Saturday, 20 September 2014

Exeat: Windsor Castle (it's good to be the king)

Choices, mmm.
norman keep round tower windsor castleFirst thing he said (just as a fragile Jof cycled to work) was what do you want to do today:
1. Windsor Castle
2. Fort Nelson
3. Bike ride of your choice
4. Other
and for a while there I wasn't sure. All the way up the A3 I played Minecraft, we parked on the M25 and the M4 (as you do) and reached Windsor in record time, even though we'd had to use the handbrake which is something that you never need to do in Pompey. We toured the mean streets of the Royal Borough but they were all residents only, so we did what we were told and found River Street car park.
4 hours there would have been £15 so we drove right back out again and found Romney Lock car park, which we'd used before when we went to Legoland, £4 for the same time.
Now, we've done plenty of castles and similar venues and have finally learned some lessons. If you go in, get some sights seen and then have a meal in the on-site eatery, you will pay either 1) through the nose or 2) an arm and a leg. So we chose to eat first and take the advice about not going in the castle between 9 and 11 because the ticket office is busy.
Pizza Express is directly opposite the castle so we sat down and we had to wake up the waitress who then proceeded to apologise in Polish for the rest of our meal. I did the kids menu/crayon challenge thing and still had trouble unscrambling the words "eprpep" and "motota" even though it's exactly the same word-scramble challenge as in the numerous Pizza Expresses that I've already visited in Arundel etc.
frogmore house view from windsor castle norman keep round towerThen we approached the castle itself. Bud set off the metal detector with his steel work boots and we paid a mere £42 for the "Conquer the Tower Tour" once I'd passed the height test (just). I've seen the castle before from the outside and I've met other impressive stonework edifices and historical items. But I can tell you that this place is a Castle That Does Not Mess About.
The Norman Keep is Norman, so it's a thousand years old. The site has been added to, strengthened, improved, cleaned, upgraded, tarted up, and otherwise expanded variously ever since by all the big names in the English Sovereign lineage, so it's practically designed to shock and awe the tourist dollars out of the many visitors. At the base of the main Round Tower is the 'Moat Room'. It advertised activities for children: I looked inside to discover finger-painters and dress-up-as-a-princess merchants. I am not a child. I left forthwith.
The main tower is surrounded by ancillary defensive walls, so has a protected microclimate of its own. Probably not what the original builders had in mind, but very advantageous. They have some lovely plants. Incidentally, I can also tell you that the castle is on the main flight path for Heathrow airport so every 47 seconds, a plane goes over and blasts the Royal airspace. I expect if King John knew that, he would have relocated to Abingdon.
The first place we went in was St George's Chapel. This mini-cathedral has 1348 as a build date and this kind of stunning detail is reproduced all over the castle. The gate opposite was built when good old Henry the 8th ordered it to make egress easier.
I liked the woodwork and the tombs and the flags and the steps that go down, and the steps that go up. We weren't allowed on them. Again, official helpers abound making sure that nobody takes photos, so our album is mostly of outside views.
queens rose garden yew tree topiary
In the shop I bought a pencil, in a similar move to Arundel Castle, it was what I could afford. We ran up the slope to the big central tower and joined our little scheduled tour group. Straight away we couldn't take pictures in the access corridor (thoughtfully roofed by King John in the 14th century) but enjoyed the mini-portcullis and the 9 foot cannon pointing down the stairs to blast attacking soldiers with murderous grapeshot.
The first level has cannons pointing at Eton College. The nice man said that it costs 30 grand a year to go there, but Bud sang there for free 30 years ago. Then we climbed the staircase to the top and were told not to take pictures of the Queen's sitting room. I ran off on my own and was given a special personal tour guide to make sure I didn't plummet to my death, but then we got talking and she told me stuff about the local environment such as the chocolate factory just over the river in Slough that makes 3 million Mars bars a week and I told her about all the churches and castles I've been in and she said I was the best thing to happen to her all week. You can see the Royal Mile, a massive procession route to the statue on the hill, shows what a back garden you can have if you're the reigning monarch.
boy eating windsor castle royal herd ice cream
We saw some Beefeaters doing changing of the guard, they have MP5 automatic guns apparently, but they do look rather swish in their freshly laundered uniforms. The bearskin guys in their little guard booths didn't bat an eyelid however many oriental tourists lined up to have a picture taken with them. You can also see the Thames covered in swans, all owned by the King since time immemorial. It's good to be the King.
