Hampton Court is about to go on the open market with the estate agents Knight Frank.
Hampton Court is about to go on the open market with the estate agents Knight Frank. Before you start fretting about the possibility of such an important part of Britain's heritage winding up in the hands of Ozzy Osbourne, or someone else rich enough to buy it and turn it into a private home, I should add that this is not the Hampton Court on the banks of the River Thames, but the lesser-known Hampton Court on the banks of the River Lugg.
You are still entitled to fret, however. "Our" Hampton Court was there long before Henry VIII's Hampton Court, in fact its foundation stone is said to have been laid by Henry IV, when he was plain, or plain-ish, Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Hereford.
If it were in the Home Counties, there is no doubt that there would currently be a right old hue and cry about saving it for the nation. As it is, hardly anyone outside Herefordshire has even heard of it, let alone cares about its future.
In this neck of the woods, however, we care very much. Hampton Court is a magical place, thanks largely to the vision of a chap called Ed Waghorn, the estate manager, who over the past 10 years has masterminded the transformation of featureless meadows into gardens of immense charm, complete with a yew maze, a wisteria tunnel, a sunken garden, a kitchen garden, and a water garden with an elegant waterfall that children, notably my children, can stand behind and get utterly saturated without having any dry clothes to change into.
Still, while the little darlings play (some would say rampage) to their hearts' content, parents can take sustenance in one of the finest country-house cafés I know. Hats off to the American owners, the Van Kampen family, who gave Ed Waghorn the funds to do it all.
The Van Kampens - who run an organisation called Sola Scriptura, its lofty purpose "the afformation of the authenticity, accuracy and authority of God's word, the Bible" - are selling up because they wish now to lavish their considerable money and energy on their religious theme park, the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida. I love the idea of a religious theme park. If it doesn't have a Holy Ghost train, it should. And I respect the Van Kampens' desire to offload Hampton Court, which offers them no return on their huge investment, not beyond a warm glow of satisfaction.
But these are worrying times for all those who cherish the place, and cherish the fact that even on Sunday afternoons in the height of summer it gives off only the faintest whiff of commerce. The gardens are run at a small profit, the house at a loss, but until now none of that has particularly mattered. Even if the next owner wants to keep it open to the public, however, it would surely have to become much more commercial.
Still, Ed Waghorn, who has more reason than anyone to cherish Hampton Court, is sanguine. Although there have been dark rumours that the grounds are to be parcelled up and sold off to local farmers, he is hopeful that Knight Frank will advertise it as a whole. And he can't imagine anyone actually wanting to live in the splendid, castellated house, which has more than 100 rooms, and is currently hired out for functions (with the proviso, issued by the teetotal Van Kampens, that alcoholic intake must be relatively modest).
On the other hand, before the late Robert Van Kampen turned up with his chequebook, Hampton Court was lived in for approximately 600 years. Ozzy Osbourne, or someone like him, would be following in a venerable tradition. But I would hate to give them ideas.
Radio Five Live spent last week broadcasting from the sticks, and as part of the excitement, invited listeners to define the word "countryside".
Some suggestions were sober - "the countryside is any place with fewer than two people per square kilometre". Some were wry - "the countryside is where people have 'Save British Farming' stickers in the backs of their German cars". Some were sweet - "I was a literal-minded child, I used to think the countryside was the coast".
But I think the one I liked best suggested that the countryside is where people's second vehicle is a 4x4, as opposed to Hampstead Garden Suburb, where it's the main family car.
There's a lot of truth in that. Of course, there are mums round here who deliver their kids to school in Range Rovers, but at least they have an excuse: there's every chance they might have to negotiate a mudslide or a snowdrift, which tends not to be the case on Highgate Hill.
I don't know what my own definition of the countryside would be. Any place where you can hear mooing, baa-ing or clucking from your bedroom on a Sunday morning, perhaps, without having switched on The Archers. But living in the countryside also means embracing small-town life. And for a nice definition of small-town life, I have my wife to thank.
She was in Ludlow last week, chatting to a chap at one of the market stalls. She happened to mention that she had overrun the hour she had paid for in the municipal car park, and was a bit anxious about falling foul of a traffic warden. "No, you'll be all right," he said. "I've just seen her go home."
By Brian Viner
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