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Anyone for Real Tennis at Hampton Court?

Discover more about the game of kings on a walk through the regal landscape of Hampton Court Park.

Distance 4.8 miles (7.7km)

Minimum time 1hr 45min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Gravel, tarmac and riverside tracks

Landscape Landscaped grounds of historic palace

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 161 London South

Start/finish TQ 174697; Hampton Court rail

Dog friendliness Keep dogs under control near deer

Parking Car park in Hampton Court Road

Public toilets Hampton Court Park

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1 Cross Hampton Court Bridge, turn right through the main gates to Hampton Court Palace and walk along a wide drive. Just before the palace turn left through the gatehouse and then under an arch.

2 Turn right just before the tea room, through a gateway along a path through gardens. At the end, on the right, is the real tennis court building. Pass through another gateway and turn sharp right to walk alongside the real tennis court and past the entrance to it.

3 Take the central gravel path in front of the palace, past the fountain to the ornate railings overlooking the Long Water, an artificial lake nearly ¾ mile (1.2km) in length. Head towards the footbridge on the right and go through the wrought-iron gates.

4 After 220yds (201m) the footpath bears left and joins a tarmac track. Follow this, turning left by some farm buildings, after which the path runs parallel to the Long Water. Where the lake ends continue ahead at a crossing of tracks and bear right to skirt the left side of Rick Pond. Turn left through a metal gate, along an enclosed footpath and through a gate to reach the River Thames.

5 Turn left along this riverside path and follow it for ¾ mile (1.2km) to Kingston Bridge. Here, join the road leading to the roundabout.

6 At the end of the row of houses turn left through a gateway. Immediately after the cattle grid bear right along a grassy path running along the left side of the boomerang-shaped Hampton Wick Pond. Follow the straight path for about ¾ mile (1.2km) back to Hampton Court Palace.

7 Bear right to cross a footbridge and follow the footpath back to the real tennis court, from where you can retrace your steps to the start of the walk over Hampton Court Bridge and back into Hampton Court Road.

The majority of visitors to Hampton Court come to see the state apartments of William III and Henry VIII, the Tudor kitchens and perhaps the maze and the 60 acres (24ha) of riverside gardens. Most miss the subtle doorway in the wall that looks like the opening to a secret garden. In fact it is the entrance to one of the more unusual parts of the palace, and the most historic court in the world - the real tennis court.

The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court has serious royal connections. Henry VIII played real tennis here as did Charles I. Today Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie, are two of the club's 700 members. Cardinal Wolsey built the original real tennis court in the 1520s on the site of the present Stuart court, but it remained roofless until 1636. During the Second World War it was once again roofless, when a bomb hit the adjacent apartments and completely shattered the court's windows.

Apart from 'real tennis', any of the terms 'royal tennis', 'court tennis' and 'close tennis' may be used to distinguish this ancient game from the more familiar 'lawn tennis' (although that is rarely played on a lawn nowadays). The game, from which many other ball games - such as table tennis and squash - are derived, was probably being played as early as the 6th century bc. The word 'tennis' stems from the French 'tenez' or the Anglo-French 'tenetz' which translates as 'take it', referring to what the server might call to their opponent. Although the game was originally played outside, it may have moved to an enclosed court for reasons of privacy and, pragmatically, to avoid the filthy streets in the Middle Ages. The game was very popular in France with the aristocracy but suffered considerably for this association during the revolution. After the First World War it declined in popularity in England, but it has seen a revival lately. At least one notable health club now has a real tennis court and Middlesex University has recently spent £1.5 million building a state-of-the-art court at its Hendon campus.

If you're a real tennis novice then the court will probably look like a cross between a badminton court and a medieval street roof. Yet it's a quirky game to watch, for the serve can be over or underarm as long as the ball bounces at least once on the roof (known as a penthouse) and then on the floor within the service court. The rackets are shaped more like a buckled bicycle tyre than a conventional tennis racket but the game is fast, energetic and skilful. Although there are some similarities to lawn tennis, the main difference lies in the 'chase'. Initially, this seems like a complicated manoeuvre and it is best understood by watching players in action but it comes into play when the ball bounces twice in certain areas of the court. The world champion, Rob Fahey, admits to having been initially attracted more by the glitzy parties than the game itself, but the sport has grown in stature over the past few years and seems now to have the ball firmly back in its own court.

While you're there

Visit the famous Hampton Court Maze, which was laid out in 1714. It's quite possible to wander round this for ages, but if you want to play safe, keep to the right-hand edge going in and the left-hand one coming out. The Privy Garden has been restored with plant species from William III's day. The Great Vine, planted by 'Capability' Brown, is thought to be the oldest in the world, and is still producing grapes.

Where to eat and drink

The Fox on the River pub in Queens Road, Thames Ditton is ¾ mile (1.2km) from Hampton Court station. It is well worth the short detour because it has a prime spot, overlooking the River Thames. There are outside tables on a terrace that looks across to Hampton Court. There's a good choice of sandwiches, beef and ale pie and salads. Beers include Bass and Fuller's London Pride. The King's Arms at Lion Gate, Hampton Court Road is a real-ale pub selling Dorset-brewed Badger ales. It's a friendly place with an appealing menu. Daily specials include toad-in-the-hole, liver and bacon casserole, ham and honey mustard sandwiches and cheese and real-ale pickle jacket potatoes. The barman says they love dogs here and, sure enough, there is even a container of dog biscuits on the bar.

What to look for

The handsome façade of Hampton Court Palace is the nearest thing England has to Versailles, but it wasn't until Queen Victoria's reign that the gardens and maze were opened to the public. If you decide to explore the palace, allow yourself a few extra hours. Notice, too, the topiary on the gigantic yew trees leading down towards the river.

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