Spring has sprung at Hampton Court Palace. And this year, its gardens are blooming with a seasonal favorite: tulips. The palace is hosting its first tulip festival.
It was due to open on Saturday 17 April, but warm weather has meant the flowers have blossomed earlier than predicted and visitors can already come and see them.
One of the most unusual areas in the Lower Orangery Garden. This is where Queen Mary II kept her exotic plant collection.
And it’s where the palace’s modern-day gardeners are growing the most rare and unique tulips of the festival.
Graham Dillamore, deputy head gardener for Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that runs Hampton Court Palace, is inspecting the flower beds.
Conditions in this area of the gardens appear to be working well for the tulips.
“We’ve got these wonderful Species Tulips pratens, in this sort of lovely golden orange and this bright red, and they love this south facing wall. It’s lovely and warm and the bulbs like that because they like to get nice and warm in the spring,” he says.
Tulips have been cultivated at the palace since Queen Mary II’s reign in the 1690s.
Back then, the cost of one tulip bulb was the equivalent of a family car nowadays.
Luckily for Dillamore, prices have dropped since then – all bulbs and planting for the festival cost in the region of £20,000.
But they have still grown some of the same historic varieties that kings and queens enjoyed centuries ago.
“Some of the varieties we’ve got date back to 1660, so that’s over 300 years since they’ve been here in the ground and growing and flowering as we are enjoying them now here today. So, it’s a hell of a long time,” says Dillamore.
“Some are not so old. Some are from the early 20th century, late 19th century. But it’s just as nice to see them here flowering as well. So, this 300-350-year period of tulip flowering at Hampton Court palace is very interesting and it’s part of our horticultural heritage.”
Preparations for the festival began in summer 2020.
After planning the displays, gardeners prepared the soil, improving drainage where necessary and adding organic material to give the bulbs the nutrients they would need to develop.
At the start of autumn, the bulbs were delivered, and Dillamore and his team got digging.
“We planted over a 105,000 tulips, and believe you me, after you planted that many tulips, you need to go and see the osteopath,” he says.
“We got them all in by about the second week in October. And then we had to sit back, look at them in the winter, make sure we kept the vermin off them, make sure they stayed safe and waited for them to come back up in the spring. Because you never quite know if they’re going to come back.”
The festival comes after a painful year for Hampton Court Palace.
Like so many attractions around the world, the pandemic has meant tough restrictions that have forced it to close its doors for extended periods of time.
Even when open, the lack of overseas tourists means less money coming in.
Historic Royal Palaces has lost revenue and cut jobs – including from its gardening team.
“We will have lost over £100 million in the last year since it started, and we’ve had to reduce our staffing by around 40 percent and stop most projects,” explains Nicola Andrews, palaces director at Historic Royal Palaces.
Outdoor spaces at the palace are now open to visitors, although the interior remains off limits.
Museums in England are scheduled to reopen no earlier than May 17.
Most restrictions are expected to be lifted by June 21.
With England slowly emerging from its latest lockdown, there are hopes visitor numbers will start to bloom again.
“We’re expecting visitor numbers to start to build back as people locally continue to visit, but also people within Britain take holidays, hopefully to London. London is a great place to take a holiday this year. We’re expecting it to take several years to build back to pre-COVID visitor levels because we’re not expecting the overseas tourism to build back quite as quickly,” says Andrews.
As visitor numbers are restricted, as least those who do make the journey can expect to see the tulips without the typical crowds.
And for anyone who gets particularly inspired by the displays, the deputy head gardener has some professional advice.
“My top tip for home gardeners who want to start growing their tulips, think carefully when you’re choosing your varieties. Think about your colours. Think about your colours and your matching and your colour schemes, because you can do all that effort to plant these lovely bulbs, take an all winter to sit there and grow, and then you get a clash of colours and it can spoil it,” Dillamore says.
“So that early process of flicking through the catalogue in the summer and choosing the right bulb for the right place, that’s the most important thing of all.”
The Hampton Court Palace Tulip Festival runs until 3 May.
It will be closed on Saturday 17 April to mark the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.