Kingston-upon-Thames is where England began.
That’s just one thing I found out about Kingston last weekend when I was there for Traverse 2015 – my first travel blogging conference. I’ll be writing more about Traverse itself later, but for now I wanted to share my experience of the charming and historical town.
Kingston – or to use its full name, the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames – is a must-visit for anyone interested in English history: the first Kings of England were crowned here and the nearby Hampton Court Palace was the residence of the infamous Henry VIII.
Today, the town makes a great daytrip from London.
Photo credit: otama
Located on the edge of Greater London (around 26 minutes’ train journey from Waterloo), Kingston itself is a bit of regional hub and feels like a thriving independent town, as opposed to a mere suburb of the capital. This means the town centre has plenty to explore. (Admittedly, I didn’t have long enough to see everything, but here are some personal highlights.)
First off is the art installation Out of Order on Old London Road, which has become the unofficial symbol of Kingston. The tipped over telephone boxes have been there since 1989, but the sculpture still feels innovative and quirky. And if Instagram is anything to go by, it looks like I’m not the only one who liked it – 51 likes can’t be wrong…
Next up is the market place, set around the pretty Market House. Just off the square, but somewhat hidden, you’ll find All Saints Church, where we had our welcome reception for Traverse. The church is actually where the very first King of England was crowned in the 10th century and subsequently many descendants were coronated there, too. The surviving Coronation Stone can be seen outside the Guildhall.
Being a local hub, Kingston is also a great destination for shopping (a quick trip to Topman was first on my agenda), with plenty of high-street shops, as well as the looming Bentall Centre and some boutique independent retailers, which I didn’t have to see unfortunately.
If you’re looking for places to eat in Kingston, I headed to Wafflemeister on Clarence Street for a lunchtime boost (and a cheeky phone charge) and had the best waffles I’ve had since Bruges. I can also personally recommend the Wagamama on High Street…
Hampton Court Palace
Of course, the star of the show in Kingston is Hampton Court Palace. The palace was originally built for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a personal favourite of King Henry VIII in 1514. However, several years later the cardinal fell out of royal favour and Henry took the palace for himself, making several lavish extensions.
Today, the palace and its gardens are open to the public and serve as a fantastic museum of English history, with a focus on the early life and reign of Henry VIII, court life in 16th century England and the later reign of William III (William of Orange).
Photo credit: Amanda Slater
The palace itself is absolutely huge. I was advised to set aside at least three hours, but I was pushed for time and so made a bit of a whistle-stop tour. (I sacked off the gardens straight away because it was pissing it down).
Luckily, you’re given a two maps, a guide and a free audio guide on entry so you can make the most of your time at court. I would also recommend taking a Tudor cloak for your visit, if only to take ye olde selfie as I did. (I think even the children were embarrassed for me.)
Henry VIII’s apartments
First up, head to Henry VIII’s apartments. Here you’ll get a general introduction to the everyday lavishness of court life via your audio guide. The first stop on the tour is the incredible Great Hall, where Henry entertained guests. The cavernous room is genuinely jaw-dropping (or at-least gasp-worthy) and has the most intricately built wooden ceiling – which I couldn’t take a decent photo of to save my life.
Photo credit: Matt Brown
Top tip: look out for a decorative H & A emblem that was accidentally not removed after the beheading of Anne Boleyn. (Your audio guide will point it out.)
Another highlight part of the apartments was the Great Watching Chamber, where courtiers would sometimes wait days to catch a glimpse of the King and try to push a decree under his nose. My favourite part was a small alcove featuring several elaborate floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows, including a small portrait of the main man himself.
You can also see the Royal Crown as part of the apartments, but this was closed for a Church service on my visit.
Young Henry VIII’s story
This was definitely a must-see. While Henry VIII’s apartments were interesting in their own right, the history wasn’t quite as accessible as it is in this contemporary and interesting exhibit on the early years of Henry’s reign.
The story is told through the relationship between Henry himself, his first wife Catherine of Aragon and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s right-hand man. Each of the three is represent by their own throne, which you are encouraged to sit in.
There are also interactive elements dotted throughout the exhibit, including this cartoon-strip portrayal of Henry’s invasion of France, which was genuinely pretty funny.
This is arguably the most interesting part of the infamous King’s reign, as he begins to lose faith in the Pope and the institution of marriage and Anne Boleyn enters the picture. Definitely don’t miss this part of the palace.
I also had time to visit the kitchens, which are worth seeing if you are interesting in the life of servants at the court.
To get to the palace from Kingston, you can walk along the river (unless the weather is anything like it was on my visit), take a quick cruise with Turks Cruises, or you can take the not-quite-as-stylish 111 bus from Cromwell Road.
Entry to the palace and ground is admittedly a bit steep at just under £20, but there is enough to keep you entertained for hours. There is a small discount if you book online.
Overall, I had a lovely time in Kingston. Hampton Court Palace was definitely the stand-out favourite for me. It was fantastic to explore such an important period of British history again – it felt like years since I’d been somewhere so interesting. Just a shame the weather was so naff – oh well!