I finally got around to visiting Windsor Castle. About time, too, since I live in West London, so it’s really easy to get to. I had the day off work to go on a visit to the Royal Library; this wasn’t until the afternoon so I thought I might as well go round the Castle in the morning.
It’s impossible to miss Windsor Castle when you arrive in Windsor (I got the shuttle from Slough after the train from Paddington, which goes into Windsor & Eton Central; there’s also a train from Waterloo which arrives at Windsor & Eton Riverside). It towers over the small town, and there is only a short walk up a hill to the Visitor Centre. I was initially taken aback at the size of the queue, which extended all the way down the road; however, I soon discovered that this was the queue for groups, and individual visitors could go straight through. I paid and got inside within ten minutes.
The area covered by the Castle and the grounds is large, and I had a map and an audio guide to help me. The guides are full of information and very interesting, so I didn’t feel the need to go on one of the half-hourly Precinct Tours up to the State Rooms. I spent some time wandering about the grounds, learning about the history of the place, which has been home to English and later British royalty for hundreds of years.
It was around eleven by this time, so I decided to go and see the Changing of the Guard, which happens every day at this time. There was quite a crowd, but the sloping bank ensured a good view for everyone. I last saw this ceremony years ago at Buckingham Palace. It is a very bizarre event and I am not sure why so much shouting is needed. It must be quite embarrassing for the soldiers having crowds of gawping tourists standing around, but I suppose they get used to it.
Afterwards, I decided to go and see inside St George’s Chapel, as I was right next to it. The chapel is beautiful and I think it was my favourite part of the whole experience. Sadly photos were not allowed, so you’ll have to take my word for it how stunning it was. Famous monarchs including Henry VIII and Charles I, as well as the current Queen’s parents and sister, are buried here, and the chapel is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, with ceremonial helmets – some of the most outlandish of which wouldn’t look out of place on Lady Gaga – on display inside. However, my favourite part was the small corner chapel in which Princess Charlotte is buried. This little-known Princess was the only (legitimate) child of George IV, much loved by the public, but she sadly died in childbirth in 1828; on her death, Princess Victoria – later one of our most famous monarchs – became heir to the throne. Her white marble tomb is a monument of sentimental Romanticism, with her dead body shrouded in a beautifully sculptured sheet, and angels lifting her and her stillborn child up to heaven.
After coming out of the chapel, I wandered further into the grounds and made my way towards the State Rooms. There are two entrances here: you can go straight to the State Rooms, or stand in a queue to see Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. In my opinion this is not to be missed. An exquisite replica of a stately home, it was built for Queen Mary by the leading British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens between 1921 and 1924. The amount of detail is striking: you could look at it all day and still not see everything. My favourite part was the library, with tiny miniature books (later, during my Royal Library visit, I was able to see some of these books close-up!). This area also has two larger, almost child-size dolls on display: called France and Marianne, they were presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for their daughters, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, by the French Government during the 1938 State Visit to France. I have to say I was pretty envious of the dolls’ designer wardrobe!
This area of the Castle is home to a series of temporary exhibitions. The current exhibition is called Treasures From the Royal Archive and I couldn’t imagine a better exhibition to catch my interest. The Royal Archive is made up of the official and private papers of the Sovereign and other members of the British Royal Family, together with the records of the Royal Household and the private Royal estates. Some of the exciting artefacts on display include Princess Elizabeth’s (the Tudor Princess Elizabeth, who later became Elizabeth I) account book from the mid-sixteenth century, the title deed for the purchase of Buckingham House (later Buckingham Palace) dated 1763, and a letter of condolence to Queen Victoria from US President Abraham Lincoln on the death of Prince Albert. Some of the items I found rather touching, such as Princess Elizabeth’s (the current Queen) written account of her parents’ coronation in 1937, and the telegram she sent to her own mother on her 100th birthday.
The next stop was the State Apartments themselves. You may remember the fire of 1992, which destroyed much of this part of the Castle: I don’t, since I was only seven at the time, but the rooms have been rebuilt and refurbished, and the effect is impressive. There is a plaque marking the place where the fire began, near St George’s Hall and the Grand Reception Room.
I found my audio guide very helpful in this part of the castle, as there was a great deal of information to impart. The Castle has been the home of 39 monarchs over the years, but it is the influence of Charles II (r.1660-85) and George IV (r.1820-30) which is most marked. Artists whose work adorn the Castle walls include Grinling Gibbons, Rembrandt and Reubens. The Apartments are still used today on special occasions.
There are toilets at various locations, and places to sit; there are a number of souvenir shops, and you can buy drinks and ice cream, but there are no cafes or restaurants. However, you can get your ticket stamped if you want to leave the Castle for a meal and then come back. My visit took me half a day, so it would certainly be possible to see everything you want to before having to leave to get food.
In common with other Royal Collection sites, your ticket – so long as it is not bought from a third party – is valid for a year after first entry, providing you get it stamped and signed by a member of staff. There is a desk for this down some stairs to the left as you leave the State Apartments. I fully intend to make the most of this, as I live within easy travelling distance of Windsor. I would also like to have the chance to visit the Semi-State Rooms, which are only open from October to March.
Windsor Castle is definitely worth a visit: with nearly 1000 years of history, and lots to see and do, it’s a really enjoyable day out.