His Majesty can be terribly last minute. After my week away in Chengdu, China, he is like a caged animal and is absolutely desperate to throw off London and go expeditioning. “I need to see a green field,” he says rather forlornly. But where can you go and come back from comfortably, when it is already approaching 3pm on a Thursday, with the rush hour hurtling our way?
“Kings Cross,” said my man, beaming at me like a small boy. “You would be amazed at how far we can go in less than half an hour on a fast train.” Sometimes his schemes seem totally mad, and once he has made up his mind, they usually involve a dash across town, with protests all the way.
Having said that, he is a genius. Precisely twenty-one minutes after leaving the scrum at Kings Cross Station, we alight at Hatfield. The station, in its routine, utilitarian ugliness could be anywhere; fortunately, our destination is far more exotic. His Majesty has been promising me a trip to Hatfield House for months – more a palace than a pile, it was once a refuge and home in uncertain political times to a young Elizabeth 1st.
The entrance to Hatfield couldn’t be more convenient for the green traveller and last minute adventurer. The gilded entrance gates are located bang opposite the station. Can you hear me purring with relief?! As the house closes at 4pm, we opt for tickets to see the Park, fabled Gardens and the Old Palace for £6.50 each.
The sky is slightly overcast, but it doesn’t matter one bit. The park beckons and so does Hatfield House – in all its lovely Jacobean splendour. The moment you pass through the gates, and leave the busy main road behind, you enter an extraordinary time capsule. We come across the ancient oak where the exiled Elizabeth first heard of the death of her sister and then rushed off to London to become Queen.
We spent a delightful hour or so exploring the wonderfully tranquil gardens, and lingered in the lovely scented garden. As we breathed in the intoxicating perfume, we marvelled that what makes the garden such a success is not just the planting, but the structure of the garden which is cleverly screened with double hedges, lots of romantic little arbours and raised beds to deliver the scent to nose level. We peaked through the viewing window down onto the ancient formality of the great hall and admired the seclusion and symmetry of the Elizabethan knot garden where a Queen in waiting once played and received her courtiers.
With half an hour to go before the gates shut, we decided to sample tea in the café and explore the interesting courtyard emporiums. The moment we entered the tearoom we sensed that it was a mistake. I was expecting organic nirvana. The only thing on offer for a very hungry green adventuress was a pre-packaged sandwich that included Flora margarine with smoked salmon and cream cheese. Does anyone really still eat margarine?
The cakes on offer were equally disappointing. We shared a slice of the strangest carrot cake we have yet encountered on our travels. His Majesty promptly compared the texture to volcanic rock formations. It tasted oddly dry and sponge-like and the icing left a lingering, bitter after taste. What a shame. We’ve heard there are plans to revamp the tearoom, so hopefully it will be more than a cosmetic makeover. We’d like local, seasonal food please. Why not ask some local ladies to bake your cakes?
There was just time to browse around the delightful Oakroom. Instead of the usual poorly made junk aimed at tourists, we found well-priced antique treasures, carefully sourced ethical homewares and gifts destined to become much loved modern heirlooms. They included colourful organic tea towels emblazoned with a quirky foraging calendar, pretty vintage china, several early hardback editions of Swallows and Amazons (for less than the price of a new copy) and exquisite lavender bags that we would happily take home and cherish. Then His Majesty’s inquisitive eyes came to rest on a well-framed hand-coloured 18th century botanical print of a Spider Orchid by James Sowerby. Fifteen pounds seemed a fair price to pay for a magnificent souvenir of our impromptu adventure.
Now I am longing to return and see the house!
Hatfield House: Entry to House, West Garden and Park : £11.50 per adult. (Check opening times before travel as the House is often used for filming).www.hatfield-house.co.uk
The Oakroom: 01707 257 175
Train Ticket: £10.00 adult off-peak day return Kings Cross to Hatfield (journey time : 21 minutes)