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Battle dragons in Hampton Court Palace’s new Magic Garden children’s attraction

PUBLISHED: 09:26 03 June 2016 | UPDATED: 10:07 03 June 2016

The Dragon in the Magic Garden (Photo David Hedges, Historic Royal Palaces)

The Dragon in the Magic Garden (Photo David Hedges, Historic Royal Palaces)


A magical children’s play area is the latest exciting addition to Hampton Court Palace’s world-famous gardens – but it made the news long before this month’s official opening, with a fascinating find unearthed during the digging, as Claire Saul reveals here...

An aerial view of Hampton Court Palace showing the extensive grounds (Photo Historic Royal Palaces)An aerial view of Hampton Court Palace showing the extensive grounds (Photo Historic Royal Palaces)

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2016


Already boasting a world-famous maze, a record-breaking grapevine, three National Plant Collections, 650 acres of historic parkland, 8,000 trees and the world’s largest flower show, the Hampton Court Palace gardens are set to take centre stage for yet more reasons in 2016.

As well as the various events and displays marking the 300th anniversary of former head gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and other notable palace gardeners across the centuries, there will also be creative topiary to look forward to, an Elizabethan joust and even the appearance of that English favourite, the garden gnome (to find out more about all that, see the website at

Perhaps the most exciting development of all though is over in the north-west area of the palace grounds, where other little folk will be able to enjoy an imaginative new garden. Officially opening this month, the bespoke Magic Garden evokes the rich history and legends of the Tudor court in a unique and innovative way. The six-year development of the project, designed by six-time RHS Chelsea Flower Show gold medal-winner Robert Myers, involved a team of curators, historians, gardeners and play specialists, using the latest research on learning in a heritage environment.

“Children have long enjoyed coming to Hampton Court and playing in the gardens, but now this is an area created just for them,” says Dr Tracy Borman, joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity in charge of the palace. “We had lots of advice from leading play specialist Tim Gill, who has worked extensively on heritage sites, to ensure that everything we have developed is playable and playful. But it is not just some hi-tech adventure playground, it is very much tied to the history of the palace and it is a beautiful garden as well.”

A Tudor adventure

Among the many highlights, The Magic Garden entices with battlements to storm, towers to besiege and even a ‘wild wood’ inspired by King Henry VIII’s passion for hunting. A secret grotto awaits discovery and a ‘perspective pergola’ reflects changing fortunes in the tumultuous Tudor era. Play tents, sand and water activities will appeal to the youngest visitors, while adventurous elements such as slides and high walkways are more suited to the upper end of the two-to-12 target age group. All design aspects in the garden have historic influences, relating back to the earliest era of the royal palace when beliefs in magic and mystery abounded, says Dr Borman.

“Hampton Court was Henry VIII’s pleasure palace and The Magic Garden is located at the heart of his tiltyard, where he had his sporting ground, so it was a natural fit,” she continues. “The Tudor period is so rich in inspiration. We have mythical beasts in the garden that were heraldic symbols for Henry and his wives and we even have a huge, fire-breathing 
red dragon that is stealing all the limelight! This was inspired by the 
red dragon that can be seen flying above Henry in a painting called The Field of the Cloth of Gold, displayed here at the palace, which depicts a visit he made to meet King Francis I in France.

“In due course, once the garden is more established and we can see how people are using it, we will also be developing trails and special events, so that we can draw out individual elements such as the dragon.”

An exciting discovery

While The Magic Garden was always intended to be a place full of surprises, the team behind its creation got a surprise of their own during preparations for the new attraction when they stumbled across an exciting find. During the digging work, the remains were unearthed of one of the lost ‘tiltyard towers’ – which, coincidentally, are depicted in the new Magic Garden – promising to solve a centuries-old mystery.

“During the height of Henry’s reign, five towers are known to have existed in this area of the palace,” says Dr Borman. “Located in the walled tiltyard, these grand banqueting houses were used by the most elite members of court to enjoy and observe jousts and tournaments on major feast days and anniversaries. However, when these tournaments became less popular, they eventually fell into disrepair, and only one tower survived – which can still be seen today in the aptly-named Tiltyard Café. For many years, historians have pondered over the precise location of the others – and now, for one of them at least, they have their answer.”

During the ensuing excavations of the mysterious tower, among the discoveries so far are a green-glazed tile floor and several gilded-lead acanthus leaves – attesting to the fact they were grand, intricately-decorated buildings.

“The tiltyard tower that has been discovered is just by The Magic Garden,” continues Dr Borman. “It is lovely that it is so close and we will be continuing with quite a major archaeological dig around that. Hopefully, we should now be able to pinpoint more accurately the location of the three remaining towers, although it is by no means a precise science, as Channel 4’s Time Team discovered when they failed to find them in 2009.”

The latest finds

Interestingly, this isn’t the only new discovery to have been made in recent years – in fact, fresh archaeological discoveries are regularly made at the palace even now, five centuries since its first red Tudor bricks were laid. For example, a storage room full of items for the annual Florimania event was discovered to be the location of the chocolate kitchen, dating from 1689 and now part of the visitor display. Elsewhere, investigations into a squeaky floorboard in one of the offices used by 
the Royal School of Needlework led to the discovery of the foundations of Tudor apartments enjoyed by Henry’s queens.

“It is all so fascinating, you can’t help but wonder what else there is, hidden from view at the palace,” adds Dr Borman. “There are discoveries being made here all the time and that is what makes it so exciting to work here. There are always new things to see as a visitor too – new exhibitions or interpretations, Georgian or Tudor, above or below stairs, which give you a totally different experience pretty much every time that you visit Hampton Court Palace.”

And now youngsters visiting the palace gardens will get a chance to be enchanted by it all too – knowing that the ‘Tudor’ towers in which they play today are located right where the original structures once stood.

• Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey KT8 9AU. Admission for the palace, The Magic Garden and the maze (online rate): adults, £19.80; children under 16, £9.90. Admission for The Magic Garden and the maze only (flat rate): adults, £7.70; children, £5.50. Check opening times before visiting. For more details, call the 24-hour information line on 0844 482 7777 or see the website at


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