The Round Tower Does Not Mess About. It survived both sieges and now houses the royal photo collection. On the way out I deserved an ice cream: for £3 I was gratified to read that it was produced (personally) by the Royal Cows. Then we hit the Middle Ward (Lord Chamberlain's) shop because the queue for the State Apartments was really long.
fully armed beefeater soldier royal entourage guardI got a Windsor Castle Medallion and some chocolate and tea for Jof and a little cannon but did not get the Beefeater pyjamas or Beefeater pen or Windsor Castle fridge magnet. I have a collection of "Squashed Pennies"; where special machines elongate a penny and imprint a logo specific to your tourist attraction. The nice lady at the shop said we don't have one here, perhaps it's because the Queen (who lives here) doesn't want her face squashed. Good point.
At the bottom of the Lower Ward is a series of brick buildings that were built by Elizabeth 1 and by gumbo, they're all lived in. Then we noticed that all the wall towers and medieval buildings and precincts and stuff have numbered doors and little gardens with bags of compost and tomato plants and dedicated car parking spaces and people live there! Several houses had gargoyles on the outside.
How totally bodaciously cool must it be to say your address is #5, Windsor Castle?! Once we'd stopped laughing we went through the door (built 1543, told you) onto the North Terrace and saw the Royal Rose Garden, and some little baby cannons and some serious topiary and some rather spiffing frontage and you can see why the Yanks and the Japs and the Aussies and everyone else totally rave about the place, after all, I did.
Then he said look you, we've got to at least try to see the State Apartments 'cos we've come all this way and spent all this entry money. And hey, whaddya know, the queue was not for the State Apartments, but for Queen Mary's Dolls' house. We said Poldarks to dolls houses, for we are chaps and want to see guns and swords and knives and stabbing weapons.
We got a couple of pictures of the swords before the Helpers came over, and we proceeded through the roped walkway. Immediately it's Meissen, Delft, Wedgwood, all with the royal names that make it unique.
sovereign of the realm tourist magnet
This castle is somewhat better than all things we've ever seen before. Rooms are vast. They are plastered with artfully arranged collections of priceless flintlocks, ceremonial diamond-encrusted swords, terrible cutting weapons, knights in shining armour with those jousting lances holding up the ceiling, golden presentation plates, halberds'R'us, and little surprises.
You can just imagine that any foreign dignitary such as the President of America or random Kings, Prime Ministers or other potentates might be seriously over-awed by it, imagine being given a bed for the night here.
Each room has a rather special name like audience chamber, King's bedroom, Waterloo chamber etc. The Lantern Chamber has silver gilt items of top top top workmanship with dates like 1653 and one room is covered in paintings of unreasonable size by unknown artists like Rembrandt, Durer, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Gainsborough, Vermeer, who are these people?
One room was completely gold. Not kidding, everything was gold. The one next to it was the Order of the Garter room, for the King's best friends. The Kings' bedroom has tapestries, oak panelling and ostrich feathers, why not. The clash of status symbols was deafening.
royal collection military armaments windsor castleI do not yet appreciate the little touches like the labels - '15th century cannon taken from Portuguese ship captured by navy 1754', 'From King of Abyssinia' and so forth. We're lucky living in Portsmouth because we are the military fist that the Monarch (all 39 of them so far at Windsor) used to punch those nasty foreigners in the face. Thus we have the ships, the forts and the history. But when the armed forces had done the killing and the capturing, all the best war souvenirs ended up at Windsor.
We went back in and found the queue for the dolls' house had gone, so we went in. It's quite fun, actually, even if you don't do dolls' houses, the design is very detailed and they have a wine cellar and an underground car park and the whole thing is contained in an outside layer that lifts up and down on a pulley system. But next to it is a series of actual dolls with French garments and nappies and hats and they can all burn at the stake like the Windsor Protestant Martyrs of 1543, purely a personal opinion.
boy coosing tourist shit windsor castleThen the car parking ticket was going to run out, so we got our castle tickets stamped (free return within 1 year) and left, although I wanted to do the State Apartments one more time, shame, but there's only so much gold and glitter you can hold in one little brain.
On the way down the hill, we hit one of the crap tourist shops to get some garish piece of tat. Actually, although castle-related tat was available, I did the 3 items for £10 on the series of copper pencil sharpeners that I love so much. I got a globe, James Watt steam engine and a motorbike. I Minecrafted all the way home to the CD of Flanders and Swann's Drop of a Hat.
This is a place that should be on your list of things to do. You might not meet the Queen. But you'll see her house. It's better than yours and mine.

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