Here's just the thing for young Valentines. A Middle-Age spread
Hampton Court can offer a wedding to remember, but it's not cheap. Ian White grabbed his ducats
Sunday 14 February 2010
Looking out over the meadow at the Herefordshire cows grazing in the late afternoon sun, it was as if the past two centuries had vanished into the mist rising above the river and the woodland beyond. A glance back into my room did little to shake off the feeling. No television, no phone, no mini bar, no internet, no bathroom and ... wait a minute, I'm sure I was told it had an en-suite bathroom.
Closer inspection revealed that the antique bookcase covering most of one wall had a small brass handle under one of its shelves. A cautious turn, and a push, opened a door to a cavernous, carpeted room with Victorian-style cast-iron bath. Hampton Court Castle is full of such intrigue.
The 15th-century Herefordshire pile predates its famous namesake by 80 years, though few of the thousands who flock to the palace in Surrey would have even heard of it. Hampton Court Castle sits on a tranquil 1,000-acre estate close to the River Lugg and the village of Hope Under Dinmore near Leominster. It has 12 acres of gardens, including a Victorian walled flower garden, a maze, and a beautiful sunken garden with secret passageway, waterfall and lake. The gardens in their present form have been open to the public for 10 years. They flourished under the ownership of American multimillionaire Robert Van Kampen, who bought the property in the 1980s. But, after his death in 1999, his family sold Hampton Court to finance a religious theme park back in the United States.
Nothing much happened (apart from a local panic when Ozzy Osbourne was rumoured to be interested in buying the property) until 2006, when Graham Lacey, a property tycoon and majority shareholder in Millwall FC, came to the rescue. In April 2009, he not only reopened the gardens and Orangery café, but also allowed tours access to the castle's state rooms and inner courtyard for the first time.
In years gone by, the castle and a handful of rooms could be hired for weddings and conferences. Now, Lacey has built on this legacy and offers 20 of the 24 bedrooms to wedding parties – most of them are en-suite and many have four-poster beds. Official marriage ceremonies can be held in the grand ballroom and the library or, weather permitting, under the courtyard's imposing archway. Receptions for up to 180 guests are accommodated in the ballroom and library. For larger affairs, with up to 2,500 guests, a marquee can be put up on the south lawns.
However, Hampton Court isn't one of those crenellated edifices spoilt by the drive to modernise; its interior is strictly period, which is why the palatial bedrooms are almost bereft of technology. It's a problem. Lacey's company, Sefton Group, doesn't want the castle's fairy-tale look ruined by telephone masts, but a suitably high-tech, low-profile solution is promised.
Let's be clear; Hampton Court is not a hotel. Sefton Group promotes it as a haven, available to hire by day and night. The retreat begins as you pass through the colossal, turreted gatehouse, drive through the park, and see the north side of the quadrangular castle rising up to meet you. This is the public "front" of the building, most of which has remained unaltered since the Middle Ages.
Once through the 600-year-old door and into the main gatehouse, turn left into Coningsby Hall, named after the family that occupied Hampton Court from 1535 until 1810. The hall was built for banquets by the Arkwrights, a "common" family who achieved great prosperity after its patriarch, Richard, invented the Spinning Jenny. As you walk between two long, fully laid tables, you feel the glassy stare of the stags' heads on the wall, along with suits of armour and ancient weaponry.
At the far end of the hall is a magnificent marble fireplace, installed in the late 1600s when William of Orange stayed. From there, a Bavarian-style corridor leads to the library and dining room. These south-facing rooms were once one and served as the great hall (the original site of the marble fireplace). Now the library, with its door disguised as book shelving, its grand piano and assorted chairs and couches round a welcoming fireplace, is the heart of the house.
As a resident of Hampton Court, you can't help but feel privileged – and that does come at a price. But regal, romantic and just a tad eccentric, this is surely a wonderful setting for a wedding. Take your favourite squeeze for the day tour before you pop the question.
How to get there
Exclusive use of Hampton Court (01568 797777; hamptoncourt.org. uk), from 11am to midnight, starts from £4,750 per day. Overnight stays at Hampton Court cost from £7,250 per night, based on double occupancy of 10 bedrooms and including breakfast. An event-planning service is available. The castle is open to day visitors from Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 5pm.
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