Paleis Het Loo

Museums & Resilience Leadership programme

I was fortunate to have an opportunity recently to visit one of many venues on my bucket list; the Dutch Palace and Garden at Het Loo. It was an inspiring experience in so many ways, with time set aside to learn how the venue, as a museum, operates, along with time to simply experience Het Loo as a tourist.

I came away with many images and notes, such was the grandeur and content of the palace. My intention is that this article, its images and memories will act as a record of a fascinating visit and learning experience. Hopefully, it may also be of use to other readers too!

I have to say, that for this visit at least, I enjoyed (maybe too much) being empowered to officially ‘test’ the visitor experience!

Orientation

Whilst I had carefully researched Het Loo, I was still pleasantly surprised at the very high standard of presentation and service. As a foreign visitor I was frequently put at ease and reassured by the professionalism of staff, and of the clarity of messaging across the venue.

Audio Tours

I know they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but audio tours do offer an opportunity for venues to tailor a tour, and pitch some carefully considered content – this opportunity certainly hadn’t been wasted at Het Loo.

What intrigued me was that whilst my audio tour was spoken in English, there were additional elements I could select where characters spoke with a regional English accent. This did seem out of context with the location, but was immensely comforting nonetheless. To me, it represented the extra mile someone went to in order to deliver an extra special experience; I can only trust that this happened by design, not accident!

Floral Focus

The floral displays shown here are just a hint of those found throughout the palace. Willem Zieleman, Head Gardener for the palace introduced me to the team who each week prepare more than forty vases of fresh flowers, (mostly grown on site) from a dedicated room in the basement. Adhering to a largely fresh flower policy, the team encounter all the same issues that face historic house owners around the globe; that of introducing moisture to delicate interiors, alongside priceless works of art.

The team however have a strong desire to keep it real, for the simple reason that flowers add life to the house, and that’s exactly how they want the palace to feel; like the royal family themselves are due home any moment. Elsewhere, from furnishings to facilities, the same consistently high standard of presentation is to be found.

A minor aside: I really shouldn’t have (Because I don’t like clutter!) but I was taken with the many Delftware objects displayed on miniature shelves – pots, plates and jugs, typically Dutch, beautifully crafted and displayed.

Interpreting Het Loo

Besides the audio tour and guide book, there are lectern style information boards in each room that focus on significant characters, architectural features and so on. Having understood something of the historical development of the property, it is no mean feat to have brought it all together in such a clear and historically valuable way. Some panels, such as the one below offered extra highlights through a range of video content.

Period Restoration

Each room is staged to fit in with a key period in the building or family history. However, while it’s impossible to walk through the house and experience its chronological development, it is relatively clear, through the interpretation used, to know what period you’re in at any one time. This couldn’t have been easy knowing how many William’s and layers of history there were!

Rooms with a View

(Apologies for blurred image – the UV film doesn’t provide the clearest window view!)

Naturally, whilst I was busy absorbing all the details and regal atmosphere within the palace, there was always going to be the elephant ‘outside’ of each room – a vast and beautifully restored Baroque garden in this case. From room to room, each window beckoned me near to enjoy the intricate and ornate parterres just as they were meant to be seen – from above.

William and Mary

The palace and its gardens of course were built for King William III and Mary II in the late 17th century. Parts of the house are divided specifically for each of them, with respective windows looking over his and hers gardens too. As with the house, the garden divisions were purely practical and based on how the King and Queen operated, each having different needs depending on their duties or desires. What’s very clear though is that both William and Mary were very much devoted to gardening, architecture and design.

A Shell Grotto

Before leaving the palace, I was tempted with another view into the garden through a very precise shell grotto, where shade and refreshing, cooling fountains could once have been enjoyed during hot summer months. A clever aviary arrangement (the green timber structure in above image,) also allowed chirping birds to move between the cool grotto and the warm air outside.

Queen Mary’s Garden

Immediately outside of the shell Grotto, the Queen’s garden consists of a parterre, fountain, and arboured pathways as shown below. Today planted with carefully trained hornbeam, they offer protection from the sun, and a sheltered place to entertain vast numbers of people. Historically, think tables and candelabras, set along the gravelled pathway; think music, drifting through the foliage; and think of a feast, fit for royalty and special guests. It would have made one very special garden party!

King’s Garden

Turning to the Kings Garden, it was equally as grand, with intricate scrolls of box clipped tightly, and another Triton fountain at its centre. As I learned however, no garden appears to be resistant to the threat of box blight, and this garden is no exception. Over forty kilometres of trained box has been replaced recently due to blight, with Ilex crenata becoming the replacement of choice.

Archaeology

There’s a typically strong, symmetrical and ordered layout to the garden as a whole, as is the case with most formal gardens of this period. Yet, despite his and hers gardens, numerous lime mortared brick walls, dancing fountains and spikes of topiary; it all hangs beautifully together. The garden we see now, thanks to a painstaking restoration, dates from the c1980 restoration phase and accurately represents a large portion of the original garden.

Water

Borders of flowers are managed to show each and every plant to its very best advantage, and a seriously large collection of citrus are cared for, some dating back three centuries no less! The crowning glory in my opinion, is the many and varied water features. Jets, fountains, rills and cascades, that have all been recreated as faithfully as knowledge permits. They add a playful note to the gardens, and in their original form were a miracle of engineering indeed.

A Fascinating Fact…

One of the deciding factors in the original siting of the palace was the availability of water locally. This, combined with the fact that the gardens are set low in the landscape, helped to create enough water pressure to drive those original water features. These days of course, the water features utilise a sealed, filtered system which is more reliable, if a little corrosive to the gilded statuary.

Really, I should summarise…

I could quite easily continue to wax lyrically about this remarkable property, such was its presence and presentation. Of the staff, both the Head Gardener and Garden Curator were so kind, in their time and information which gave so much food for thought. It really helped me to see more of Het Loo, and for this I’m forever grateful.

I felt that, after two very full days of exploration, I had seen so much that I simply needed to escape just to take stock. I have seen a property, a charitable institution that shared many of the same issues that I see here in Britain. I met people who do things very differently, yet work to the same ends, and I can easily say that I have hugely benefited from the experience.

Thanks to all who helped make the visit possible – you know who you are!

If you’ve been, I’d be delighted to hear of your experience, and if you’re inspired to visit, I’d be happy to advise on local travel to Het Loo (or carry your bags for you! ;-))

My visit was supported by the Museums & Resilient Leadership Programme.

Information on Paleis Het Loo.

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