When is a garden not a garden? When it's a Wilderness

It takes a team of expert gardeners and 365 days of hard work to make the Hampton Court Palace Wilderness look "wild" and natural all year round. But it wasn’t always this way.

By Historic Royal Palaces

Charles II (1650s) by William FaithorneNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

In the 1680s a new and fashionably French ‘bosquet’ garden or Wilderness was created at Hampton Court Palace, as a pleasure garden for Charles II’s most famous mistress, Barbara Villiers.   

Plan view of Palace Gardens (1736) by John Rocque (fl. 1738) CartographerHistoric Royal Palaces

Set on the grounds of Henry VIII’s great orchard, the Wilderness was designed as a place to enjoy nature and take in the fresh country air away from London.

The geometric layout is thought to be inspired by the French design feature known as a ‘bosquet’. It was popular in formal gardens and would have been seen at the Palace of Versailles. 

A View of the Lion Gate and Entrance of the Wilderness Garden at Hampton Court (c.1770-80) by John SpyersHistoric Royal Palaces

The gardens attracted a lot of attention. In 1724, Daniel Defoe wrote that the Wilderness was ‘not only well design’d and compleatly finish’d, but perfectly well kept… So that nothing of that kind can be more beautiful.’  

The Maze, Hampton Court Palace (2017) by Aerial VueHistoric Royal Palaces

It’s thought there were several mazes within the original Wilderness. One of these was a turf maze - a simple labyrinth cut into the grass. However, only one hedge maze survives today.   

Plan of the Maze, Hampton Court Palace (19th century)Historic Royal Palaces

This souvenir map suggests there used to be three trees at the centre. 

Blue plaque for Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, Wilderness House, Hampton Court Palace (2015) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Later in the 18th century, formal gardens began to fall out of fashion and the clipped trees and hedges were allowed to grow out when Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was Chief Gardener at Hampton Court. 

Brown lived in nearby Wilderness House from 1764-1783. Although he had a reputation for sweeping away formal garden styles in favour of naturalistic landscapes, he left Hampton Court mostly unchanged.   

Wilderness, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

By the middle of the 19th century, the Wilderness had become a woodland garden and it soon became famous for its masses of spring bulbs. Today it's a relaxed and tranquil green space for people and wildlife to enjoy. 

Robin and snowdrops in the Wilderness, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

The Dell, a central walkway full of shrubs and trees, is home to voles, robins and other creatures. 

Early spring flowering bulbs (cyclamen) in the Wilderness, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

From January to May, the Wilderness is transformed by over a million bulbs coming into flower. 

Early spring flowering bulbs (winter aconites) in the Wilderness, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

There's a wonderful succession of spring flowers to enjoy, from early winter aconites... 

Snowdrops in the Wilderness, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

...to snowdrops, cyclamen...

Early spring flowering bulbs (hellebores) in the Wilderness, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

...hellebores... 

Daffodils in the Wilderness, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

...daffodils, camellias and many more.​

Daffodils in the Wilderness, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

The Hampton Court Palace Wilderness we see today is a far cry from that original 17th-century formal 'bosquet' design. 

It would probably appeal far more to the naturalistic style of Capability Brown than to the Stuart kings’ ambition to create an English Versailles. 

Credits: Story

Find out more and visit the Wilderness at Hampton Court Palace

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