Windsor Castle – a name that conjures up the magic of Kings, Queens, damsels in distress, charging knights, and possibly a dragon or two.
If you’re visiting London, Windsor Castle is perfect for a quick day trip from London. The Old World charm of Windsor Castle will enchant you, whether you are a history buff or just are interested in one of the most impressive castles of British Royalty. It’s lesser known Changing of the Guard Ceremony delivers English pomp, pageantry and history in a beautiful and relatively uncrowded way. Occupying a massive 5 hectares (13 acres), it is the place where her Majesty the Queen prefers to spend most of her private weekends.
My reason for visiting Windsor Castle was simple. In my early adulthood, I was a love-struck fan of the Tudor Period in history, followed closely by the English Regency Period. For me, Windsor Castle and Hampton Court are more of pilgrimage sites than tourist attractions. Seeing the oldest and largest continuously occupied castle in the world, a venerable icon the British are justifiably very proud of is a pleasure in itself.
History and layout of the Windsor Castle
Built by the Norman William the Conqueror in the 11th century, Windsor Castle has been the home of 39 monarchs. William built Windsor Castle as part of a ring of 9 castles around London. Should the new French-born ruler of Viking ancestry face any attack in London from the (rightly!) disgruntled local Saxon nobility, back-up troops were only a day’s march away (20-30 miles).
The Castle is roughly divided into 3 sections: the Lower Ward, Middle Ward, and Upper Ward, so named for their respective elevations. The Lower Ward houses the famous St. George’s Chapel from which the world saw the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018, and it is here that the Changing of the Guard takes place. The Middle ward contains the striking medieval Round Tower. The Upper Ward contains the State Apartments and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s private apartments where she and her consort Prince Philip spend their private weekends.
If Her Majesty is in residence there will be the Royal Standard flying from the Castle’s Round Tower. If she is not, the more recognizable Union Jack will be flying.
The castle is open all year round for visiting except on public holidays. We had the good fortune to visit on a weekend the Queen was at ‘home’ though obviously because of our limited time, we could not stay for tea with her :).
The huge Round Tower of the castle is an imposing structure within a reclaimed moat. Today some of the moat space has been given over to gardens. It always thrills me thinking of how the Round Tower would have looked in the past with archers on the battlements. The Round Tower is made of stone from nearby Bagshot Heath and erected by Henry II in 1170.
The Changing of the Guard
Changing the Guard is a colorful spectacle that takes place within the castle grounds. The ‘Guards’ have had the privilege of guarding the monarch from 1660. Though the familiar Red Uniformed Household Troops usually carry this out, sometimes this privilege is extended to other regiments of the British Army.
The guards are not purely ceremonial as most of the guards will have seen action overseas. The Windsor Castle guard forms up outside the Guardroom and then the new Guard arrives from Windsor town preceded by a merry drum or pipe band and the handover of duties including the changing of sentries takes place.
This ceremony takes 45 minutes and the Old Guard departs to Victoria Barracks in Windsor town. When the Queen is in official residence (as on our visit), the parade takes place in the Castle Forecourt. The ceremony currently takes place at 11:00 am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Pro-tip: The Changing of the Guard does not take place on Sundays, so that is something you might want to take into consideration should this be high on your experiences list.
The State Apartments & St George’s Chapel
The tickets include entries to the opulent State Apartments and the beautiful St George’s Chapel. Though photography is not permitted in either, these are delightful experiences of English showmanship and grandeur. If you, like me, do want photographic memorabilia, high-quality prints in the form of postcards and souvenir guides can be obtained from the gift shop.
The State Apartments are gorgeous, opulent rooms designed originally by Charles II in the 17th century. They are a sequence of rooms that are the centerpiece of the castle and display many priceless works of art (Holbein, Vandyck and Rubens) which were commissioned by the Royalty.
If you look upwards, you’ll see beautifully painted ceilings by the Italian Masters commissioned by Charles II. However, some of these sumptuous ceilings were covered up by George IV with ornate white plasterwork, which was more fashionable in the Regency Period.
One Monarch’s timeless art is another Monarch’s plaster background.
