Kings and queens have called Windsor home for centuries. Take a walk through its cobbled streets to discover what makes it such a favourite with royalty
Windsor would be a lovely place to visit, even without its most famous resident. Wandering alleyways, strolling along the river Thames, taking tea and scones in a tearoom. Each of these is a pleasant way to while away the hours in one of England’s most historic towns.
But of course were it not for the castle overlooking it all, Windsor just wouldn’t be Windsor. It was William the Conqueror who first decided this would be a fine place to build a castle. His chosen site, high on a hill, overlooked the river, it provided wonderful access to hunting grounds and, most importantly, it was a mere day's march away from the Tower of London.
That was more than 900 years ago. The railways and the roads cut a day to an hour, and Windsor remained the perfect weekend retreat for the sitting monarch. Queen Elizabeth II is known to rate the castle above all her other royal residences: she even calls Windsor ‘home’.
It may be the largest occupied castle in the world – it covers 26 hectares – but large chunks of it are still open to the public year-round. A visit here gives a fascinating insight into the workings of monarchs both past and present. Adorning the walls in the stunning State Apartments are some of the most priceless pieces from the royal collection, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens and Canaletto. All miraculously escaped destruction when a fire swept through the castle in 1992, damaging more than 100 rooms.
But it’s a visit to St George’s Chapel, burial place of 10 sovereigns, that makes Windsor Castle such an intimate experience. In part this is because the Chapel is the final resting place of the Queen Mother. A name we know is buried here alongside those only ever listed history books.
From the castle, it’s possible to gaze across the river towards neighbouring Eton, and one of England’s most famous – and most expensive – schools. Eighteen British prime ministers have been educated at Eton, along with a large swathe of royalty – including the princes William and Harry. A surprise, then, to learn on a tour of the school that it was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI to provide free education for 70 poor scholars. Some 1,300 boys aged 13-18 attend the school these days, their parents paying upwards of £20,000 a year for the privilege.
Eton is small and it feels small. It's also quiet, its privacy – and that of its school – closely guarded. Antique shops, tailors and bookshops line the main street; small tearooms and old coaching inns have been retained. There are few visible concessions to the tourist pounds the school’s fame and location bring in.
Back in Windsor, the road from the castle's southern entrance – called the Long Walk – leads into Windsor Great Park, the perfect place to wind down after a busy day sightseeing. Among the 2,000 hectares of countryside here you’ll find manicured gardens, dense woods, ancient oaks, the odd deer and plenty of birds filling the air with the sweetest of sounds. With all this outside her window, it’s hardly surprising the Queen rates Windsor above any other royal retreat.
WHERE TO STAY
The Royal Adelaide Hotel (46 Kings Road, Windsor): an elegant four-star hotel in a wonderful Georgian building opposite the Long Walk.
The Christopher Hotel, Bar and Grill (110 High Street, Eton): a coaching inn that dates back to 1711.
WHERE TO EAT
The Tower Brasserie & Tea Room, Harte & Garter Hotel (High Street, Windsor): Simple British classics done really well using local produce.
The Royal Oak (Thames Street, Windsor); sits in the shadow of the castle and is a favourite with locals and visitors alike. Its roaring fire makes it a cosy spot year-round.
Visiting Windsor Castle: the Changing of the Guard takes place at 11am, usually Monday-Saturday from April to June, and on alternate days from July to March (subject to change).
Getting there: there are regular trains from London Waterloo to Windsor & Eton Riverside Station (just under an hour), and also from London Paddington to Windsor & Eton Central Station (just over half an hour).