Graded banks of grass, along with towers, bridges and slides.
Robert Myers MSGD describes the creation a family play garden with a wildwood, mythical beasts’ lair and towers
In 2012, Historic Royal Palaces asked for expressions of interest to design a children’s garden within Henry VIII’s former tiltyard at Hampton Court Palace. We had a lot of experience working within historic landscapes, but not in the area of children and play, so it felt like a bit of a long shot, but it was such a wonderful context and such an unusual opportunity that we couldn’t pass it up. We submitted our design for the ‘Magic Garden’, and after two rounds of interviews, no one was more surprised than us to find out that we had won.
The brief was comprehensive. Firstly, they wanted a new garden – not a playground – and it was clear that they wanted something ambitious that grew out of the context of Hampton Court, and referenced the rich history of the palace and gardens. It would be a space where children could enjoy imaginative play, where things they had seen in the palace or gardens might reappear in a magical way. The brief also asked for ‘low-tech magic’ – the client didn’t want lots of gizmos that might break down.
There was very little watering-down of the original plan. We started work in October 2014. The site was a blank canvas: an empty picnic area surrounded by brick walls (albeit some of them Tudor), with the remains of some tennis courts – although we had to do a lot of archaeological excavations to make sure there was nothing lurking beneath.
The Magic Garden features a willow ‘Dragon’s Nest’.
A collaborative effort
The main challenge of the project was its complexity – it involved the bringing together of a lot of specialist consultants, in relation to play (Snug & Outdoor), water (Fountains Direct), lighting (Speirs & Major), structural engineering (the Michael Barclay Partnership), as well as many layers of specialist contractors and sub-contractors, including artists Tom Hare, Harry Gray and Andrew Tanser, and all in an area of just 100m x 50m.
The planting had to be robust to withstand little feet. The different areas have different characters. The ‘strange topiary’ garden uses yew and box, referencing the maze. The ‘wildwood’, which evokes Henry VIII’s hunting grounds, is planted with native trees including lime, birch, hazel and dogwoods, areas of long grass and sculpted banks. At the back of the spiral mount, by the mythical beasts’ lair, the planting is dark and jungly – Trachycarpus fortunei, magnolia, tree ferns and mahonia. The Dragon’s Nest, designed by Tom Hare, is woven willow with live willow growing through it. On the east wall are children’s borders, with herbs for smell, lambs’ ears for texture and so on.
The children are using the walkways, tiltyard towers, slides and sand play areas as we intended, but what’s nice is that they’ve made use of all the whole garden: rolling down banks and sliding down the spiral mount without using the slide! We hope that the children will find something new on each visit. There are different layers to discover each time.
The ‘Crown’ structure lit up.