There’s nowhere more quintessentially English than historic Windsor. Words: CLAIRE GOODALL
Even if you’ve only just set foot on British soil, the chances are you’ve heard of Windsor. Straddling the Thames about 30 miles west of London, the Royal city has been dominating the UK tourist trade for centuries. People flock here from all over the world to see its ancient buildings, enjoy its fabulous shops and drink in the regal atmosphere.
There’s no missing Windsor Castle, which looms impressively over the town. There’s been a Royal residence in this spot for more than 900 years, making it the oldest occupied fortress in the world. It’s still one of the three official Royal residences in use today, and Queen Elizabeth II spent much of her childhood here. You can tell whether she’s in by checking the flag above the Round Tower – the Royal Standard flies when she’s at home, the Union Jack when she’s not.
The state apartments are open for a nosey, including Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House – an impossibly detailed miniature stately home – and the new roof of St George’s Hall, lovingly restored after being destroyed in the fire of 1992. But the jewel in the Windsor crown, so to speak, is the magnificent St George’s Chapel. As well as being the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, eight monarchs are buried here, including Henry VIII and Charles I, reunited with his head after having it chopped off in the Civil War. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, lies next to her husband George VI, and the ashes of Princess Margaret are beside them.
Founded by Henry VI in 1441 to educate poor boys, Eton College is now the world’s most famous public school with annual fees of more than £20,000. True to its origins, however, 70 King’s Scholars are chosen each year purely on the basis of exam results. As well as princes William and Harry, the college has educated no fewer than 18 British prime ministers – quite possibly soon to be 19, as Tory leader David Cameron is himself an Old Etonian. Tours of the school run throughout summer, but you’re free to wander round the museum and see the outer college buildings all year round. It’s well worth a look – the weather-beaten red-brick buildings adorned with the graffiti of several thousand small boys, all of whom seemed determined to leave their mark, convey a powerful sense of history.
Out and about
Windsor Great Park stretches behind the castle towards Ascot. It’s ideal for exploring, offering lovely views along the three-mile Long Walk back towards the castle. The Queen herself has been spotted riding here.
The Savill Garden, complete with its brand-new visitor centre, lies within the Great Park. It’s particularly stunning in autumn, but is designed to offer spectacular displays throughout the year. The Royal Farm Shop, bursting at the seams with fabulous food and produce from the Royal estates, is on the western edge of the park. It’s definitely worth the trip if only for tea and cake.
East along the river lie the meadows of Runnymede, where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215 thus establishing the principles of modern democracy. You can walk here along the Thames Path or, in summer, take one of the boat trips from the town centre. It’s a wonderfully tranquil spot with magnificent views across the Thames Valley.
For a fun day out regardless of your age, don’t miss Legoland. You’ll recognise famous London landmarks in Miniland, made from more than 35 million Lego bricks, complete with beeping taxis at Piccadilly Circus.
Best of British
1. See the Changing of the Guard, in Windsor weather permitting, at 11am every other day except Sunday.
2. Have a polo lesson or watch a few chukkas (the seven-minute periods of play in polo) in Windsor Great Park.
3. Follow in the footsteps of Shakespeare and Royal mistress Nell Gwynne and take tea on the cobbled streets behind the Guildhall.
4. Go to the races. Royal Windsor Racecourse holds meetings on Monday evenings, while world-famous Royal Ascot is nearby.
5. Wrap up warm and eat roast chestnuts. An outdoor ice rink is erected by the river in Alexandra Gardens every winter.