The winding history of the Wilderness garden at Hampton Court Palace

With the gardens at Hampton Court Palace and Hillsborough Castle now back open to the public, it’s so wonderful to see people enjoying our outdoor spaces once again.

Of course, these gardens have been providing access to beauty and nature for centuries. Here, Gardens and Estates Manager Graham Dillamore delves into the winding history of The Wilderness garden at Hampton Court Palace, exploring how generations of monarchs and designers have all shaped and reshaped this one corner of the palace.

Around 1531, on the site of the current Wilderness, a team of gardeners set about creating what was then called the ‘King’s New Orchard’, planting 200 young oak and elm trees, 400 apple trees, 600 cherry trees, and a handful of hollies. Part of the area was laid out as a ‘pleasure ground’ with a pond, an arbour and a large circular banqueting house, all connected to the King’s Privy Orchard by a drawbridge over the dry moat. Much had been completed by 1599 when Swiss scholar Thomas Platter visited Hampton Court and was evidently impressed, writing: ‘not only are taste, vision and smell delighted, but the gladsome birdsongs and plashing fountains please the ear, indeed it is like an earthly paradise’.

Drawing by Leonard Knyff, 1702.

During the 1680s, changes were made to the Old Orchard by Charles II or his mistress, Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, and this new space was initially known as the New Plantation. The area was divided into small sections separated by gravel walks, each containing plots of woodland and interspersed with large clipped yews. Four of the segments contained mazes, and it’s the largest of these mazes that has survived to this day.

In 1689, William III introduced a new position of Superintendent of all the King’s Gardens and appointed the Earl of Portland as the first office holder. Star architect Christopher Wren was employed, and he planned a completely new front and approach to the Palace from the north, which would have swept through the New Plantation area to create a courtyard with wings reaching out on either side, similar to those found at Versailles or later at Blenheim Palace. This ambitious project would have transformed the palace gardens, but the plans were abandoned and the area of the New Plantation underwent various smaller changes, becoming known instead as the Wilderness.

Queen Anne, when she acceded to the throne on William’s death in 1702, felt the sums currently being spent on the gardens were unacceptable. Even without the cost of large scale and expensive changes, Hampton Court alone had been costing her predecessor £1623 per year. With the debts of her brother-in-law to pay and advised by the frugal Sarah Churchill, Queen Anne determined that spending on the royal gardens had to be cut back. She chose instead to direct funds to her favoured residences of Windsor and Kensington and to the building of Blenheim Palace. Thus the Wilderness escaped any major design overhauls for a while, although the construction of new fountains in Bushey Park and improvements to the Fountain Garden in the early 1700s involved the laying of various pipes and waterworks through the Wilderness.

Drawing by Johannes “Jan” Kip, 1705

In its early days the Wilderness was clearly a design success. When Daniel Defoe published his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain in 1724-7 he described the ground on the north side of the palace as ‘cast into a Wilderness with a Labyrinth and Espaliers … not only well designed and completely finished but is perfectly well kept and the Espaliers fill’d exactly, at the bottom to the very Ground, and are led up to proportion’d Heights on the Top; so that nothing of that kind can be more beautiful’.

However, fashions changed and this impression either did not last or was not shared by all, as in the revised edition of 1742, the editor, Samuel Richardson remarked that although the Wilderness had been one of the most admired parts of the garden at the time of its conception, ‘to every Person of Taste it must be very far from affording any Pleasure, since nothing can be more disagreeable than to be immured between Hedges, so as to have the Eye confined to a straight Walk, and the Beauty of the Trees growing in the Quarters, intirely secluded from the eye’.

View by John Spiers, 1775-80

But in spite of this damning assessment, The Wilderness retained this design the 1850s, when it was finally recast under the stewardship of then-Garden Superintendent James Donald. It was allowed to grow into a ‘wild garden’ or woodland garden, with old sunken walks filled up and re-gravelled, and the bordering shrubs re-arranged to admit naturalised exotics, sub-tropical planting and foliage plants. A correspondent of the Gardeners’ Chronicle remarked in 1859 that ‘evident improvements are in actual operation’ in the Wilderness. By 1897, with the removal of the remaining hedges, great drifts of daffodils bloomed each spring, and a number of the mature trees were felled to increase the light. Flowering and foliage shrubs were added, and in the centre a ‘rootery’ was constructed with stumps and ferns.

Engraving of 1841

But despite these changes, the early 20th century was not a glorious time for the Wilderness: in 1919, the Gardeners’ Chronicle described the Wilderness as consisting of only ‘rubbishy trees, unworthy of an ordinary spinney.’

Evidently the space was once again in need of improvement! The rootery at the centre of the site was at this time transformed into a sunken rock-garden with a tap-fed stream, known as the Glen. By 1935, the Wilderness had evolved into a popular spring attraction, with ‘flowering shrubs in perfection, and the wide spaces of grass carpeted with primroses, harebells, crocuses, narcissus and daffodils growing in wild profusion as nature intended.’

The Wilderness c. 1900

Though a 1982 survey suggested restoring the Wilderness to its formal 17th-century appearance, no such plan was put into motion, and apart from some new plants and paths added in the 1990s the Wilderness has remained much the same ever since. Perhaps one day, the Wilderness will be transformed again, but for now, we’re enjoying the wild flowers and shady trees that offer a contrast to the landscaped gardens, and provide a natural retreat for wildlife, visitors and staff alike.

Graham Dillamore
Gardens and Estates Manager
Historic Royal Palaces

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