Designing The Magic Garden at Hampton Court Palace by Robert Myers

Designing The Magic Garden at Hampton Court Palace by Robert Myers

When I first heard about the competition to design a new garden at Hampton Court Palace I knew immediately that it was the project for us.

It was the chance to design a completely contemporary space in a wonderful historic setting, something my landscape architecture practice specialises in. But this project particularly appealed to the little boy in me. This was to be a space for adventure and outdoor activity – somewhere to run, climb, explore and hide in – as well as to be a flexible setting for experiencing elements of palace life in a playful way. A garden in which to prepare a feast or take part in mock cavalry combat; a space for jousting, archery, quintain or performing in a play; a place for falconry demonstrations or digging for archaeological relics.

Located within part of Henry VIII’s former tiltyard, The Magic Garden embraces the rich historical, cultural and mythical legacy of the Palace to deliver an innovative landscape of discovery that is unlike any other. Woven through the whole layout are ideas exploring routes to power, hierarchy and status, display and secrecy, illusions of grandeur and the swiftly changing fortunes of the royal court. Stories of the Palace and its inhabitants are referenced in the fabric of the design creating a sense of occasion and identity.

Hampton Court was Henry VIII’s ‘pleasure palace’, where he could indulge his love of jousting, tournaments and other sports.  Littered with mythical beasts, heraldry and dazzling state rooms, it has a magical, fairytale-like quality. The Tudor king set about creating a magnificent Tiltyard there in 1537, when his third wife Jane Seymour had taken up residence at the palace to await the birth of their child.  Although he had been bitterly disappointed so many times before, Henry confidently anticipated that this time he would have a son.  And he was right.  Edward was born at Hampton Court on 12 October 1537 to great rejoicing.  The Tiltyard Towers were decorated with Prince of Wales feathers to celebrate.  There is no record of the Tiltyard itself being used until 20 years later, however, by which time Edward was dead and Henry’s elder daughter Mary was on the throne.

For the new 21st century garden, my team and I developed a strong design upon which a series of character areas are layered. These include a tournament ground, wildwood, mythical beasts’ lair, strange topiary garden, encampment, and a spiral mount with moat and grotto.

The rich historic environment of the Palace provided endless inspiration:  the wildwood evokes the hunting grounds that Henry VIII knew and loved, and also provides the perfect place for a spot of hide and seek; a perspective pergola plays with visitors’ sense of perspective but also reflects the changing fortunes of the royal court - one moment you are high in the King’s favour, the next you are under threat of a treason charge. Outsized thrones and chairs dotted along the pergola reflect changing status and fortunes.

Henry had a series of ‘Tiltyard Towers’ built in the Tiltyard area during the 1530s. Used as vantage points for spectators of his tournaments, they were like miniature palaces in themselves, complete with banqueting suites and withdrawing chambers.  We recreated five of them in The Magic Garden, each with a particular theme for exploration and learning.The aerial walkways between three of the Towers are one of the most exciting aspects of the garden, teetering high above with spectacular views of the palace and gardens. Although there were no such walkways in Henry’s day, the historical references can be found in the form of the supporting steel poles, shaped like Tudor lances.

We already had substantial experience of working with artists and craftspeople to commission site-specific art and sculpture; in The Magic Garden we could let our imaginations fly, and one of the most enjoyable aspects was working with artists who have created various mythical and heraldic beasts which occupy the garden:  Andrew Tanser  designed a steam-emitting head for the 30 metre-long dragon, as well as a panther, yale and unicorn. Harry Gray created a stone lion that magically disappears and reappears,  Chris Bailey’s work included a carved griffin and falcon and Tom Hare,  a fantastic giant dragon’s nest in woven willow.

We incorporated playfulness and magic into every aspect of the garden. It has been designed as a relaxing and stimulating environment, with spaces to pause and rest and places that are truly active and adventurous. Our aim has been to create a garden full of beauty, an essence of escapism and an exciting setting for learning, interaction and expression through exploration and adventure.