Windsor Castle is The Queen’s favourite weekend retreat and a perfect day trip from London as it’s under an hour away by train. Highlights of a visit include The State Apartments, Changing of the Guard, Queen Mary’s Dolls House – which even has miniature crown jewels – and St George’s Chapel – a beautiful ecclesiastical building and the burial place of ten British Sovereigns.
Windsor Castle’s world-famous round tower closed to visitors in 1975 for major construction work, including concrete underpinning, but reopened in 2011. Conquer the Tower tours are now available during the summer months for an additional fee (adults £8.50/children over 1.3m £5.65) and must be pre-booked.
Inside there are 200 steps to climb (in two stages) but the views from the top (130ft/40m) are worth it as you can see central London and Wembley Stadium on a clear day. Most days you can see the control towers for Heathrow Airport, the green-roofed Royal Mausoleum where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are buried (currently not open to the public but may be in the future) and Frogmore House which is a royal retreat bought for Queen Charlotte and her six daughters who lived there when King George III’s ‘madness’ (actually misdiagnosed porphyria) was too bad to be around. There are also views of Windsor Great Park and the three mile ‘Long Walk’ which Charles II started and George IV finished. Long Walk is lined with Horse Chestnut and London Plane trees and there is a statue of George III at the far end, known locally as the Copper Horse. It was commissioned by his son George IV and was built from melted down cannons. The father and son did not get on well which may explain the distance for the statue from the Castle.
The Round Tower was built by Henry II in 1170 with heath stone from nearby Bagshot. Each stone cost 4 pence when the average wage at the time was 1 pence. The Tower replaced a wooden Norman keep which was part of the Windsor Castle constructed by William the Conqueror from 1070-86. The tower sits on an artificial chalk mound (motte) made from the spoil thrown up when a ditch was dug around the fortress. The Tower has always had a dry moat and in summer months you can pay a small fee (adult £2/child £1) to visit the Moat Gardens. The Round Tower, which interestingly isn’t actually round, had major remodelling work in the 1820s as George IV wanted to make it even taller so 9 metres (29.5ft) were added along with gothic-style battlements.
Another reason to climb to the top is to see the flag and flagpole which was added in 1892. The 15m (49ft) flagpole is made from a US Douglas Fir tree and the normal flag size is about 6ft long but on special occasions, such as The Queen’s birthday, a flag the size of a double decker bus is used! To know if The Queen is in residence check whether the Union Flag or the Royal Standard is out. The Royal Standard means she is here.
A Monarch has never lived in the Round Tower regularly; instead they have chosen the State Apartments. This is where The Queen hosts State Visits from overseas monarchs and presidents.
I felt many comparisons with my visit to Goodwood House even though it is a country house and this is a royal castle. Both have French Gobelin tapestries, Sevre porcelain, royal portraits, silk-lined walls and gold gilt decor. I would actually say the Sevres collection at Goodwood House is more impressive and the tapestries better displayed there too but Windsor Castle has larger, more imposing rooms including the Waterloo Chamber, designed to display paintings of those important in defeat of Napoleon. All the portraits are by the same artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence, and all from live sittings.
Antonio Verrio’s painted ceilings are wonderful in the King’s Drawing Room, Queen’s Audience Chamber and Queen’s Presence Chamber. And the Queen’s Guard Chamber certainly shows the Queen is well guarded with a “temple to military fame” and a kind of ‘weapons as art’ display with crossed rifles and swords adorning the walls, along with circles of pistols and armour.
St George’s Hall is used for banquets and has a new ceiling following the fire on 20 November 1992. The fire started in the small adjoining room, the Lantern Lobby, and spread at roof level. This new small room is now a connecting link for the Private and State Apartments.
The Castle reopened after 5 years in November 1997 and the restoration and repairs cost £37.5 million and came in under budget. The vast majority of the money came from opening Buckingham Palace to the public each summer.
