Brian Viner: 'Henry VI gave Sir Rowland a licence to crenellate – a privilege overdue a revival'

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The Independent Online

Surrey might have its Hampton Court of Henry VIII fame, but here in Herefordshire we have an even more venerable Hampton Court, of Henry VI fame. Actually, its history goes back even further than that, because Henry's grandfather Henry IV gave the estate to Sir Rowland Lenthall, who'd very sensibly married the king's cousin, and was subsequently knighted at the Battle of Agincourt. Sir Rowland had the house rebuilt in 1427 and seven years later Henry gave him a licence to crenellate, which in my humble opinion is a privilege overdue a revival. Whatever, Sir Rowland's crenellations are still there, indeed Hampton Court is almost Disneyesque, a perfect manifestation of an American's idea of what a small English castle ought to look like, which is no doubt why it ended up in the hands of the Van Kampen family of Chicago, Illinois.

Robert Van Kampen was an investment banker who in 1984 sold his company to the Xerox Corporation, for $200m. That sale allowed him to devote his life to his other great passion, Christian fundamentalism, and he acquired Hampton Court on the basis that it would be used as an English outpost for his commitment to sola scriptura, the belief, as I understand it, that the word of the Bible is unimpeachable.

The extended Van Kampen family are similarly devout, by all accounts, and a few years ago, following Robert's death, they decided to put Hampton Court up for sale, intending to plough the money into their religious theme park out in the mid-west somewhere. I love the idea of a religious theme park, and have expressed before my hope that it has a Holy Ghost Train, and perhaps an altar-skelter, but in Herefordshire the upshot of the Van Kampens' decision to sell, for around £12m, was a great deal of uncertainty. Because to the everlasting credit of a family that evidently believes in everlasting credit, they had renovated Hampton Court's extensive gardens at tremendous expense, and opened them to the public. In a county containing some of England's lovelier gardens, Hampton Court's are among the loveliest.

Accordingly, there was great anxiety in this neck of the woods concerning Hampton Court's future. For about five years we heard all sorts of rumours, for instance that a rock star was buying it, and that it was going to be turned into a luxury golf resort, both of which would have sounded the death knell for the gardens as a public resource. But eventually the place was bought by Graham Lacey, a property tycoon and hotelier who is the majority shareholder in Millwall FC and also owns the world's largest tyrannosaurus rex skull, neither of which are necessarily what the good people of Herefordshire would look for on the cv of Hampton Court's new owner. Yet Lacey, so far, has done the county proud. Certainly the gardens have never looked better.

Better still, there is a new membership scheme, whereby access to members-only events will be offered to anyone paying a modest annual fee of £35, or £70 for a family. The inaugural one of these took place last Thursday evening, in the castle, which for the few of us who arealready members was an exciting occasion, since we had never set eyes on the Van Kampens' interior refurbishments. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is as perfect a representation of an English castle's inside as it is on the outside, with enough suits of armour to sink the Ark Royal, and on the walls so many mounted wildebeest heads, all with different expressions, that I was reminded of a funny but rather sad Private Eye cartoon in which a pair of tweedy aristocrats are gazing up at the stuffed head of a moose, who is grinning inanely. "He thought I was about to take his photograph," says one toff to the other.

Dinner for about 25 of us took place around one grand table, and the whole evening was splendidly handled by the new banqueting manager, a fellow by the name of Alex Grainger, who used to work for the Duchess of Rutland at Belvoir Castle, no less, and aims to develop Hampton Court as a wedding and party venue. I can't think of anywhere finer. If my daughter gets married when she is 30, that gives me 15 years to save up. For further details about hiring Hampton Court, near Bodenham in Herefordshire, contact Alex Grainger on 01568 797777.

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