They are singing in the the Watching Chamber, butchering in the Boiling Room, and dancing in the Clock Court. This is Tudor Christmas, Nineties-style
A fire-breathing man on stilts, dead animals on platters, women in masks and a noisy group of students from Michigan in padded blue anoraks. No, this isn't a scene from the latest horror film, but what you might expect to see later this month as part of Hampton Court Palace's Tudor Christmas Revels.

Intrigued by the idea of festive Tudor customs, my family visited the Palace this time last year. Although present-day Hampton Court Palace owes much of its appearance to Christopher Wren, it was the parts influenced by Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII that we had come to see. Alasdair was doing the Tudors as part of the National Curriculum, and our day out gave him a lively experience of life in the time of Henry VIII. From the cooking smells of a Tudor feast to the sounds of period wind instruments, we were wafted and serenaded back in time.

There is a lot to do at the Palace, so handing over what seems like a large sum of money at the cash-desk should be accepted with good grace. Renowned tightwad that I am, I have to admit that it is money well spent when the kids are moaning about having to go home and are dragging me to go and visit another gallery.

Completed in 1540 with tennis courts, gardens, a chapel, Great Hall and an enormous kitchen, Hampton Court far outshone any other palace in Europe. Henry, we were told, liked to impress, and it is not really a disappointment that only some of his spectacular des res survives. You can still get the feel of life in Henry's times. Especially with the Revellers popping up in every corner.

We stumbled on some open-air theatre in the opulent confines of Clock Court. Here, in the middle of three courtyards, and in what feels like the heart of the Palace, you find the 16th-century Astronomical Clock that gives the court its name. The exterior of Henry's Great Hall forms another side and then your eye pushes you forward into the architecture of Wren and the colonnade he designed to lead into William and Mary's state apartments.

Amongst this harmonious clash of building styles a jester suddenly appeared, noisily, on the cobbles. His act - which involves much falling and tumbling and more than a few fiery moments - balanced on whether or not he could master the stilts and, then, whether he could succeed in breathing fire. Just make sure you stand well clear at the crucial points - even more so if you don't fancy being dragged into the circle by a guy wearing a coxcomb and with a good line in risque Tudor mirth.

The real pleasure of wandering about the Palace at this time of year, though, is that you can wander into any part of the building but still make it back in time to enjoy particular, scheduled events. We visited the kitchens, especially, on several occasions. Here, the costumed staff were preparing a feast, which they later sat down to eat. The huge log fire and turning spits provided a welcome bit of warmth as we watched the preparations, and you can interrupt the Tudor workers at will and they will explain what they are doing, impeccably in role.

Then there's the famous maze. We broke out of the Tudor period for a midday romp in the grounds and to race each other through the shrubby labyrinth. I tried out something I had remembered from Blue Peter many years ago. Since then, I had harboured the secret of navigating my way through Hampton Court maze. And so I put it to the test. And it worked, but I'm not going to reveal it here. My children were impressed - after they were annoyed that I beat them to the middle. Thank you, John Noakes.

After lunch we did some dancing in Clock Court. A troupe of terpsichorean revellers guided us through a number that had a crowd of us holding hands and going in all directions. Later, we followed the musicians up to The Great Watching Chamber to hear them perform authentic Tudor melodies and songs. Caught up in a festive musical spell, we found ourselves following the troupe through the state rooms of Henry's former palace.

We ended the day back in the kitchens, impressed with the fact that in Henry's time they catered for a household of 1,200 people. At the time, we discovered, 75 per cent of the diet was based on meat, so it was no huge surprise when the kitchen courtyards led us to The Boiling House and a reconstruction of a Tudor butchery. If you are vegetarian, look away: the carcasses of a deer and a boar confront you if you peep into one of the rooms. My younger son, Hugh, lingered here, marvelling that in one year, the Tudor court consumed 1,240 oxen and 8,200 sheep.

Watching the staff as they finished their meal in the Great Kitchens was like being in a Breugel painting. Learning about Tudor games and trying out wooden toys was fun. Dancing on the uneven cobbles in a centuries- old quadrangle was exhilarating. Exchanging jibes with a jester was unnervingly daring. But rubbing shoulders with the kitchen staff was the stuff of living history.

The Revels at Hampton Court, 27 Dec-3 Jan, are included in the admission charge (0181-781 9500). pounds 10 adults, pounds 7.60 students and senior citizens, pounds 6.60 under 16s, under-5s free, family ticket (two adults and three children) pounds 29.90. Mon 10.15am-4.30pm and Tues-Sun 9.30am-4.30pm (not 24-26 Dec and 1 Jan). Trains run twice hourly from London Waterloo to Hampton Court

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