Windsor serves up a royal delight
PLANNING the perfect family day out is usually dogged with pitfalls – there are so many different tastes to cater for, so many eventualities to consider and far too many appealing locations within driving distance of St Albans.
Windsor is one such attraction: it’s just an hour away and boasts a castle, a nearby theme park, a shopper’s paradise and a town that whispers history at every turn.
There’s something intriguing about the little town that draws around seven million tourists a year and the castle, the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world, is reported to be the Queen’s favourite residence.
It’s at the castle that we begin our day, watching the inspiring Changing of the Guard. The guards come up the High Street and into the castle, which completely bowls over the six-year-old with us.
Inside the castle, we’re given our audio tours which are included in the entrance price and feature an easy-to-use child-friendly route. We walk towards the castle, a fortress built to last, and are reminded of the history which seeps from the stones.
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Rhe Union Jack flag flying from The Round Tower when we visit, indicating that Her Majesty is not in residence, but it becomes a constant occupation while we’re there to keep checking, should she have arrived without our noticing.
Not that we would notice: the castle grounds are huge. We first visit the State Apartments, calling in to see Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House first. There’s a small queue but the constant passing of real-life guards proves the perfect distraction for a little boy hungry to get inside and see a “real-life castle”.
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The Dolls’ House is a marvel – it has running water and electricity – and was built for Queen Mary in 1924. Some of the most famous designers and artists in the land created miniature pieces to go inside the house and you could spend an age drinking it all in.
The State Apartments are quite phenomenal and dripping with all the trappings you’d expect. St George’s Hall, studded with the coats of arms of all the Knights of the Garter since 1348, is the most breathtaking for two reasons. One: an alarming number of the coats of arms are blank. They represent those who were found to be traitors to the Monarch – ‘degraded’ Knights. And two: it was almost destroyed when a fire broke out in Windsor Castle in 1992. Today, you would never know.
There’s quite a bit of explaining needed for the youngest member of our group, but the grandeur of his surroundings has his undivided attention. The staff are only too happy to answer his questions which, disturbingly, focus on the swords and pistols we keep seeing mounted on the walls.
Despite the steady influx of tourists and its imposing exterior, there is something very private about the castle. There are, of course, areas that are out of bounds but this is the Queen’s home. It’s also where her mother, father and sister are buried – in St George’s chapel. A visit to their family crypt is very poignant – amidst all the trappings of wealth, the simplicity of the final resting place of King George V, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, is very moving.
We take the obligatory pictures with an unflinching guard at his post and have to tear the awe-struck six-year-old away to explore the gift shop.
Upon leaving the castle, a little poorer after the gift shop, we rest our bones in the The Crooked House of Windsor – a quintessential English tea room. It’s a quirky place to enjoy a quick bite but avoid sitting near the window because you might feel like a monkey in the zoo as tourists flock to take a picture of the building, which is quite literally, crooked.
Windsor’s history stretches back over 1,000 years and the best way to get a snapshot of where it’s been, where it is and where it’s going is to jump aboard the open top City Sightseeing tour bus. The audio tour is full of snippets that will wow and interest anyone of a Royal persuasion. One of the added enjoyments of being on an open-top tour bus is undoubtedly dodging the overhanging branches – although they never come close to making contact, the thrill of thinking they might entertained everyone on board immensely (especially the six year old).
If you feel like exploring Windsor and Eton on foot instead, you can – it’s very walkable and the walk across to Eton is the perfect opportunity for some retail therapy with a difference. The historic Eton High Street is teeming with independent shops including art galleries and antique shops – perfect for the discerning shopper.
There are tours around the world-famous Eton College available, if you’re so inclined, which introduce you to another world of schooling. Learn about the – frankly unfathomable – exclusive Eton Wall Game, a sport only played at the college which sounds like a cross between football, rugby and wall climbing… (maybe. I was nonplussed, but everyone else seemed to understand). The tour gives a rare insight into an exclusive school set up over six centuries ago, which still ranks amongst one of the top independent schools in the world.
On the way back through the town and towards Windsor, it’s tempting to imagine a younger Prince William trotting down this very route from his college to head to his Grandmother’s for Sunday lunch.
My tranquil imaginings are soon interrupted by a growing excitement as the six-year-old spots the Royal Windsor Wheel. Offering stunning views of Windsor and beyond, we climb aboard and I soon realise I have not yet overcome my fear of heights. (I like to think it will one day just disappear – I’m still waiting.) Everyone else is thrilled, especially as we’re having loud music pumped into the carriage – it’s like a party 60 (terrifying) meters off the ground.
Afterwards we lounge around in Alexandra Gardens and snoop around some of the shops – high street and boutique – before boosting our sugar levels with cake.
We consider doing the Long Walk before we head home. The 2.64-mile walk from Windsor Castle to Snow Hill in Windsor Park is apparently a beautiful walk, but we’re all too tired and tomorrow we plan to conquer Lego Land – just a few miles away from Windsor. And while a day in the castle, a bus tour, a visit to a world-famous college and a drop of shopping has ticked almost everyone’s box, I’m quite certain that this will be the icing on the cake for one little boy.