Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Wimbledon, Hampton Court, Henry VIII and strawberries - anyone for tennis?

Silver server of strawberries, fit for Tudor formal dining or served alongside a Real Tennis court!

Wimbledon fortnight is upon us and the world’s attention is centred on that court, the aptly named Centre Court. And yet Wimbledon’s illustrious All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, to give it its current full title, owes its existence to a much earlier adopter of the sport of tennis in England. That game changer was no less than the 6ft 4inches, athletic, young King Henry VIII.


So not a million miles away from SW1, in fact less than ten miles distant, it is another other tennis court that fascinates. Henry was an enthusiastic proponent of the game of “real tennis”, a worthwhile pursuit among the noble class that was designed to  “...chase idleness , virtue’s mortal enemy…”. After playing on the indoor court at Hampton Court Palace- for it was an indoor game - how would Henry have refreshed himself after vanquishing all the finest players in his noble entourage?

One inch dolls house fruit, handmade strawberries for Medieval, Tudor, Regency luxury dining


Why, with some strawberries of course! MedievalMorsels has modelled the very same and arranged the trophy fruit on an ornate plate resembling the Ladies allcomers challenge trophy. Strawberries were a tricky plant from which to grow fruits in any quantity or size. Probably Tudor strawberries were no bigger than today’s wild Alpine strawberries. But other delicious garden summer fruits would make a thirst quenching and natural sugar laden post-set snack. Henry would have uppermost on his mind the exotic varieties of cherries, peaches, plums and apricots - all carefully tended by his gardeners, grown from new varieties imported from the Low Countries (Belgium and Flanders) and Italy in particular. And MedievalMorsels takes pleasure in modelling these too.


Dollshouse miniature food, summer cherries at 1:12 scale from MedievalMorsels

Twelfth scale peaches for a period dolls house, miniature dollhouse fruit by MedievalMorsels
One inch scale dollhouse fruit, plums of all types for a Medieval, Tudor or modern rustic dining scene


It was Cardinal Wolsey who actually built Hampton Court Palace with its real tennis court. But he had not long been in possession of it than he was rapidly falling out of royal favour. He had still failed to secure a Papal anulment for Henry’s 26 year marriage to his brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon. With no male heir Henry planned, of course, to marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey made Henry a present of Hampton Court, which he had built between 1526 -1529.


Fast forward just a few years and it is said, on Hampton Court Palace’s website no less, that Henry’s second wife - Anne Boleyn - was gambling on a game of (real) tennis when she was arrested to be taken to the Tower of London. She even complained that she couldn’t collect her winnings! Whether we are really to believe this I cannot say...


Although it looks like a strange combination of tennis and squash, according to The Royal Tennis Club “the techniques, strategies and rules are more complex than for the modern derivatives”. Each ball contains a core wrapped around with some thirteen yards of webbing in half inch widths, and in fact many balls in use today started their life over a century ago but have been re-covered! The tennis racquets are usually made from hickory or ash with sheep gut still commonly used for the strings. The curious shape of the head of the racquet is designed to help the player to cut the ball by having a large area of strings across which a ball can sweep diagonally. By contrast today’s lawn tennis players employ top-spin.


Real tennis is the original indoor racquet sport from which the modern game of tennis is descended. It only acquired its ‘real’ tag at the end of the 19th century to distinguish it from the new-fangled ‘lawn’ tennis. The number of real courts has actually risen in the last thirty years. There are now 27 in Britain, 10 in the USA, 3 in France and 6 in Australia. Despite there being no more than a few thousand real tennis players in the world, they make up in keeness for any lack in numbers, organising professional and amateur tournaments practically all year round.


“The Club”  that has given rise to the current Wimbledon tournament however was founded some three centuries later in 23 July 1868 but at the height of a croquet craze! The then-infant sport of Lawn Tennis was introduced in 1875, when one lawn was set aside. The first tennis Gentlemen's Championship in Singles was held in July 1877. Wimbledon’s present Centre Court, built in 1922 upon the move of the Club, was not actually in the centre at the time it was built, but it is so now. British viewers will be eager to follow Andy Murray’s progress especially as he has just won a grass warm-up tournament at Queens for a record fourth time, but lets hope all the ‘great’ players, newcomers, ‘wild cards’ and  underdogs alike have a splendid Wimbledon this year. Some of my favourite players have been Arthur Ashe, Ilie Nastase, John McEnroe and Miloslav Mečíř - players of touch before the advent of the power game, double handed backhands and power racquets (do I mean rackets?).  


With its retractable roof and flood lighting, modern Centre Court is equipped to deal with rain and the failing light of late running matches - remember there is no tie-break in a final set at Wimbledon! Rain never posed a problem for real tennis players, the grilled window in one wall, through which light, but not rain poured, was a featured “hazard” attracting penalties if you hit it. Now if anyone can explain real tennis in simple terms, I’d be surprised. Cambridge University Real Tennis club describes it thus “...subtlety and thought are more prized than power and fitness. It is played in an asymmetrical court which contains many unusual features, sloping roofs, openings (galleries) in the walls and a main wall which has a kink in it (tambour) so the ball on hitting the sloping face moves across the court instead of continuing down the line of the main wall. It has the classic elements of warfare where a failed attack is punished by a counter-attack.”