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Archive for April 1st, 2007

Windsor Castle, Round Tower

The Round Tower at Windsor Castle

Finally, after living in the UK for about 570 days, we ventured outside of London to see Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II‘s weekend getaway.

Because I’m a train fan, there were only two options for reaching Windsor: a 1-hour direct train ride from Waterloo or a 1-hour ride from Paddington with a transfer at Slough (Office fans among you have heard of the unfortunately-named Slough). The latter doesn’t run on Sundays, so Waterloo, it was.

For £7.20 a person, you can get a “cheap same day return” ticket to Windsor Central Riverside station. The Southwest commuter trains that run to Windsor are clean, comfortable, and overall much nicer than the plastic-seated NJ Transit trains of my youth.

It was an easy ride into Windsor, and when we hopped off, we found ourselves on a busy, but still quaint, road called Dachet, and Windsor Castle loomed above. Because we’d packed a picnic lunch, we walked over the pedestrian-only Windsor Bridge in search of green patches to spread our blanket.

All we found across the bridge was the Eton boat house and a large, forlorn-looking grassy field that screamed “don’t picnic here.” I’m pretty sure I saw tumbleweed blow by.  So we turned around and headed back towards the Castle, which is so enormous that it took forever to walk around the perimeter to reach the tourist entrance.

I was amused to see the road circling the Castle walls was lined by chains of all shapes and sizes – McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Ben & Jerry’s and Thai Square, for example. There’s even what appeared to be a Medieval-themed shopping mall. I wonder what the Queen thinks. Does she go to McDonald’s? She’s probably grateful the Castle is surrounded by 4-meter-thick (high) stone walls.

After buying our tickets (£14.20 a person – yowsers) and making our way through security screening, we asked a guard where to picnic, and he suggested the delightful-sounding “Jubilee Gardens.”

Well, it turns out the Jubilee Gardens is a small, paved bandstand surrounded by a narrow strip of greenery and flowers. It’s right on the footpath visitors take to get from the ticket office to the main entrance of the Castle, which does give you the feeling you’re on display as part of the scenery.  Still, it was sunny and 50 F today, so we didn’t mind (too much) gorging ourselves in public on the paved bandstand.

Our free audiotour guided us through the few parts of the Castle that are open to the public.  Walking around, I could imagine how cold and tough it was to live in the Castle when William the Conqueror built the first part of the Castle, the Round Tower (see photo at top), in the early 11th century as a fortress.

Today, you know the Queen is in the house when the royal standard flies from the top of the Round Tower, as it did today.  The heavy, thick, stone walls studded with narrow slits (through which archers could blast out a few deadly arrows) didn’t conjure up warm and fuzzy thoughts, but the interior rooms, which are lived in and are therefore comfortable, do provide a big contrast to the Castle’s appearance from the outside.

When inside the Castle, the audiotour directs you first to see Queen Mary’s dollhouse. Another case of a misleading name. I thought it was a dollhouse given to Queen Mary when she was a child, but actually, it was given to her when she was an adult (an avid miniature-collecting adult). Weird. The dollhouse comes with real silverware, crown jewels and even vintage wine in miniature. Oh, and did I mention the electricity and working plumbing? No doubt it has a better heating and water system than my flat in London.

I enjoyed the photo exhibit of Elizabeth II’s life in the Castle’s Drawings Gallery, capturing her on film from infancy to the present. It’s easy to forget that the inflexible, reserved woman portrayed today has lived through some interesting times, including WWII during the Blitz, and these photos put her life in a context I’d never really considered.

The State Apartments were, as Jon says, “just like in any palace.” Lots of ponderous beds draped in heavy fabrics, Van Dycks, Reubens and throne rooms here and there, gilt-and-crystal everything; and china sets galore.

Windsor Castle Quadrangle

Quadrangle at Windsor Castle

For me, the interesting bits were the “spoils of war” from various colonies (e.g., a solid gold tiger from the throne of Tipu Sultan) as well as the pains taken to reconstruct parts of the Castle destroyed by a fire in 1992. In one grand room, the intricate wood-tiled floor was restored by removing each tile, flipping it over, and gluing it back down. Genius.While walking through the State Apartments, if you look out the windows, you get a nice view of the Quadrangle, which is a college-looking courtyard that looks too inviting to be left so empty of pedestrians. Alas, no visitors allowed on the Quadrangle. Queen only, I suppose.

Overall, Windsor is a nice place to visit, and I wish we’d had more time to walk around the pretty town streets. I might skip bringing a picnic lunch next time and just join the tourist hordes at the McDonald’s. It spares you the indignity of sitting out on a bandstand by the Castle entrance.

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