It's the new black.
After walking approximately seven miles yesterday, today’s journey into the bowels of English life was no less exhilarating, but perhaps slightly less physically strenuous. We became intimately acquainted with the British public transit system and, three trains, two Underground lines, and a five minute walk later, we were at Hampton Court Palace, the seat of the late, great, large Henry VIII and several of his (ill-fated) wives. The last British Monarch to reside there was George II, back when America was still England and the Tube didn’t exist, so people got from place to place by carriage or boat. The house itself, a grade I listed building that has undergone extensive renovation over the last 300 years, now stands as an interactive, tactile monument to English Royal history. The kitchens and bedrooms offer kinetic interaction, while the gardens were breathtaking, and obviously inspired by Le Nôtre’s design at Versailles. It is living history, and while the research evolves, the buildings maintain their ancient luster.
Having said this, I went into the estate excited about the grounds themselves, but also hoping to glimpse one of the intellectual architects of the renaissance of the Historic Royal Palaces: Dr. Lucy Worsley. With a profile in the New Yorker last year and a new book, If Walls Could Talk, Worsley has burst onto the socio-historical scene—as much as one can burst in such a situation—and is making her mark as Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, a charity in charge of the care and upkeep of key British monuments, including the Tower of London, Kew Palace, and the Banqueting House, Whitehall. Despite this prestigious position, Worsley remains enthusiastic about her work and impossibly down to earth; she even has a LinkedIn account. Bearing this in mind, I entered the Palace gate hoping to catch a glimpse of the pixie-esque personality and found myself looking for her handiwork (and silently asking her opinion) at each turn.
Worsley’s work intrigues me for its seamless integration of history, literature, aesthetics, architecture, and culture; she understands that in order to recreate, restore, and preserve aspects of the past, one cannot merely consult one discipline, but must take into account all that apply. What would Henry VIII’s Great Hall be without the context of the time period, knowledge of the architect and aesthetic motifs, and the related literary history from which the designs derive? Questions like these followed me through each room of the palace, as I observed paintings, tapestries, furniture, and textiles from eras gone by, and encouraged me, as a writer and scholar, to press on despite the inconceivable hesitation towards multidisciplinary study. Hampton Court functions simultaneously as a touchstone and a puzzle piece.
Of course, Worsley was nowhere to be found, unfortunately: most likely, she was enjoying a winter holiday or, you know, actually working rather than wandering the grounds for the benefit of stalker-esque visitors. But her handiwork, and the handiwork of so many who have worked to establish a thriving architectural history in Britain, was evident, even as we trudged the 5 minutes, two tube rides, and three trains back from whence we came.
Tomorrow: will attempt to go for another walk. Unless, like one of Henry’s wives, I find myself incapacitated.