Magic Garden play area opens at Hampton Court

A new family play garden at Hampton Court Palace is set to become a "landmark destination" that it is hoped will draw thousands of new visitors. The Magic Garden, which opened over the Easter weekend, is built within the 300-year-old site of Henry VIII's tilt yard.

Martin Wiles, left, with Robert Myers and the Magic Garden dragon. Image: HW
Martin Wiles, left, with Robert Myers and the Magic Garden dragon. Image: HW

Landscape architecture firm Robert Myers Associates (RMA) won the competition to design the garden, commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces, in 2012. It specialises in designing contemporary landscapes in historic settings, but "we were rather amazed to win it", Robert Myers admitted.

"We've never done much children's play, but the brief was very much that this is a garden for children, with lots of playable elements that will subliminally teach them about history. But it's a garden with plants...not a playground with lots of garish coloured plastic."

Hampton Court was Henry VIII's playground and the Magic Garden mixes the Tudors' sense of playfulness in the garden with subtle lessons about the history of the palace.

The space has a strong overall structure, held together by a diagonal axis and a jousting pit mirrored by a large mount. It accommodates 500 people without feeling crowded thanks to multiple routes and different "subspaces" including a tournament ground, wildwood, mythical beasts lair, strange topiary garden, encampment and spiral mound, moat crossing and fern-lined grotto.

The five huge original towers would have been prime viewing spots for the jousting so the playground also features five towers, which children can climb, slide from and run between. King and queen towers overlook the jousting pit, where kids can dress up and fight with mock swords. The site made headlines in 2015 when one of King Henry's long-lost tilt yard towers was unearthed by archaeologists just outside the wall.

The garden's features play with the notions of royalty and status, while referencing stories of the palace and its inhabitants. It is also a counterpoint to the palace's formal gardens, with their aura of "don't walk on the grass, don't roll down the bank, don't climb the trees", Myers explained.

"This is where we want them to do all those things - roll down the mount, get in the water, really let off steam, but hopefully also pick up other things at the same time that reinterpret what they might have seen on that journey round the palace," he added.

Artists and craftsmen created various mythical and heraldic beasts to feature in the garden, including a 25m-long steam-breathing dragon by Andrew Tanser and a giant willow dragon's nest by Tom Hare. Play consultancy Snug & Outdoor was also involved.

Soft landscaping was done by the palace gardeners to RMA's plan, while Frosts Landscapes did the hard landscaping and managed the site. Frosts site manager Martin Wiles said the project was extremely difficult logistically and required careful planning thanks to strict rules around how work could be done on the historic site.

All materials were brought through a small gate from a road with no storage area, including 100 tonnes of boulders. Wiles likened the job to "trying to do a loft conversion through your letterbox". He added: "It's been very challenging but we like that stuff. It's technical. The entire job's been fantastic."

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