Hampton Court and Henry VIII came up North, with Tudors on Tour bringing the Historic Royal Palace experience to Tatton Hall in Cheshire. But how does Hampton Court fare in a feild? Not that well, until we met some brash and tipsy ladies who changed our perspectives.
Initially, we were taken aback, as the Tudors on Tour was an area sectioned off at the end of what is usually an overflow car park feild. The ticket included a visit to Tatton farm to see the vintage breeds, some of which would have been common in Tudor times, and free entry to Hampton Court itself, but the main attraction seemed underwhelming.
Having been to reenactment events and fairs before, first impressions past the faux Hampton Court entrance were disappointing for £16.50 per adult. Empty space, very few people in costume visible, and little to see beyond neat marquees and striped tents with signs for "carpentry" or "Tudor theatre". The large modern geodome design tent right by the entrance really didn't help evoke a Tudor feel.
We started at the traditional crafts tents, and it became obvious that there was lots to see, but mostly hidden inside tents, behind small crowds trying to watch via the openings. I assume this was in case of bad weather, but while it was just occasional drizzle, and later sunshine, it would have been better to open the tents up, allowing more people to see the demonstrations.
We wandered into a tent, and received a history shotgun to the face from a young lass who banged right into her learnt-by-rote lesson about quills and ink. She was keen, but obviously a bit nervous, and not experienced with the public. This made me worried about making any eye contact with staff, but other reenactors we met were all relaxed, professional and confident.
Once we'd worked out that the secret was to pop inside the tents, it still didn't feel worth the money, or that there was much we wanted to engage with. There were activities and talks promoted on boards outside some tents, at specific times, which made it feel that the fun was regimented. Also, we found no single "plan your day" timetable or leaflet, which made it hard to decide what to do next. We did see kids carrying event maps they could get stamped to collect a "prize", but didn't know if they had times on, or where they came from. The question was asked "Why don't we have them? At what age do you stop having fun?".
We watched a well delivered archery display, then the much promoted jousting, and stopped for an extortionate coffee and burger. This was where our day changed...
One of the large marquees revealed a mass of Lego, with kids and parents creating a joint effort Tudor patterned wall, and free leaflets with Tudor building designs in Lego available to take home. It was a joy to see dads get stuck in. We joined a short queue to try on replica costumes, and a staff member offered to take our photo with our cameras. The next large marquee was a sea of card cut outs and crayons, with simple instructions to make coats of arms and shields, and staff on hand to encourage and help.
We skipped that activity and joined the waiting throng (ladies from Warrington included, gleefully harassing the Duke they fancied) to train in courtly dancing, being a jester, or being a soldier. Opting to be soldiers, myself and one gent joined the kids as all the other adults were relegated to "pages, holding your goods and chattels". We were taught to stand to attention and present arms, shown why a low stance is good for your fighting balance, and then were presented to King Henry VIII himself, who made us all yeomen of the guard. The kids, gent and I all enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.
From here we popped into the theater tent, just in time to see the results of local community outreach from Hampton Court, the highlight of which was kids enthusiastically blowing fanfares on home made trumpets. The applause they received was cheerful and genuine.
Our final stop was the "pop up palace", the aforementioned geodome style tent. Lauded on signs as taking you inside Hampton Court to help solve a mystery, we did not expect the seamless 360 degree video projection we were met with. Showing different rooms of the palace, actors filmed on location gave facts (Hampton Court got through 300 barrels, or 1,500 bathtubs of wine a year) and set challenges. Kids and adults alike responded to the recorded actors by yelling, moving to one area of the tent or another, bowing, and dancing, all as instructed, to help prove that Henry VIII was spending too much.
It was an amazing use of technology, and pitch perfect for family groups and playful adults.
All in all, we had a good day, and it was certainly worth the money when you take into account the craft activities we could have done, the hour and a half we also spent at the farm, and the future trip to Hampton Court proper. It did require a shift in mental gears though, and would have been a great disappointment had we not met two big kids who effectively gave us permission to "play". Having come home and checked their website, it's described as a "family festival" and I'd say that without a family in tow, you had to become kids to fully engage with the event.
I expect anyone wanting a real historical day out would have struggled, as pageantry and activity ruled, with fact only really available by patiently waiting in small crowds craning to see experts do hands on crafts. For anyone with kids, I think they have formed some lifetime memories of the best bank holiday ever.