A sunny winter’s day out at Windsor Castle
Many moons ago in 2012, while I was debating where to live in London for the very first time, my wonderful grandmother threw a curve ball into the mix by suggesting I move to Windsor instead. I ended up concluding it might be a bit too quiet for a 23-year-old, and didn’t realise that it would be a whole 7.5 years before I actually stepped foot in Windsor! I recently put that to rights at long last by paying a visit to the town and the famous Windsor Castle.
It’s the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, founded in the 11th century by William the Conquerer – an ancestor of mine in fact! Nowadays over 200 people live and work in it every day. The Queen herself lives in Buckingham Palace during weekdays but retreats to Windsor Castle as her weekend haven, and she apparently much prefers it to Buckingham. While it’s often open to the public for visits (although do check the dates before you visit), it also functions as a venue for royal events, investiture ceremonies when people are knighted or awarded certain honours, and state visits by foreign leaders, not to mention royal weddings like Prince Harry’s and Princess Eugenie’s, both in 2018.
How to visit Windsor Castle
An entrance ticket to the castle encompasses the grounds, the State Apartments and St George’s Chapel and allows you to glimpse the day-to-day surroundings of the Queen in her favourite residence and the one she considers her true home. The Royal Family’s fondness of Windsor is also evident by their choice of Windsor as a new surname back in 1917, when wanting to distance themselves from their German heritage, in the midst of fighting World War I. It’s apparently best to visit after midday (I suspect due to tour groups in the morning) and advised to buy your ticket online in advance to avoid long queues.
Once inside the grounds and armed with an audioguide (included in the ticket price), we found ourselves welcomed by none less than Prince Charles, before beginning a tour that took us just over 3 hours to see everything. So while the ticket price seems a little steep at £23.50 for an adult, it is a very thorough visit. The famous pictures of Windsor Castle’s stone exterior had led me to believe it would be an old, quite bare stone structure inside as well, like most of the other castles I’ve explored. So it was a surprise to find luxuriously decorated palace replete with cavernous halls and vast regal portraits inside!
Among my favourite spots were the grand and gilded halls of the ceremonial route through the State Apartments: the Waterloo Chamber where the Queen used to stage pantomines as a young child; St George’s Hall where state banquet’s and Prince Harry’s wedding reception was held; and the Crimson and Green Drawing Rooms. A large part of the State Apartments were actually burnt down in 1992 and have been reconstructed virtually from scratch, giving it a very polished feeling. We visited just after Christmas so most rooms boasted stunning Christmas trees which glittered and twinkled all the more. The Queen apparently hosts ‘dine and sleep’ evenings at the Castle where she handpicks whoever she fancies inviting for dinner: astronauts, politicians, artists, sports stars, and who exactly would turn down that invite?
If there’s a long queue for Queen’s Mary’s Doll’s House when you visit, then I advise you see the State Apartments first and then decide whether to queue. The Doll’s House is impressive but it’s only one room and not worth 20 minutes queuing, in my honest opinion.
Leaving the State Apartments, we admired the Quadrangle, the manicured slopes of the Round Tower and the Lower Ward, before exploring St George’s Chapel, which I recognised from Prince Harry’s wedding – although it’s much smaller in real life. It’s also home to the tomb of King Henry VIII and contains some other interesting historical features and royal symbolism oozes from every corner. It’s a visual feast, especially when the sunlight illuminates the brightly coloured stain-class windows.
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020
After three engrossing hours of exploring the castle we dove into the nearby Clarence tea rooms, a short two-minute walk from the Castle, for a bite to eat.
What else is there to see in Windsor besides the Castle?
The fading January sunlight washed the stonework of the Castle, Chapel and their huge thick walls in a beautiful golden glow, and we would have liked to finish off the visit with a sunset stroll down the 2.64-mile Long Walk, lined with 1,652 Elm trees, which departs from the castle and follows a dead straight line into Windsor Great Park. When processions of horses and carriages arrive at Windsor Castle, this is the long, grand driveway they approach by, and it was modelled by King Charles II on the Palace of Versailles. We ran out of daylight, but in summer this walk would be a great option, taking around 90 minutes in total there and back. It’s outside of the Castle, so is open to the public with no ticket required.
Windsor town itself has some quaint old streets, although too many high street chains for my liking, and it’s easily explored within 10-15 minutes. Across the River Thames from Windsor you can stroll around the equally historic town of Eton, also home to the public school Eton College which I believe offers tours in summer if you’ve still enough energy!
With dusk fallen, we headed back into London, which is under an hour away by train either to London Waterloo (via Windsor and Eton Riverside station) or London Paddington (via Windsor and Eton Central station, with a change at Slough).
If you like the look of Windsor Castle or want to explore more Royal Family history, then also take a look at my blog post about Buckingham Palace, which is open during two summer months while the Queen is away at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Osborne House on the Isle of Wight was a favourite of Queen Victoria, although it is no longer a royal residence.