Hampton Court Gardens: A Stroll Through Time
by James Goff, Student ASLA


Nestled along the banks of the Thames River in southwest London, England is an enormous estate with a rich history: Hampton Court Palace. The estate is a 30-minute train ride from downtown London via the Waterloo Station to the Hampton Court Station. From there, it is a short walk north on a bridge over the Thames River to the palace entrance.

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A view of the southern end of the palace, looking north from the Privy Gardens. Copyright © 2009 Tim Adams. All rights reserved, used by permission.

I visited the palace gardens in the spring of 2009, and was in complete awe of their power and beauty. There are over 60 acres of gardens on the estate. The grounds were opened to the public in 1838, and over 180,000 people visit them each year (Chernega 2009). The landscapes include three different garden styles: The Wilderness, The Great Fountain Garden, and The South Gardens. Not only do the scale and design of each style differ greatly from one another, but each garden represents the different eras and peoples who have lived at the palace and their impact on the surrounding landscape. This article describes why the grounds at Hampton Court palace are so special, and can evoke different emotions in each of the three distinct spaces.

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Aerial photo depicting the location of the different gardens in relation to one another on the grounds. Copyright © 2009 Google Earth Imagery. All rights reserved, used by permission.

History of the Palace Grounds

In 1514, Archbishop of York, Thomas Wolsey, moved into and began the reconstruction of the small manor house that rests on the site of the current palace (Longstaffe-Gowan 2005). Wolsey, who was a favorite of King Henry VIII, was allowed to inhabit the site for fourteen years until the King became very fond of it and asked Wolsey to vacate. This began two centuries of continuous royal occupation of the palace and estate, during which time various members of royalty would leave their distinct mark on the palace and grounds. These included King Henry VIII, King William III, Queen Mary II, King George III, and King Charles II. But while the royal occupants were involved in designing for the grounds, some of the most influential landscape designers in the history of the United Kingdom also made their mark on the estate. Among these were Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Henry Wise, and George London. These collective impacts are still evident hundreds of years later.

The Unique Styles of the Three Hampton Court Palace Gardens: The Wilderness, The Great Fountain Garden, and The South Gardens

The Wilderness

The Wilderness section is the first garden that visitors encounter as they enter the palace grounds. It was completed about 1686. This garden is not what Americans would typically imagine for a wilderness scene or the woods. Instead, it is a rather open space with deciduous flowering trees, shrubs, and flowers dotting the sparsely planted landscape. In the spring, the highlight of The Wilderness is the brilliantly colored bulbs that compose the garden’s central lawn.

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The Wilderness section in the early spring with natural plantings of flowers and trees composing this landscape. Copyright © 2009 Ian Isaacson. All rights reserved, used by permission.

The massed display of naturalized spring bulbs is one of the first designs of “wild gardening” that became popular in the 1870s (Longstaffe-Gowan 2005).

When walking through The Wilderness section, the viewer can appreciate that the space is designed on a human scale. The garden is somewhat enclosed by walls on each side, and the trees create a roof-like structure over the space. However, with the long sight lines and the sparseness of the trees, this is definitely not an intimate-scale space. But even with the vast open areas within The Wilderness, it is not open enough to dwarf the user of the space.

The characteristic that distinguishes this garden from the others on the grounds is the lack of formality. Nothing is symmetrical or geometric with the exception of the walking paths. This is a more natural organic design style that one would often associate with a typical British landscape.

Located adjacent to Wilderness Park is a space on which George London and Henry Wise left their most influential mark at the palace. The two created a geometrical pattern of yews, boxwoods, and hollies that forms a maze with over a half mile of paths. The maze takes up a third of an acre where the plants may reach seven feet tall (Green 1974). This is a very interactive space that is a favorite of visitors.

Great Fountain Garden

Upon leaving the organic design style of The Wilderness, there is quite a dramatic change in the landscape. The next section is the highly formal, geometric Great Fountain Garden, which is directly east of the palace. It has a heavily influenced French design style, with many features derived from Andre Le Notre, the French landscape designer who also worked at Versailles.

John Rose, who worked under Le Notre, was actually credited with the design of The Great Fountain Garden. Rose completed the garden during the 1660’s under King Charles II (Sands 1950). Among Rose’s key accomplishments in that garden was the installation of the Great Canal.

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The Great Canal in the Great Fountain Garden seemingly stretches to the horizon and continues the formal French design. Copyright © 2009 Tim Adams. All rights reserved, used by permission.

Rose also installed a semi-circle of lime trees that link the converging ends of the great avenues that lead to the palace and form the pattie d’oie (goose foot). (See the right side of the map in Image 2, above, that depicts this radiating shape on the east side of the palace.)

There is a surreal feeling in walking through the Great Fountain Garden. The massive, cone-shaped yew bushes that are carefully manicured annually, tower over visitors to the space.

