Fortune was smiling on us for our visit to Hatfield House as not only were the A3 and M25 kind to us on our journey there but also, once again in this lovely summer, we were blessed with warm sunshine. Combined with the splendours of the Jacobean house and extensive gardens, it was a most enjoyable day. You can see more photos here.
Naturally our first port of call, apart from the WCs, was to get a cup of coffee. It was a little walk from the coach park to the restaurant and house but a buggy service did sterling work giving a lift to the less mobile. We were then ready for our guided tours of the House, which was approached past a remarkable new water sculpture, ‘Renaissance’, designed by Angela Connor, a leading British sculptor. Two spiral arms flowing with water encircle a golden ball which appears and disappears as the arms rise and fall.
The present house is not the original. That was the former Royal Palace of Hatfield, dating from the late 15th C when it was built by the Bishop of Ely. Seized by Henry VIII, it became the home of Henry’s children and a favourite of Elizabeth. Indeed it was here that Elizabeth was told, allegedly under an oak in the grounds, that she had become Queen.
Some of the old Palace remains, principally the Great Hall, which is now used for weddings and other events and we could only glimpse it. But James I didn’t like the Palace and did a swap with Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, who owned Theobalds Palace, not far away. Cecil took down most of the Palace and used the bricks to help build the present House in 1611.
As there were over 40 of us we had two guides. Both were excellent. Beginning in the great Marble Hall we were at once impressed by everything from the marble floor to the oak carving on the panelled walls and the richly decorated and painted ceiling.
But pride of place goes to the famous Rainbow portrait of Elizabeth. From there we progressed up the Grand Staircase, with its tapestries and ornately carved gate (for dogs not children we were told!) to the King James Drawing room with another famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth, this time the ‘Ermine’ portrait attributed to Nicholas Hilliard.
There followed a whole sequence of magnificent rooms, all with different treasures. Of particular note were the 50 metre Long Gallery with its richly patterned ceiling covered in gold leaf, the Winter Dining Room with its tapestries of the Four Seasons and carved marble fireplace, the Library with its 10,000 volumes and remarkable 1608 mosaic portrait of Robert Cecil, and the Chapel with its beautiful stained glass window dating from 1610 and its later paintings of the apostles and evangelists.
After all this grandeur, the gardens afforded a plethora of places to have a relaxing stroll. Topiary abounds in both the West and East Gardens – somehow most of it looked as if it had just been trimmed yesterday – there must be an army of gardeners. The parterre and topiary in the East Garden (only open on Wednesday, when we had timed our visit) includes a trio of elephants and a maze. At first sight the maze hedges looked only about 3 foot high – not too difficult you would have thought. But going close you realise that it’s actually in a dip so the true height is about 12 feet. We met a lady near the maze who hadn’t seen her husband for a while …..
The extensive West garden was lovely, with many different features, including a pleached lime walk, fountains, sundial garden with an elaborate and unique sundial created to mark Hatfield House’s 400th anniversary, Old Palace Garden and woodland garden. Then there are the many walks in park – but those will have to be for another day. It was time to have a cup of tea and board our coach for the trip home