Windsor Castle Part III: Precinct Tour and Semi-State Rooms

I made my third visit to Windsor Castle at the weekend in order to get the most out of my 1-year pass. It was a lovely sunny day and the Round Tower was looking smart. The Royal Standard was flying to show that the Queen was in residence.

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I went on one of the Precinct Tours which I hadn’t done before. Our guide was very interesting and told us lots of things, some of which I hadn’t known before. We stopped briefly to see this Order of the Garter symbol which I hadn’t noticed previously.

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Inside the Castle, I visited the Semi-State Rooms which are only open during the winter months, between September and March. These were created for George IV, completed in 1830, and are decorated lavishly. They were almost destroyed during the 1992 fire but have been thoroughly restored; luckily, the objects inside the rooms had been moved elsewhere at the time.

Another interesting and relaxed visit. I wonder if I will get the chance to go again before my pass runs out in June.

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Frogmore House

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Frogmore House

Frogmore House, the royal residence next to Windsor Castle, is only open (apart from group visits) for one weekend in the year. I visited on the Saturday, having prebooked my ticket, although in the end I hadn’t really needed to as although there were plenty of people in the house, it certainly wasn’t crowded.

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The gardens
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Chapel

I hadn’t realised what a long walk it would be from Windsor to the house – more than once I found myself looking longingly at the little buggy transporting people with more reason to avoid walking than I. Still, it was a nice day, if a little too hot for me, and the gardens were beautiful, well worth a wander through. On the way I passed a small chapel as well as the mausoleum in which Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert are buried. Unfortunately it is not possible to visit the mausoleum, as it is in need of repair and currently deemed unsafe for visitors.

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Mausoleum
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Gothic Ruin, used by Queen Victoria

The house itself had a homely feel (as far as a stately home like this can be called “homely”), and I was impressed with the various collections of knick-knacks on display. One room was entirely given over to black lacquer boxes, another contained relics from the Royal Yacht, Britannia. The house was originally built in the late seventeenth century, and was bought by George III a century later for the use of his wife Queen Charlotte. Other notable residents include the Duchess of Kent (mother of Queen Victoria) and the future King George V and Queen Mary, the latter of whom turned the house into a kind of museum.

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The house

Frogmore House is definitely worth a visit, if you can get there when it is open. Several people were picknicking in the grounds and looked as if they were having a lovely time. It would be possible to visit both Windsor Castle and Frogmore House on the same day, if you were organised and started early!

Windsor Castle Part II: Conquer the Tower and the Great Kitchens

As I probably mentioned when I last wrote about Windsor Castle, you can get your ticket stamped so that you can return as many times as you like within the next year. I took advantage of this on Saturday when I returned to Windsor to visit Frogmore House (on which more later).

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The Round Tower viewed from the ground

My reason for returning was to experience two tours that are only available during August and September. These are Conquer the Tower, which allows you to climb to the top of the famous Round Tower, and The Great Kitchen, which allows you to see inside the oldest working kitchen in the UK (and possibly the world). These tours cost extra, but I didn’t mind this too much as I was able to get into the castle itself for free.

Conquer the Tower

I had to be inside the Engine Court for both tours. For the Tower tour there was a covered space beside the entrance where lockers were stored: we had to put our bags in here. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside the building or in certain directions when we were outdoors, as you are not allowed to take photos of the Queen’s apartments. However, there was plenty to photograph even with these restrictions.

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View of the river with Eton College Chapel in the background.

Our guide was brilliant, knowledgeable and friendly. He pointed out the narrowing staircase, allowing for better defence of the Tower, and the cannon poking out of the wall above us. There are 200 steps up to the top of the tour, but luckily we were able to break our journey partway through. There is a slope around the mid-level of the Tower, which was designed so that soldiers could drop boulders from the top and have them bounce off at an angle and land on any unfortunate enemies trying to besiege the Castle!

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The Moat Garden

The view from the top of the Tower was great. We could see over the town of Windsor itself, as well as the Long Walk in Windsor Great Park (down which I would walk later to visit Frogmore House).

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The Long Walk

In the other direction we could see as far as the Shard in London, although we couldn’t quite see Wembley Stadium which is sometimes visible on a clear day.

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Windsor Town Centre

By a happy coincidence, our tour was timed to coincide with the Changing of the Guard, which we were able to observe from up above. The band also obliged us by playing, not a hymn or patriotic anthem, but Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen!

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Changing of the Guard

I really enjoyed the tour – but it was a little chilly up there, so I wasn’t sorry to descend. On the way down, our guide told us that a twelve-year-old boy was buried under the staircase – he had died of the plague many centuries ago.

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The Union flag means that the Queen is away – the Royal Standard is flown when she is in residence

The Great Kitchen

The meeting point for the Great Kitchen tour was on the other side of the courtyard. We were taken through the exit from the State Apartments, past the lines of people getting their tickets stamped, and through a slightly hidden door. We were shown the undercroft (sadly, our tour guides told us that they didn’t have access to the impressive wine cellar!), one of the oldest parts of the castle which was only properly discovered after the fire in 1992 (previously it had been converted into offices).

The kitchen itself is huge, with a high ceiling and lots of space. I loved the contrast between ancient and modern: the kitchen space is incredibly old, and there are still some old cooking ranges present, but the worktops are stainless steel and the lowered lighting is designed so that chefs have an excellent light to work by. The ceiling is cleverly designed: it looks very old, but it in fact conceals air vents. There were photos on display showing some of the impressive creations concocted by the chefs, who are responsible for cooking for State banquets. Sadly I couldn’t take any photos of the kitchen, but it’s pretty impressive. Lastly we visited the pastry kitchen, where desserts are created.

If you are visiting Windsor Castle during August or September, I strongly recommend including one or both of these tours in your visit – the Tower tour in particular.

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View of Windsor Castle from the Long Walk

Windsor Castle

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.

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The Castle, seen from just outside the Visitor Centre

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.

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Windsor Castle
Changing of the Guard

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.

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Changing of the Guard
St George’s Chapel

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.

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St George’s Chapel
Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House

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!

Treasures From the Royal Archive

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 State Apartments

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.

Facilities

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.

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The Castle, seen looking up from near the exit