On 19th May, royal-watchers and romantics of the world will be focussing their attention on Windsor, a small Berkshire town on the River Thames, newly created by William the Conqueror nearly 1000 years ago, as Meghan Markle shares her her big day with Prince Harry.
His functional, motte-and-bailey stronghold, one of a series of nine such timber structures rapidly erected around London to deter rebellion against the 1066 Norman invaders, is, even today, a central feature of the astonishing edifice which all succeeding monarchs have strengthened, developed and embellished. In the 12th century, Henry II built a stone fortress on William’s mound and this remained until 1820, when George IV added height, perhaps to improve the view! When HM The Queen is in residence, her Standard flies proudly atop the tower; at other times, the Union Flag has to suffice. Windsor Castle is now the world’s oldest and largest castle, occupying a site of 13 acres (5 hectares), and has been enjoyed as a peaceful royal residence throughout its history, its mighty curtain walls never having been breached. Century by century, the monarchs have added, usually sympathetically, to the grandeur, beauty and fine artworks of the castle and, when Harry and Meghan are married in St George’s Chapel, they will be standing in the Plantagenet shadow of Edward IV, who commissioned its construction in the 15th century.
Opened to the public in the late 20th century, following a catastrophic fire in 1992, the castle now attracts over a million visitors, each year, wondering at the glorious architecture, the awe-inspiring state rooms and entertaining spaces and the sensational works of art. These are taken from the Royal Collection and include paintings and sculptures by great masters, battlefield acquisitions and classic porcelain or precious metal table decorations, not forgetting Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, a ‘no expense spared’ 1920’s 1:12 scale model of a royal palace of the time, fully-furnished and decorated by the finest artists and craftsmen. Leading directly from The Quadrangle, home of the private royal apartments, is the Long Walk, a 2.65 mile avenue from the heart of the 5000 acre Great Park, the Queen’s favourite drive and the breathtaking access route for dignitaries visiting the castle.
The original town of Windsor was established 3-400 years before William’s fortress but, being three miles away, was abandoned in favour of a ‘new’ settlement. A charming town, in its own right, with an eclectic mixture of medieval, Georgian, Victorian and modern influences, Windsor has a satisfying blend of ancient and modern in its architecture, streets and shopping. It also follows the lead given by its illustrious main feature and makes the most of its easy transport connections. The river, in ages gone the main thoroughfare to London, is now abuzz with launches, cruisers and pleasure craft, not to mention the rowers and scullers, particularly the scholars of the world-famous Eton College, located just a mile from the town centre. Runnymede, legendary island site of the signing of Magna Carta in 1215, is only a few oar-strokes away. As you would hope, the town boasts any number of sources of ‘refreshment’, liquid or more substantial, and there is enough variety to satisfy the most demanding, whether thirsting for delicious, locally-brewed craft ales or hungry, for good pub-grub or the finest of gourmet dining.
Within easy distance from London (12 miles west of Heathrow), and well served by public transport, Windsor welcomes visitors. But, be warned, the combination of the people, the heritage and the unmatchable beauty of the Thames Valley may prove so irresistible you may find yourself staying longer than intended.
Where to stay
Perfectly situated for access to all the town’s attractions, on the surprisingly traffic-free High Street, the Macdonald Windsor Hotel brings a nourishing hint of Scotland to the Thames Valley. Not only ideal for the castle, the hotel is within easy range of, for example, the Ascot and Windsor racecourses, Frogmore House and The Savill Garden (both in Great Park) and every child’s dream destinations, Legoland and Thorpe Park. Rather more peaceful options include the gardens at Cliveden, golf at Stoke Park, roaming the Great Park or a leisurely boatride on the river.
The hotel’s main entrance is subtly understated and to be found directly opposite the 1691 Guildhall and the improbably leaning, timber-framed Market Cross House of a similar age. It leads through low-lit lounge areas (perfect for those afternoon teas) to the welcoming reception. With décor predominantly in mushroom, burgundy and shades of grey, the hotel oozes contemporary appeal and its 120 luxurious guestrooms and suites, spread over five floors of Georgian solidity, are each unique in layout and decoration, impeccably finished and with heavenly bathrooms. Lighting is unthreateningly ‘soft’ in the public rooms and Caley’s, the opulent cocktail bar, is stylishly modern, without being brash, making for a welcoming pre- and post-dinner atmosphere. The Caledonian theme is continued into the restaurant, the Scottish Steakhouse, which lives up to its name, serving the finest steaks in town, as well as offering super-fresh fish dishes and other well-conceived alternatives to grills. Their ‘Cullen Skink’, a nourishing soup of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions, has to be the best outside Scotland and is most welcome on a chilly evening. In the morning the most difficult choice is between the melt-in-the-mouth smoked salmon or authentic grilled kippers, served properly ‘on the bone’.
The Macdonald reputation for reliable quality has been well-earned and their multi award-winning hotel in Windsor is deserving of all the accolades which come its way. macdonaldhotels.co.uk/windsor
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