Hampton Court Palace Kitchen Garden
by Lucy Purdy
Where horses once thundered past, kicking up earth during the dark chivalry of a jousting contest, now sit plump pumpkins with burnt orange skins, beneath the late summer sun. They take their place alongside peas, salad crops and herbs in a spot only a stone’s throw from the banks of the River Thames. This is the Hampton Court Palace Kitchen Garden, newly restored and packed with heritage varieties – a thrill to the senses and a slice of history to boot. Journalist and gardener, Lucy Purdy uncovers the gardening secrets of the Georgians.
Just what did it take to feed the Georgian kings and their courts? That was the question posed to Kitchen Garden Keeper Vicki Cooke when she arrived at Hampton Court Palace late last year to take on this restoration project.
The area had been Henry VIII’s tiltyard or jousting arena but by 1702, as Vicki explains, as we meander between the beds, with passion for royal tournaments waning, Queen Anne ordered the site to be dug up and planted with “severall varietys of Eatables, the most proper for Her Majesty’s Use”. From then on, the garden, which at that time sprawled across six acres, was used to feed the monarch and the court, not only at Hampton Court, but in royal residences across the capital.
This summer, Historic Royal Palaces turn back the clock and return the garden to its eighteenth century heyday, recreating the pathways and planting patterns established on the site by the Georgian Palace gardeners. The plot, based on historic evidence and John Roque’s plan of 1736, is now as true to the period as possible, down to the rare heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables being coaxed from the soil.
“We’ve tried to be as historically accurate as possible, so all the crop types we grow were grown or eaten in those times. Tomatoes and potatoes were just beginning to get popular in that era, so we’ve grown them to show they were around but weren’t as prevalent as they are today,” explains Vicki.
Herbs and vegetables familiar to the Palace’s Georgian cooks have been painstakingly re-established, from Italian celery to borage, and from skirret [a root vegetable with a cluster of bright white roots] to swelling parsnips. Apricots, nectarines and even peaches are set to return to the garden in their original fan shapes, while the garden’s very own melonry, complete with hot beds of straw and manure, has also been recreated.
Vicki describes this as a dream project for the gardener. “Often you take on gardens and you moan at the person who came before you for planting things too close together or whatever, but as I’ve been involved from the beginning, I have only myself to blame!”
As part of the planning process, before the team of gardeners finally got their hands on the plot in February, Vicki spent time trawling through books at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library London, which specialises in botanical art and garden history. “They gave us pillows to rest the books on so we didn’t crack the spines!”
One aspect, Vicki admits to having been surprised by, was the diversity of salad crops that were around at the time.
“We think we’re being dangerously contemporary by having radicchio in a salad, or a bit of rocket, but they’re listing rocket, chicory, endives, basil, coriander; they’re eating a lot of really exciting vibrant, punchy flavours in their salads. If you ask most people what they remember of salads from their childhood, they will only mention cucumber, tomato and iceberg lettuce.”
“But I think it was the Head Gardener to James II who is quoted as saying that a salad should consist of no fewer than 35 ingredients. Some of these historical recipes were so ornate! They used wild flowers as well as all these different leaf crops: nasturtium flowers, violet flowers and cowslips too, and made these fantastic arrangements with a carved turnip at the centre!”
Potential growers of heritage varieties need to know which to choose and how to use them, but Vicki promises that rewards await those gardeners willing to give them a try. She points out the virtues of ‘Bijou’ giant sugar pea – a variety with huge, edible pods – and those of Magnum Bonham, a “classic Victorian pea” which climbs very high and crops over a couple of weeks instead of all at once. These are just some examples of the many benefits that growing heritage crops can bring.
“At that time, you would have had local varieties being grown and developed as the seed adapted to the soil types and conditions,” she explains. “Now it’s a global marketplace. A lot of the time, what gardeners get to grow are the repackaged versions of agricultural seeds which are suited to agriculture but not to a back garden. With Magnum Bonham you’re getting a vertical crop as opposed to modern peas which are often down there trailing in the mud with the slugs.”
Seed saving was predominant at the time too, and gardeners at the royal kitchen garden would have been no exception.
“Again it’s something that’s a bit of a forgotten art in our gardens,” said Vicki, “but the first seed companies were only established in about 1820. Before then, there would have been a few seed merchants but if you wanted seed, you saved it yourself.”
As we walk, she gestures to a row of coriander which has been left to go to seed – a scented cloud of green and white.
Optimum use of space was also key.
“Gardeners at the time were really good at using space. We have artichokes here but they are quite small so we’ve been intercropping them with rows of herbs. Not an inch of space would have been wasted.”
Space-hungry crops such as broad beans and cabbages would have been grown in the fields surrounding the Palace. The kitchen garden would have been centre stage, for the most highly prized ingredients. “Things fit for the royal table,” as Vicki puts in.
The melonry, nestled at the back of the garden and using the breakdown of straw and manure beneath the growing section to provide warmth for the fruits, was created to satisfy royal demand for ingredients which were out of season. “A sign of prestige,” Vicki notes.
“The peasants ate seasonally, but if you could afford it, you would eat other things. Seasonal eating has sort of gone the other way now,” she laughs.
Beetroot abounds, and chard too, referred to at the time as ‘Italian beets’. Vicki holds up a strikingly beautiful beet called Chioggia with its concentric rings of pink and white, and then pulls a long, cylindrical variety from the soil, followed by an orange beet: “My colleague’s been making beetroot crisps and she said these are the best!”
In terms of the workforce once used to manage the garden, there would have been about 20 gardeners across the six acres so this would have been a high cost, very professionally-run operation. As well as those gardeners, there would have been women weeders too -drafted in on a casual basis and paid less than the men – and apprentice boys who would have gone around catching butterflies or squashing caterpillars.
The kitchen garden makes for a fascinating visit, not least because the history of the place comes alive, a new aspect fitting into place with every plant I see.
The garden is open to the public free of charge and the Palace hopes to be able to run heritage vegetable-growing classes here in the months to come, reconnecting the great kitchens of Hampton Court with the locally sourced produce which once stocked them.
Vicki’s enthusiasm is infectious and I find myself transported back in time as I run my fingers through rows of herb and feel the soil beneath my feet.
This is history revealing itself, vegetable by vegetable: season by season.