I’m on a walking trip in Ireland at the moment and it’s inspired me to document a walk I regularly used to do when I still lived in London… it’s pretty long but offers some great opportunities to see parts of the Royal Landscape which are often overlooked!
Windsor Castle – royal residence and one of the largest occupied castles in the world. It is a spectacle not only for its architecture and what seems like an endless history, but also for the many treasures of priceless art housed at the castle as part of the Royal Collection. There is however, another side of Windsor…
Droves of day visitors pour in to the town and castle grounds for their few hours to soak up the atmosphere and see where the Queen spends her weekends. Unfortunately though, the best parts of Windsor tend to be totally ignored as these visitors are normally on their way to visit not only Windsor, but also Bath and Stonehenge, or Stonehenge and Salisbury (or some other concoction) in the space of just one day, making Windsor flash past them to the point that its barely memorable. A visit to the castle in the space of an hour and a half isn’t impossible but such limited time barely does it justice, and what’s missed beyond this is what puts the castle’s modern history in a fascinating context worthy of much further exploration.
The castle is in fact on the edge of the vast estate of Windsor Great Park, once a royal hunting ground as far back as the 13th century. Today though, the park incorporates various royal properties some of which are still lived in by members of the royal family, and the park itself is regularly used by many of them for recreation. Pretty much all of it is open to the public too, so it’s not unusual to brush shoulders with a Duke, Duchess, Prince or Princess if you’re out and about for a walk!
A full day would be a good start to do Windsor justice, and you could always start with a visit to the castle, but if you prefer to see more of the park you should really come back to see the castle on another visit. However, my favourite way to see the castle in the context of its surroundings is by making the long walk down the Long Walk! It takes about 50 minutes at a brisk pace (about 2.5 miles) to reach the end of this very straight footpath from the gates of Windsor Castle to the far end where you’ll find a copper statue of King George IV on horseback at the top of a mound called Snow Hill. Shortly after you leave the environs of the castle, you’ll see part of a green dome amongst some tress on the other side of a field to your left. This is in the grounds of Frogmore House, which has an extremely chequered history but in 1790 it was purchased for Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) as a country retreat for her and her unmarried daughters. Today the house is used to keep a collection of royal family souvenirs originally catalogued by Queen Mary in the early 20th century. The house is only open on certain days of the year so it’s worth checking the website for the Royal Collection and planning ahead to allow an extra day on your visit to Windsor to visit Frogmore (in 2012 it’s open from 18-20th August to the general public). The green dome at Frogmore you can see from the Long Walk, is in fact the mausoleum of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert which is currently closed indefinitely as some masonry had apparently fallen from the interior of the roof a few years ago so it was deemed unsafe. However, ongoing restoration work is taking place so hopefully it will be reopened to the public at some point in the future.
Once you get to the end of the Long Walk, standing with your back to the equestrian statue of George IV, there are some fantastic views on a clear day. You can see Windsor castle, the town, and parts of the Great Park, but also the whole surrounding countryside towards Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire in the north, and you can even see the tower blocks in the City of London in the east. You can also appreciate how close Windsor is to Heathrow airport as from Snow Hill you can clearly see the planes taking off and landing only a short distance away.
Beyond the statue the Great Park is vast and walking immediately ahead of you behind the statue will take you past Royal Lodge on the left. Today it’s the official residence of Prince Andrew, the Duke of York and apparently his ex-wife (the Duchess of York) lives across the road! Royal Lodge was in fact the country home of the late Queen Mother who died there in 2002, though it was also were she and her husband (King George VI) spent many happy years with Princess Elizabeth (our present Queen) and the late Princess Margaret who played in the grounds as children in the miniature cottage Y Bwthyn Bach – a sort of playhouse given as a gift by the people of Wales in 1932.
A short distance away, further on into the park, you will come across Cumberland Lodge. Today, this is an educational charity offering conferences and meetings promoting debate about the issues facing society, mostly for university students who can attend a varied programme of events throughout the year at this stunning historical venue. Originally constructed in 1652, the building became Cumberland Lodge when the Duke of Cumberland made it his home in the mid 18th century following his victory at the Battle of Culloden in Scotland in 1645 – the last major battle involving hand-to-hand combat on British soil. Hundreds of Scottish clansmen were killed at Culloden and so the Duke is still often referred to today as Butcher Cumberland.
Next you’ll find the Guards Polo Club incorporating 10 fields for polo playing in a site of 130 acres. It has been referred to as the most prestigious polo club in the world and various famous names have played here in the past including the Prince of Wales. If you’re passing the club on a Sunday afternoon in the summer it’s not unusual to see matches taking place which you can watch from the edge of the field at the fence.
Beyond the polo field is the Savill Garden, named after Sir Eric Savill who created the garden in the 1930s and the garden is now managed by the Crown Estate. The restaurant is an excellent place to stop for lunch if you time your day right, but the gardens (admission fee) are a stunningly beautiful place to visit at any time of year though you’d need a couple of hours to do them justice.
If you prefer to avoid the admission fee or just see some more gardens, the Valley Garden is not far away from the Savill Garden. You’ll leave the Savill Garden by walking around the edge of a lake and through a wood to bring you back to the other side of the polo field, then you’ll find the Valley Garden just ahead. The gardens are a huge 250 acre site filled with forests of Scots pine and sweet chestnut, and open meadows with meandering paths offering a selection of trails you could quite happily spend the whole afternoon exploring if horticulture takes your interest. The gardens here have been continuously planted since the middle of the 18th century and there are some nice views across Virginia Water too. This is a man made lake created in 1753 and for many years was the biggest lake of its kind, regularly used by members of the royal House of Hanover for recreation. Wandering around the lake you’ll find an 18th century ornamental cascade, and a Roman temple created with columns brought in the 19th century from the ancient city of Leptis Magna in modern day Libya.
After leaving the Valley Garden, the walk back to Windsor town is a chance to really stride out by walking along the sand track used for exercising horses through a wooded area leading to the Dukes Lane. This is the famous road down which the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh take their carriage from Windsor Castle to and from the famous 5-day race meeting at Ascot in June each year. The Dukes Lane will eventually bring you back to the equestrian statue of King George VI from where you can take the last part of our walk back towards Windsor Castle and Windsor town down the Long Walk again. Thankfully you’ll find a great pub called The Two Brewers in Park Street on your left as you reach the gates of the castle, for a well deserved drink after a long day of walking!