On some days, the Windsor Castle State Apartments may be closed because of events such as a knighthood ceremony, and these closures will be usually on the website ahead of time though they may occur at ‘short notice’. On these days, the entry fee to the castle will be reduced.
A visit to the very beautiful and historic St George’s Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle should not be missed. The lovely St George’s chapel is where previous monarchs such as Henry VIII and Charles I are interred in a vault underneath.
The beautiful chapel closes at 4 pm though visitors are welcome to attend the evensong service at 5:15 pm. If you are traveling on a Sunday, please note that though the Chapel is closed on Sundays to visitors, all can attend chapel services.
Other points of interest
For those of us interested in Indian or British colonial history, there are also some artifacts associated with Tipu Sultan’s Throne, which were captured by the British during the 1799 storming of his Palace at Seringapatnam. Another India connection is Queen Mary’s Dolls House, which is equipped with furniture and functional fittings and designed by Edward Lutyens, architect of New Delhi’s elegant presidential buildings.
For the ghost aficionados among us, Windsor Castle is a delightful treat. It is supposedly the most haunted of all the Royal Residences, boasting a hair-raising 25 of them. Of the two most famous, the first is of Queen Elizabeth I. The indomitable Virgin Queen has been seen in the library by members of the Royal Family including Queen Elizabeth II and her sister Princess Margaret. The second is of Henry VIII who has been heard haunting the deanery cloisters.
The Long Walk
On sunny days, it is a treat to walk along the gorgeous Long Walk that leads to and from Windsor Castle.
This broad and elegant tree-lined avenue is the perfect picture opportunity for taking in the grand beauty of Windsor Castle nestling among the trees. It passes through Windsor Great Park and its herd of 500 Red Deer.
The Great Park was an ancient Royal Hunting Forest which is now open to the public and the landscape is largely unchanged for the last 1000 years. The Park houses one of the oldest populations of oak trees in Europe having trees standing today that were planted during the reign of William the Conqueror and would have seen him go hunting for pleasure. While on the walk, do look out for the Red Deer as they are used to humans and are less shy than wild deer. We didn’t see any, unfortunately.
While in Windsor town itself, another attraction that can be seen is the famous Eton College and its surroundings, which produces students for Oxbridge and has a tradition of supplying English civil servants and politicians. For all the Harry Potter fans, it is also an interesting sight to see students rushing by in their black gowns during term time.
It might also be a wonderful idea to relax after your long day at the Castle by spending few hours enjoying the very English hobby of afternoon tea or a quintessential pub dinner at one of the numerous eateries in the pretty little village of Windsor.
Getting to Windsor Castle by Train: From London Paddington Station, take the train to Windsor and Eton Central Station. At Slough station, cross to the opposite side of the platform and take the train to Windsor. Journey time is about 25-35 min.
From Waterloo Station, take the train to Windsor and Eton Riverside Station. Journey time is around 1hr. Windsor Castle is a 10 min walk from both stations.
Getting to Windsor Castle by Car: Drive on the M4 and use exit 6. Follow the signs for Windsor Castle. The train station is a ten-minute walk from the village to the Castle.
Time needed for a visit: About 2.5 to 3 hrs (allow more if you’d like to take an in-depth look at the information displayed)
Tickets and prices: The ticket queues are very long usually and so the best course of action is to buy the tickets online from the official website and print them for quick entry into the Castle. Your Windsor Castle ticket, once stamped, is valid for a year, so presents a great excuse to visit again.
Which days to go: Monday to Saturday. On Sunday, the Castle is open but St George’s Chapel is closed to visitors though visitors can attend chapel services taking place at 5:15 pm (please check the website for closures). There is no Changing of the Guard on Sundays.
Best time of the day to visit: The busiest times are from opening until midday so afternoons can be the best time to visit.
What to buy: There are a number of souvenir shops inside Windsor Castle. Do be warned that some of the delicate porcelain cups and saucers might be quite a royal splurge but there are many affordable options for chocolate, tea and gift items.
This is a guest post by Suchi Roy. Suchi is one half of an India-Bangladesh academic couple based in the UK for over 10 years. When not climbing up volcanoes and visiting crumbly old castles, they can be found in front of their wall map plotting their next escape. You can find their Instagram page here.
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