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The massive yew bushes dominate the Great Fountain Garden area. They are planted in a geometric fashion following the paths from the palace. They are pruned annually to maintain the triangular shape. Copyright © 2009 Tim Adams. All rights reserved, used by permission.

The spacious lawns and wide avenues that lead directly to the palace also dwarf visitors, making it a site of monumental scale.

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Avenues in the Great Fountain Garden provide long sight lines back to the palace and reflect the power and wealth of the Royal Family. Copyright © 2009 Tim Adams. All rights reserved, used by permission.

These elements (canals, avenues, and vistas) are characteristic of Le Notre’s formal gardens, which revolutionized design in other parts of Europe. An example is Long Water Canal in Wrest Park in Bedfordshire that was installed for the 12th Earl of Kent (Longstaffe-Gowan 2005).

The South Gardens

South of the Great Fountain Garden, the visitor enters the South Gardens. This space includes The Privy Garden and The Pond Garden. Although the scales and sizes of these gardens differ from the Great Fountain Garden, they also reflect geometric and formal design styles.

The Privy Garden or the King’s “private” garden is a two-acre sunken garden that was the first of The South Gardens created by Henry VIII. Even though the Privy Garden is a very spacious, open area, there is more of a human scale feel to this space because it lacks the massive trees and long vistas to the palace that are evident in the Great Fountain Garden. Instead, there is much more detail in the flowers, bushes, and paths that contribute to the comfort level of the garden.

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Formal design in the Privy Garden is on more of a human scale. Copyright © 2009 Ian Isaacson. All rights reserved, used by permission.

The Privy Garden as it now exists is a reconstruction of William III’s garden from the turn of the eighteenth century. It includes a great parterre filled with geometric plantings of boxwoods, gravel paths, and a pond with a fountain in the middle of the garden, which is all framed by a pair of terrace walks looking down into the garden (Longstaffe-Gowan 2005).

Still south of the palace and just west of the Privy Garden is The Pond Gardens, which are also presumed to have been laid out by Henry VIII. It is a rather small terraced garden that is composed of lush plantings of flowers and enclosed by a brick wall with an arborvitae screen on top. While the site was off-limits to visitors when I was there, it was clearly the most intimate garden on site even as viewed from the gate entrance.

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View of the intimate Pond Gardens, which were originally used to breed and hold fish for the consumption by the palace residents. Copyright © 2009 Ian Isaacson. All rights reserved, used by permission.

This space originally included a breeding pond and two smaller holding ponds, which were used to supply fish for the royal table (Sands 1950).

Other places of interest on the south side of the palace include The Great Vine by Capability Brown, and artistic iron work in the gates by blacksmith Jean Tijou (Cannon 2002). Brown planted The Great Vine in 1768, which still produces over 500 pounds of grapes per year (Chernega 2009). It is the oldest known vine in Great Britain, and possibly the world.

Final Thoughts

Almost all of the original designs in Hampton Court Palace have been altered in some way so that very little is as it was a couple hundred years ago. The grounds today are an accumulation of over two centuries of the royals’ input into the aesthetics of the grounds on which over a thousand people have worked.

The Hampton Court Palace gardens are truly phenomenal to visit and will engage all users of the site with their uniquely diverse landscapes. Whether one is a landscape designer, horticulturist, or simply a garden admirer, the different design principles used in these gardens can affect one’s perception of garden landscaping and appreciation of how gardens such as Hampton Court have inspired many American landscape designs. Viewing the gardens can help one understand the evolution of design styles, and how much longer people have been practicing design than here in the U.S.

James Goff, Student ASLA, will graduate of the landscape architecture program in the school of planning, design, and construction at Michigan State University in 2010. He visited Hampton Court Palace in the spring of 2009 on his study abroad trip. He may be reached at: goffjam1@msu.edu.


I owe a special thanks to Bob and Nancy Chipman for their generous donation to the Landscape Architecture Study Abroad Program. The donation helped make the trip to England a comfortable and enjoyable experience that greatly expanded my horizons on design.


Cannon, John. 2002. Hampton Court Palace. The Oxford Companion to British History.  
Oxford University Press.

Chernega, Carol. 2009. Hampton Court Palace Garden. Bella Online: English Garden

Green, David. 1974. The Gardens and Parks at Hampton Court and Bushy. Her
Majesty’s Stationery Office London.

Green, David. 1956. Gardener to Queen Anne: Henry Wise (1653-1738) and the Formal
Garden. Oxford University Press.

Longstaffe-Gowan, Todd. 2005. The Gardens and Parks at Hampton Court Palace. Tien
Wah Press.

Sands, Mollie. 1950. The Gardens of Hampton Court. Evans Brothers Limited.

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