“Queen Elizabeth treats it as a weekend cottage, as it is only an hour’s drive from Buckingham Palace, even though it has a thousand rooms and was first built by William the Conqueror in the 1070s,”writes Correspondent Paul Lewis.
“But most visitors to Windsor Castle, famous for its signature fat round tower, take a day trip there by train from London’s Waterloo or Paddington stations. With three trains an hour in each direction, just turn up and jump on for the 40-minute ride, following the river Thames for much of the way.
“Built on top of one of the few hills in this part of England (Heathrow Airport is noisely close), the castle is skirted by just a thin trace of an old Georgian town through which the road winds up to its gate, passing the Guildhall where in 2005 Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles had their civil wedding before the religious ceremony in the castle’s St. George’s Chapel.
“It’s a good idea to book visitor tickets online a day or two in advance, because this allows you to pick them up straightaway at the entrance without having to join the queue and wait. You go right royally in. But at 15 pounds, or some US$25 a head, touring the Queen’s weekend cottage is not cheap.
“During the First World War, the British royal family Anglicized their German family name to Windsor. There are few guided tours to the castle that share that name, and visitors are pretty much left free to roam around as they wish. An immediate decision is whether to go first to see Queen Mary’s Doll’s House, which is popular and often involves a wait, or to proceed straight to the State Apartments.
“For Doll’s House enthusiasts the wait is worth it because this one, designed by the great British architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, for King George V’s consort in 1924, is a gem. Real water flows in the bathrooms, the elevator works, rooms are perfectly proportioned, and, in the wine-cellar, the tiny bottles contain tiny quantities of real vintage wine.
“An impressive staircase leads up to the State Apartments guarded by two suites of medieval armor sitting atop life-sized plaster horses. Much of this part of the castle was severely damaged by a fire that broke out on Nov. 20, 1992. Destroyed were the ceiling of St. George’s Hall (not the church), a huge portrait of George III, against whom the American colonies revolted (which was too big to more), the Willis organ, the 1851 Axminster carpet from the Great Exhibition, and the historic Star Chamber (the court, abolished in the 18th century, where the King alone passed judgment on his political foes).
“The restoration work took five years and cost 36.5 million pounds, or some US$50 million. Apart from a personal contribution of 2 million pounds from the Queen, all the money was found through economies in the royal budget and from opening other palaces for longer, with the taxpayer contributing nothing. The St. George’s Hall was topped with what looks like the old hammered-beam ceiling but now with steel reinforcement. George III and the Star Chamber were done for good.
“The castle was reopened to the public in November 1997.
“Today the apartments house selections from the castle’s collection of china banqueting services, paintings by many old masters, including Van Dyke’s triple portrait of Charles I who was held prisoner here before his execution, carvings by Grinling Gibbons, walls festooned with swords, spears, and crossbows, enormous banqueting rooms with their equally enormous dining tables, gilded furniture, and a vast 18th-century bed covered with a rich hanging put up for a visit by Napoleon III in 1855.
“The windows command a view of the playing fields of Eton College, Britain’s most famous private boys’ school, which are said to have imbued habits of team spirit that won the Battle of Waterloo. Red-coated sentries in big black fur hats patrol the ramparts and stand absolutely still while people take photographs with them alongside members of their party. The castle closes at 5:15 p.m. March to October and at 4:15 in the winter.
“St. George’s Chapel (closed on Sundays) is a fine example of English Perpendicular Gothic and contains the tombs of 10 former monarchs. Although he had it built, Henry VIII is not buried there, but Charles I and the Georges from III to VI are. Next to it is a smaller chapel dedicated by Queen Victoria to the memory of her consort, Prince Albert, who died in the castle.
“Highly recommended is the rich fruit and nut cake, baked with plenty of port and sherry, on sale in the gift shop. The cake package says it is from the Royal Collection of St. James’s Palace, London, and that it is hand-made, presumably not by the Queen. The proceeds go for the upkeep of the royal painting collection, once curated by Sir Anthony Blunt, who was part of the Burgess-McLean Soviet spy ring.”