During the winter months an additional five rooms, the Semi-State Rooms, are included in the visitor route but were not open when I was there.
St George’s Chapel
The Chapel is not actually part of Windsor Castle even though it is on the castle grounds. It is completely independent and is not funded by the State or the Church of England. It is a place of worship for the Royal Family and the burial place of ten British Sovereigns. Everyone is welcome to visit the Chapel and there are three services every day of the year with the choir singing six days a week. The choir is made up of 12 men and 23 boys up to the age of 13 who receive a full bursary for their schooling.
In 1348, Edward III started the Order of the Garter as an ethical and loyal ‘club’ and in 1475, Edward IV decided he wanted to give it a spiritual home so St George’s Chapel was started. It took 50 years to build and was completed during Henry VIII’s reign.
The Queen’s parents, George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, are buried here, as are her grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary. While there is a very formal memorial with stone carvings of the couple, Queen Mary’s hands are carved just as she held them in prayer which is the kind of formality and personal touch that sums up St George’s Chapel.
Another important memorial is for Princess Charlotte who died in childbirth. It is because she died that Queen Victoria took the throne. Princess Charlotte was incredibly popular and there was a similar outpouring of public grief as when Diana died. Public subscription – in lots of small contributions, not major donations – paid for the memorial.
In the vault, under the Quire, Charles I and Henry VIII are actually buried together. Charles I was executed and his body was brought to Windsor, his head sewn back on and they were buried together as nothing was prepared for an unexpected death.
Changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle
The Guard marches through Windsor so from outside the castle, the best viewing point is the Corn Exchange at Windsor Guildhall. From inside the castle grounds you can watch, and listen to the military band, outside the Guards Room in the Lower Ward by St George’s Chapel. Changing of the Guard takes place at 11am from April to July and on alternate days for the rest of the year.
It’s a much more intimate ceremony than outside Buckingham Palace and when the old Guard leave you can go around the barrier and stand next to the new Guard. Here’s a photo of me with a soldier from the Coldstream Guards who came on duty that morning. I know he’s from the Coldstream Guards because he has a red plume on the right side of his bearskin; Garter star badge on his collar; and the buttons on his tunic are positioned in pairs.
There’s lots more to do in the Windsor area than just the Castle and a beautiful place to stay is Coworth Park, the Dorchester Collection’s country house which opened in 2010. Set in 240 acres of picturesque Berkshire parkland and just 20 minutes from Heathrow Airport. The estate includes a luxury spa, three restaurants and it is the only UK hotel to feature its own polo fields.
I managed a quick visit to The Savill Garden, within Windsor Great Park which is made up of lots of smaller gardens with the planting best reflecting the micro climates. The New Zealand Garden has the biggest collection of native NZ plants in the UK. There is a summer sculpture display throughout the garden in August and September each year but I’d like to go back in October and November when the carriage rides are available.
I also want to return to see Eton which has been popular this summer as Eton Dorney has been the London 2012 Olympics canoe sprint and rowing venue. Both Prince William and Harry went to school at Eton College and it can be visited from April to October. Eton High Street is also worth a stroll as it has plenty of independent shops plus the only 1908 Olympic marathon route market still in existence. The marathon started at Windsor Castle and just past the Post Office and before the Eton College shop it reads “25 miles to go“.
Key Info about Windsor Castle
Time: Mar to Oct: 9.45am-5.15pm / Nov to Feb: 9.45am-4.15pm
A typical visit lasts between 2 and 3 hours.
Address: Windsor Castle, Windsor, Berkshire SL4 1NJ
Phone: +44 (0)20 7766 7304
Costs: Adult £17.00 / Over 60 or Student £15.50 /child £10.20 (under 17) / under 5s free / Family ticket: 2 adult & 3 children £44.75
Getting there: Train from London Paddington or London Waterloo in under an hour. Windsor Castle is a ten minute walk from the train station.