Tucked away in a conservatory behind the Pond Gardens at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey is the Great Vine, the largest and oldest known grapevine in the world. Planted by Capability Brown during his tenure as Chief Gardener to King George III, the vine still produces a sizeable crop of sweet, black eating grapes every year.
The vine usually blossoms in early May with small and fragrant flowers. Harvest season begins at the end of August, with bunches being sold until mid-September at the Palace shops. Over the three week harvest period, the Vine Keeper can collect between 500 and 700 bunches of grapes, weighing approximately 220-320kg. The largest recorded crops of grapes from the vine were 1,800 bunches in 1798 and 2,245 bunches in 1807.
The grapevine started as a small cutting from the Black Hamburgh vine at Valentine’s Park in Essex, and was first planted in a glasshouse built to house Queen Mary’s collection of exotics from the tropics. The vine’s roots were planted outside and its branches trained inside the glasshouse, which measured 18m by 4m. By the 1790s, the vine was thriving so much that the glasshouse had to be lengthened by a further 3.5m.
Today, the Great Vine is housed in an aluminium vine house built in 1969, and measures in at 4m around its base, with the longest branch reaching 75m. The re-building was unique as it was the first time a glasshouse was built around a plant.
Used historically by the Royal household as dessert grapes, the tradition of selling the crop began in 1930 when George V started sending the annual harvest to hospitals and, within five years, they were being sold to visitors to the Palace. The vine was first shown to the public in the 1840s when Queen Victoria opened the gardens to the public.
The vine still proves to be a popular attraction at Hampton Court Palace, set within 66 acres of formal gardens that include the Great Maze and the new Magic Garden, as well as the Kitchen Garden which also stocks the Palace shops with crops ranging from rhubarb to asparagus.
Capability Brown’s work at Hampton Court Palace has been commemorated by an English Heritage Blue Plaque on Wilderness House – his home at the palace - placed in 2011, and more recently this year by the Empress and the Gardener exhibition which displayed watercolours revealing the palace’s landscaped Georgian gardens during his tenure as Chief Gardener.
About the Author: Rachel Powel, Communications Assistant, Historical Royal Palaces.