When you live near something touristy, it’s often something we don’t visit, because it’s always there. Too busy doing things that are temporary. Such was the case when I lived in Windsor, which has a bloody massive tourist trap in the centre of town.
In fact, I went inside Windsor Castle many times, but for work or supporting ceremonial functions. As such, rather oddly, I’ve seen lots of Windsor Castle that the tourists never see, but I had never seen the bits that they do see.
Time to rectify that.
Buying tickets online in one way to make sure I don’t turn up on the day and think, nah, do that later. It also turned out to include jumping the queue which was snaking down the road full of people waiting to buy tickets to go inside.
A security check that is now mandatory at public venues and I declined the headphones. I really just don’t like them, even though I know I probably miss out on the subtle details.
Like a lot of seemingly ancient royal traditions, much of what makes up Windsor Castle is comparatively modern, and even the massive round tower (which isn’t round), and dominates the castle was doubled in height in the early 19th century.
Snaking around an outer wall, tourists stream past, snapping selfies all the while until you reach the round tower itself, with the deep ditch that was once dug out to create the mound the tower sits on. Once for defence, today it’s filled with a decorative garden.
A gatehouse leads to the North Terrace, with a steep drop down to the streets below slightly obscured by the trees, and a vista across to Eton College and, umm, Slough.
This is where the queues start again, and no queue jumping this time, to go inside the State Apartments.
Standing the rain, a jolly chap entertained the crowds with weather-themed songs, which the queue slowly wound its way forward. At the entrance, an usher spent some time explaining to a tourist that yes, her phone needed to be put away, and yes it clearly would fit in her handbag.
This is the realm of no photography allowed.
It’s also initially at least, the realm of seeing nothing. You go into a nearly pitch dark room and walk, or fumble, around a large glass box. Inside, if you can see over the shadowy heads in the way (taking photos!), is Queen Mary’s Dolls House.
A gargantuan effort of architectural and interior design, it’s said to be a marvel of miniature model making. If you can see any of it that is.
But onto the State Rooms, with their medieval splendour. Except, that’s most of it dates to the time of Charles II, and remodelled by George IV, and restored by Elizabeth II (although that was the unintentional result of a fire).
Up the grand staircase flanked by two knights riding horses, then a guided route through staggering room after staggering room. It’s a huge space, far larger than Buckingham Palace has to offer.
Whole walls lined with medieval weapons looking terrifically imposing on visitors in the past, when sword and musket were the most deadly weapons to be seen on the battlefield.
From hugely gilt reception rooms to seemingly ancient wood roofed banqueting halls, it’s a collection of every style of royal reception room you could need to suit dignitaries from different countries. That’s actually deliberate, the rooms were all remodelled in the early 19th century by Jeffry Wyatville to reflect different architectural styles and decoration.
Walking around though, one thing which struck me was the accent I was hearing. As a teen, the dominant non-British accent in Windsor was the American one. Now it’s the Chinese one. Not just people chattering, but it turned out that the audio-guides have a headphone-less option, so the walk around the State Rooms is accompanied by the sound of a Chinese commentary overlaid with Zadok the Priest, which is many layers of weird on its own.
Also weird isn’t that there’s lots of opportunities to buy gifts, for there are, but that one of the shops is inside the State Rooms themselves, in the room piled high with china plates, so there’s a little shop here seemingly doing a roaring trade in selling china plates to Chinese tourists.
It’s not just royals who get a look in here, with rooms devoted to the battle of Waterloo, and significant figures in modern political history.
Being a commoner, you leave by the back-door, but do get to peer over the fence at the very sealed off private apartments.
Considering how filled with tourists the State Rooms were, the next decent thing to visit was surprisingly devoid of tourists.
The magnificent St George’s Chapel is one of the best examples of English Perpendicular Gothic design you’ll ever see. The late 15th-century chapel dominates the lower half of the castle grounds, but with a small door to go inside, maybe lots of visitors simply don’t realise it’s open?
It’s not officially part of the castle though, being a Royal Peculiar, and run by the College of Canons, who have managed a chapel in the castle since 1348.
It’s long been a bit of a favourite church of mine, and inside it’s a wonderfully gothic church with all the usual things you expect, with tombs to walk over, chairs to sit in and lots of regal memorials to look at. However, it’s the stalls that are the highlight of this chapel, and surprisingly I thought, were open to walk through.
This is the chapel for the Order of the Knights of the Garter, and the stalls are lined with their crests and heraldry, and the tops lined with heraldic flags. It’s almost a perfect image of over the top British pomp and ceremony, and one that was missed by most of the tourists.
Not by all, including the one taking photos in a space that was again a photo free zone.
A small curiously inappropriately stocked shop in the cloisters ends the visit.
In terms of how much of the castle you’ve seen, it’s still quite a small section. All the private areas being, quite private. Nonetheless, without the headphones, it was a good 3 hours wandering around regal rooms and Christian chapels.
Also, having bought the ticket online, in addition to queue-jumping, meant I am able to go back for free for a year.
Which is useful, as one of the best times of the year to visit Windsor Castle is between September and March, when the private apartments created for George IV are open to the public as well.