The world's oldest grape vine

It's 250 years old, has branches each longer than three London buses and its grapes once fed Queen Victoria. But how do you look after a Great Vine? The Vine Keeper at Hampton Court Palace knows how.

By Historic Royal Palaces

The Great Vine, Hampton Court Palace (2015) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

The Great Vine at Hampton Court Palace is officially the largest and oldest grape vine in the world.

Harvesting the Great Vine, Hampton Court Palace (1960)Historic Royal Palaces

Now over 250 years old, it measures four metres around the base. The longest branch is 40 metres long.

From small cuttings to great vines

It might seem extraordinary now, but the Vine started life as a small cutting that Lancelot 'Capability' Brown took from Valentine's Mansion in Essex. It was planted at Hampton Court Palace in 1768, when Brown was Chief Gardener.

Planted in the fertile ground left behind from the old Tudor latrines, the Vine flourished and, by 1887, it was already 1.2 metres around the base.

Print of the interior of the vine house (1840) by S Turrell JnrHistoric Royal Palaces

This engraving shows the Vine as it looked in 1840. 

The Victorian Vine

The Vine has been grown according to the Victorian tradition, where one plant is allowed to grow and fill a single glasshouse.

Queen Victoria used to have the grapes from the Great Vine sent from Hampton Court Palace to Windsor or Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight. However, Edward VII decided they could be sold to the public.

BW image of Great Vine house (Late 19th century) by Underwood & Underwood (active 1881-1940s)​Historic Royal Palaces

After Victoria opened the palace gardens to the public in 1838, the Great Vine became a popular attraction with visitors.

Early postcard of the vine (2012)Historic Royal Palaces

These archive images show how the Vine House changed in the late 19th century, with a viewing platform added on the far end for the public.

During the wars, and beyond

Later in the 20th century, grapes from the Great Vine were sold in small wicker baskets at St. Dunstans at Regent's Park, which was the home for soldiers blinded in the First World War. In the Second World War, German prisoners of war were given the task of thinning out the bunches of grapes.

This British Pathé film shows the Great Vine in 1963, before it was entwined in the existing structure and a new aluminium glasshouse was built.

View of vine house roof and pest repellent (2017) by Ian FranklinHistoric Royal Palaces

How do you care for a Great Vine?

The variety of grape grown on the Great Vine is Vitis vinifera 'Schiava Grossa', also known as 'Black Hamburg'. This variety is known for being a delicious eating grape. 

View of vine house roof and pest repellent (2017) by Ian FranklinHistoric Royal Palaces

The grapes are grown organically. Around 20 tonnes of well-rotted horse manure is used to mulch the soil around the roots every spring. 

The gardeners use biological forms of pest control, as seen in this photo.

Roof of vine house during restoration (2017) by Ian FranklinHistoric Royal Palaces

In November, when the Vine is dormant, it is pruned to remove old, non-productive 'rods' or stems, and new rods are trained in to replace them. 

Roof of vine house during restoration (2017) by Ian FranklinHistoric Royal Palaces

Scraping off all loose bark when the Vine is dormant removes hiding places for any lurking pests and diseases. The Vine needs to be kept frost-free over the winter months, with heating, watering and air circulation increased in spring. 

Vine Keeper harvesting grapes (2017) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

The Vine Keeper removes a third of the flowers when they first appear in May, so the Vine can put its energy into the remaining bunches of grapes.

Later in the summer, the fruit on these bunches is reduced further which is how the large, juicy grapes are produced.

The average crop of black dessert grapes is about 272 kilograms (600lbs). However, in the autumn of 2001 it was 383 kilograms (845 lbs): the best crop ever. 

The grapes are ripe for picking after August Bank Holiday and are available to buy in the palace shop in early September.

Hampton Court Palace Gardens: A Year in the LifeHistoric Royal Palaces

The last Vine Keeper was Gill Strudwick, who looked after the Vine from 1983 until 2019.

Credits: Story

Find out more and visit the Great Vine at Hampton Court Palace

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