Last Updated on September 25, 2020 by Fiona Maclean
Less than an hour from London, Windsor offers all you need (plus a castle) for the perfect staycation.
You’ll be surprised by Windsor. You think you know it: familiar due to its royal linkage and recent weddings; a castle you’ve seen so often on TV you could draw it in your sleep. But when you arrive in Windsor, so easy by car or rail, you’ll wonder why you haven’t paid it more attention in the past, and remark how amazing it all looks “in real life”. It’s the perfect place for a short break or staycation.
The size of the castle hits you first. It’s the largest and the oldest occupied castle in the world and, dominating the town, it looks immense. Built over 900 years ago by William the Conqueror to assert his authority, 39 successive monarchs have added to its structure and its contents. Today is must be one of the most interesting historic building in the country. It’s surrounded by 5,000 acres of glorious parkland and it’s easy to see why it’s regarded as the Queen’s favourite residence, and where she has spent the majority of this unusual year – her own Windsor staycation!
As with many visitor attractions, Windsor Castle has reopened following the Covid closure with a re-modelled tour. Access to some areas, previously open, has had to be restricted but The Royal Collection Trust, the custodian of the Castle, has ensured that this will not diminish your experience.
There’s so much to see as you follow the ceremonial route through the State Apartments. These sumptuous rooms are used by the Royal Family to host official visits from Heads of State and to carry out investitures and awards ceremonies. It is quite breath taking to stand in St George’s Hall or the magnificent Grand Reception Room and marvel at the skills employed in returning these rooms to their former glory following the destructive fire of 1992.
Since 2017, a range of initiatives have, and continue to be, rolled out as part of the “Future Programme” designed to transform the visitor’s experience of the Castle. Be sure to visit its oldest surviving part, the medieval Undercroft, which has been transformed into the Castle’s first permanent café – a great place to start or finish your tour. For the first time in decades, this summer it’s been possible to visit the East Terrace Garden, complete with flower beds and a sculpture commissioned by the Duke of Edinburgh. Looking forward to seeing this on my next visit!
From the State Apartments, you’ll walk out past Queen Elizabeth I’s “extension”, and down through the Lower Ward to the glorious St George’s Chapel, completed under Henry VIII. Henry lies in a vault here with his beloved Jane Seymour and the Chapel is the burial place for nine other monarchs. It’s probably best known for its association with the Order of the Garter. The fantastic colour and heraldry associated with this somewhat bewildering tradition is just one example of the mysteries you can unravel during a trip to Windsor.
This is a living Castle with its own community and customs. In normal times you can enjoy a fascinating 30 minutes tour of the castle precincts led by a Castle Warden. It’s great for orientation gaining insights into the Castle’s development and to hear the inside story of how the Castle functions today. At time of writing the tours are temporarily suspended, but the excellent, multi-award winning, Windsor Tourist Guides are more than able to fill the gap.
The best way to experience a destination has to be in the company of a proud local resident. And the Blue Badge Guides of Windsor (think Michelin starred chefs of the guiding world) are guaranteed to inform, entertain and keep you safe. They tailor-make their tours to suit your interests and are walking-wikis of all things Windsor. Our whistle stop tour was immersive and engrossing. We discovered the less stately detail of the Queen’s daily life (where she prefers to go to church each Sunday; what her favourite horse is called and how they accompany her to Balmoral for their summer holiday). We chatted about royal romances; railway development; airmail post-boxes; river-side racing, rowing and regattas through to garrisons and soldiers; statues and Eton school.
Buzzing brains need lots of refuelling stops and Windsor offers cafes, restaurants and pubs a plenty. The Windsor Royal Shopping Station is a quirky retail centre situated in the Victorian Windsor & Eton Central Station. The old ticket office has been converted into a tourist information centre and the excellent independent Cinnamon Café. Enjoy a great coffee and a sarnie and watch the world go by while you plan your next move.
And here’s where you realise there’s more to Windsor than you originally thought! Great shopping, lovely riverside walks, sport, boat trips, culture and so much history! History is about people and this little part of England is rich in engrossing narratives, played out in tiny villages sprinkled across the county. A short drive from Windsor, Cookham nestles by the Thames. Pleasure boats meander past in the wake of Jerome K Jerome’s “Three Men…” and locals enjoy a lazy lunch in the riverbank pubs. Here the acclaimed artist and local resident, Stanley Spencer, is remembered in a tiny chapel conversion. Currently showing, “Love, Art, Loss” explores Spencer’s complicated emotional life and although a tiny exhibition, wholly illustrates his ongoing relevance and legacy to British art.
To fully appreciate Windsor and its surroundings, you need time to explore, so why not book yourself a Windsor staycation. Stay overnight and you have a fabulous range of accommodation to choose from. There’s something to suit every budget or occasion, and you can be sure that each establishment has a story to tell. Check-out (or rather into) the former hunting lodge of Henry VIII, at nearby Great Fosters Historic Hotel & Gardens, and you’re following in the footsteps of Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Wells and…me. (You can read about my stay here).
Now is the time to rediscover Windsor! Start planning your trip. You won’t be disappointed.
Windsor is located 30 miles west of central London. For all the inspiration and information you need to plan your own Windsor staycation, visit www.windsor.gov.uk
Windsor Castle is open Thursday – Monday (closed Tuesday and Wednesday); until 31 October 1000-1715 (last entry 1600) and from November until end of February 1000-1615 (last entry 1500). Pre-booking essential. https://www.rct.uk/visit/windsor-castle
To book a Windsor Tour Guide see https://www.windsortouristguides.co.uk . They’ve devised a new tour especially for this year’s Halloween: “Plagues, Pestilence & Potions”!
The Stanley Spencer Gallery on Cookham’s High Street is open daily 10:30 – 17:30. Pre-booking not necessary https://stanleyspencer.org.uk/
A great range of accommodation can be found at https://www.windsor.gov.uk/accommodation
Great Fosters Historic Hotel & Gardens is at Stroude Road, Egham, Surrey, TW20 9UR