What it’s like to live at Hampton Court Palace

Lucy Denyer from The Sunday Times recently interviewed me about my life when I lived at Hampton Court Palace. Here’s the finished result…

‘When I started my job as chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces in February 2002, I moved down from Scotland and didn’t have anywhere to live, so for a while I stayed in Hampton Court Palace.  Any palace is basically like a really fancy apartment block, where the king has his flat and the queen has hers and the mistress has hers and all the courtiers have theirs, so the whole thing is split up.

At Hampton Court there are 114 apartments and the one I stayed in to start with is called the confectioner’s office, which was part of Henry VIII’s Tudor kitchens. It’s used by the Landmark Trust most of the time, but was empty because it was February; it was the coldest place I’d ever been in. The first night I was there, I looked out of the windows and saw nothing but courtyards full of mist; occasionally, one of the interpreters would walk past in their Tudor costume. It really was like going back in time.

I was only in the confectioner’s office for a couple of weeks before I moved to the barrack block, a 17th-century guards’ building. I had neighbours there, so there were other people after dark, which made it a bit less spooky. It had single-glazed casement windows, so the wind whistled in, and funny little closets off the bedrooms. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived that had two bedrooms and it meant I had a room of my mine to write in. It’s where, looking out at the statue of Apollo, I drafted the proposal for the first book I ever had published. It was called Cavalier and was about the 17th century, and I wrote it in a 17th century building.

Hampton Court Palace is a real community. There are hundreds of people coming in each day to work, so it has a villagey feel and is very sociable. I was only 29 and it first it was very daunting to a newcomer. But once a week my friend Amanda would come and stay with me, and as time when on and the summer came, I began to settle in. We had a Christmas party in my little flat, and sometimes the cooks would stay in the flat next to mine – they work in the great kitchens and spend all day cooking a big Tudor meal, and when they stayed in the apartment next to mine, I would sometimes hear Tudor singing late at night.

Of course, everybody knows everybody else’s business, and you to have to come through the security gate to get in, so if I arrived home late, everybody would know about it the next day. And everybody who lives at Hampton Court gets used to being visited unexpectedly by the custody warders for burning toast. If the fire alarm goes off, they have eight minutes to respond or the fire engine comes out and if you call it out unnecessarily you have to pay a fine.

Ultimately, it was a little claustrophobic. But all of that was really outweighed by being able to look out of one window at the river and from the other to see the rose garden, which has white statues in it: in the summer at dusk, you could see the white statues glimmering through the bushes and it was just like being in Italy. It was fabulously melancholic. And it was brilliant to be able to spend the evenings and weekends walking around, just looking at this new domain I had to get to know. One of the things that’s said about Hampton Court is that it’s only time and not space that separates you there from the past. I knew I was just a little ghost, passing though. I was glad eventually to get a place of my own, for privacy, really. But it was a marvellous, magical place to live.’

3 thoughts on “What it’s like to live at Hampton Court Palace

  1. Diane Mix

    Was this Fish Court? We’ve been fortunate to stay there 13 times since 1999 (and twice at the Georgian House). Becoming a “part time resident” of HCP has become a very big part of every vacation we take. We live in Los Angeles and I look forward to our UK trips ever year. I had to laugh at your comment about being cold there. On one trip custody called the palace plumber out at 1 a.m. to get the Fish Court radiators working. I was mortified. I was so saddened to learn that Fish Court will no longer be rented out after 2014. I made our reservations for this year for October 6-10. If you are around the palace, perhaps you’d like to join us for tea! 🙂

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  2. Julie Marsden

    Very interesting to watch your video on your stay there Diane on youtube. I have never been to Hampton Court, but I hope to go one day 🙂

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  3. Simon Hedges

    I too have stayed at Fish Court, and it’s a terrible shame it’s not available to rent any more – and no reason why was ever given, that I know of.

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