't visit me in the shop."

How did Warren end up working in Hampton Court Palace? Watching him talking to the visitors he seemed a different man: affable, relaxed and unfazed by even the most banal questions.

I almost didn't manage to speak to Warren. He had been cornered by a man with a strange face, who was asking him one question after another. Later I remembered that this very man had stopped me having another conversation with someone fourteen years ago, when I ran a bookshop in Twickenham. Now that is spooky.

We continued exloring the palace and by now, my sons were imbuing every unfamiliar noise and sudden change in temperature with ghostly origins.

Given my scepticism about the supernatural, I felt slightly hypocritical encouraging a state of semi-hysteria and was about to start backtracking with rational explanations when my wife appeared with a man in Tudor costume. "Look boys, this man works here and he can tell you all about the ghosts."

I cringed with embarrassment. I only have to casually wonder how old something is and without any warning, my wife will track down the nearest member of staff and ask them. I'm a man. I don't ask questions, even if it means driving around a ring road seven times.

To my surprise, the Tudor guard was more than happy to talk, albeit in a conspiratorial whisper:

"I've worked here 20 years and a lot of strange things go on here. Sometimes a strange smell will appear and suddenly disappear for no reason, other times it could be a noise, or someone tapping you on the shoulder when there's no-one else in the room. One time we saw some ropes spinning round..."

The boys were lapping it up, but had they learned any history? I don't know, but all I can do is expose them to as much of their heritage as possible so that they can get a better perspective on their own time.

As for the ghosts, perhaps my sons are right. Can you see the strange apparition in this photo?

Our visit concluded with a visit to the gift shop, where visitors could buy ye olde chocolate chippe biscuits and other traditional English "fayre", like this:

In my ignorance, I thought that tea wasn't introduced to Britain until the 17th century. I stand corrected.

I always become terribly grumpy in gift shops, appalled by the mass-produced kitsch that masquerades as "heritage". On the other hand, I remember the disappointment I felt as a child when someone gave me a tasteful, hand-crafted replica of a Tudor board game. You can't win.

1 comment:

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I LOVE Hampton Court Palace - like you say it has such atmosphere.

What a spooky co-incidence re your former colleague though sounds like he is happier in this environment.

Yes I prefer to imbibe the atmosphere rather than ask questions.