Or: Who wants to queue forever?
“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.”
– G. K. CHESTERTON
Windsor Castle as seen from the train.
In order to escape the Easter weekend’s madness, I decided to cross another tourist sight off of my To-Do-List and spent a day in Windsor, the home of Queen Elizabeth II. Located approximately half an hour train ride outside of London, Windsor is a small town with probably more tourists than residents. Nonetheless, rumour has it that visiting Her Majesty’s home is something you shouldn’t miss when you’re in London – or should you?
The train for Oxford leaves Paddington Station at around half past ten in the morning at a speed that would put every ICE in Germany to shame and I’m not nearly awake enough for that kind of experience, but who’s the British railway service to care about sleepy tourists? Adding to the blurred green-brown-soup beyond the train windows, the train is packed with foreigners. The only indicator that we’ll all be changing trains at Slough together is the occasional “Windsor” that filters through the incomprehensible mix of languages that echo through the train compartment.
Indeed, we arrive at the monorail train station of Windsor exactly 26 minutes later and it’s nothing like what I’ve expected. In Germany, I grew up in a small village with barely more than 5,000 residents and even our train station is busier than Windsor’s. Though maybe not as posh. There’s an old steam locomotive on display, a signpost pointing towards a castle that is hidden behind little cafés and pubs. In all fairness, the first impression is that Windsor is surprisingly down to earth for the home of the British Queen.
Leaving the train station and a handful of designer stores behind, I stumble up a cobblestone street and need a moment to process that I’m already standing in front of Windsor Castle. Didn’t I just come out of a train station? It’s probably handy for the Queen to live in close proximity to public transport – but it’s not like she uses it, does she? The town layout is nothing what I expected and it throws me off a bit, but before I get to adjust to this strange environment, people start to line up alongside the street. It’s 11.30 a.m. – time for the changing of the guards, apparently. It’s not nearly as spectacular as their colleague’s performance in London, but it satisfies the curious tourists and their need to block everyone’s view with their selfie-sticks.
A part of the queue (which was twice as long as seen on this picture)
After roughly five minutes, the guards have walked past us and I’m patiently waiting for the crowds to scatter into all kind of directions so that I can finally find the queue for the tickets. Only they stay right there where they are, lining the streets as if waiting for a parade and I’m starting to sense that queuing might be the same as the changing of the guards: very different from London. After a short chat with one of the castle’s staff members, I have been informed that yes, this is in fact the queue for the tickets. Approximate waiting time: little more than an hour. Well, it can’t be helped, I’ll have to endure it. On the upside, it’s neither raining nor is it particularly cold, so the waiting could be far worse. I don’t know if I really queued for an hour, though it felt much longer, to be honest.
Eventually, after having succeeded in Britain’s national sport number one, I am finally standing inside Windsor Castle. Prince Philip greets me through the headphones of my audio guide and I can’t help but admire the beauty that surrounds me. The fantastic thing about British castles is that they seem so simple and plain on the outside, but once you set a foot inside the great halls, the splendour will render you utterly speechless. And Windsor Castle is – much like Edinburgh Castle – no exception to that rule.
If you’re not much of a history fan and have little to no knowledge of the British kings and queens, the audio guided tour through the castle might be a bit overwhelming and too much at once. Since I have studied this culture for two years now, there was hardly anything that was news to me, but those who are familiar with the Tudor dynasty, the Wars of the Roses, and Henry VIII won’t be disappointed.
The entire interior architecture is based on this time period, playing with the Lancaster and York symbols and referring to the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the roundtable on many occasions. No matter how long you look at the wallpaper, paintings, furniture, and ceilings, you’ll always find something of a deeper historical meaning. And this very architecture, the way of interlacing a country’s history to the very last detail with the present, made me fall in love with Britain in the first place. You can see that this castle wasn’t built to blind you with wealth. It was built with the purpose of displaying centuries of history to a foreign visitor, almost as if it demands every visitor to understand where this nation comes from.
I would have loved to take photos, but sadly it’s strictly forbidden. Also, I won’t bore you with historical facts because you have to stand in the very room where Edward III was born in 1312 in order to marvel at the many, many faces this old hoar castle has seen. If you consider to visit Windsor Castle, I recommend an early train in order to avoid long queues (especially if you’re visiting with children). Since I visited on the Easter weekend, there were special events just for kids where they got to dress up like Elizabeth I or Henry VIII – I’ve listened to the host for a couple of minutes and it was really entertaining and the costumes were amazing!
Windsor itself is rather unspectacular but after leaving the castle, I was quite thankful for the quiet little streets and the relaxing atmosphere. In terms of budget, Windsor is slightly more expensive than London due the Royal neighbours. While there are cheap restaurants, I don’t recommend dining near the castle – you pay more for the view rather than the food and staring at a huge stone wall gets boring after five minutes – even if it’s a royal stone wall.
Some of you might know that Windsor is not only famous for being the home of Queen Lizzy but also of one of Britain’s most exclusive colleges: Eton. No less than 19 Prime Ministers were educated there and if you’re in town for a royal visit, you might as well walk the short distance to Eton College. Although it is not always open to the public, the exterior alone suggests how posh the students must be who are privileged enough to study here. It’s strange when you think about it – this college was founded by Henry VI in 1440 as a charity project for poor choir boys. Today, parents pay £12,354 per school term, registration, acceptance, and extra fees excluded. That alone tells you everything you need to know about the direction British culture has taken.
My visit to Windsor ends in the most un-royal way possible: with a hamburger and a milkshake. Long live the Queen!