Hanging with royals: The alluring 'small town' of Windsor

As President Michael D Higgins prepares for his first state visit to Britain, Conor Power takes a look at Windsor Castle, the preferred home of Queen Elizabeth, and finds there’s a lot more to see in the town.

Hanging with royals: The alluring 'small town' of Windsor

JUST what is it like for a foreign dignitary on an official state visit to Britain? Well, our President is just about the least-foreign foreign head of state that could possibly visit the United Kingdom, but he is going to be the first Irishman to experience the exquisite pampering, feeding and general fussing that someone is subject to when he or she is the guest of Queen Elizabeth II and company.

For a state visit, the visiting president or monarch has the choice of either Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle. A lot of people think that Buckingham Palace is where the British Royal Family generally hang out and that Windsor Castle is mostly for the tourists.

That’s not quite true, according to expert Windsor guide Amanda Bryett. The Queen apparently spends more and more of her time at Windsor Castle. She also would have spent much of her formative years growing up there — learning to ride a horse and so forth. It is the general rule of thumb now that Windsor Castle is “home” and that Buckingham Palace is “the office”.

Thus, all the most discerning and cultured heads of state will choose Windsor Castle over Buckingham Palace any day of the week. Barrack Obama went for Buckingham Palace, Nicolas Sarkozy went for Windsor and so did Michael D.

Windsor was described by our guide as being “a really small town” of 22,000 inhabitants, but Windsor certainly does have a small-town relaxed provincial air about it. The castle dominates — sitting on a height in the centre of the town, dominating the shape and mood of the place. It’s a much sought-after location to live in and Windsor’s sprawl is physically limited by the River Thames on one side and the expanse of the 5,000-acre Windsor Great Park on the other. It’s within remarkably easy reach of Heathrow Airport and its tourism industry sees a massive seven million tourists here every year.

When our esteemed leader makes his historical entrance to the town, he will arrive at one of Windsor’s two railway stations (Windsor & Eaton Riverside). A royal carriage will await him and the horses will charge up the sand-covered streets (they will have to ‘charge’ if they hope to make it up the hill, I’m assured) past the thousands of cheering onlookers and the ornate street lamps that will be alternately festooned with the flags of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The carriage will carry on up the charming streets of Windsor, past the sullen statue of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch Queen Victoria. It will trundle past the famous crooked house inn that leans dramatically next to the Guildhall, where both Prince Charles and fellow-Windsor-resident Elton John had their respective weddings officiated in recent years.

Carrying on up the High Street, the royal carriage &will also pass by the recently-erected statue dedicated to the Irish Guards. This somewhat controversial monument consists of a British soldier in modern military attire cast in bronze that came from a melted-down Saddam Hussein statue in Iraq and standing atop a plinth of rock recovered from the spoils of another war in Afghanistan.

The skill of the expert royal horsemen will be tested to the maximum as the carriage bearing our President passes through the narrow gates at the end of Park Street and swings left onto a section of The Long Walk: a dead-straight avenue some 5.6km long that passes through the Great Park. This enormous deer park is owned by the Crown Estates, although most of it is open to the public. Within the private section of the park, there are two farms that are run by the Royal Family. It might be of interest to the President to note that some of the entertainment budget being used for his benefit is derived from the economic activities of that farm. Queen Elizabeth is, in fact, a tenant farmer on her own estate. Under the scheme known as the Sovereign Grant, the profits from her farms in Windsor are given to the British exchequer who pay her family 15%, to be used on entertainment.

As the President passes under the archway into the main courtyard of the Castle itself, he will get a glimpse of his accommodation for the visit, which is located right overhead. He and his wife will descend and be formally greeted at the door before being brought on a personal tour of the castle by Her Highness, where she’s expected to point out items of particular Irish significance.

Over £35 (€42m) was spent on the restoration of some of the finest sections of Windsor Castle that were destroyed by fire more than 20 years ago. It’s impossible to tell which bits are new, such is the authenticity of the restorers’ work. The rebuilt section of the castle includes the magnificent State Rooms (where President Higgins and his wife will be entertained privately by Queen Elizabeth II) and the enormous St Georges Hall. Here, a table will be prepared for a stupendous Royal Banquet. Up to 160 people can be accommodated at one sitting here and preparations include ensuring that each setting is allocated precisely 18 inches of room at the grand table.

The menu will be all in French and the final guest list won’t be released until very late in the day for security precautions. The normal protocol, however, is to invite a number of important fellow countrymen and women of the visiting head of state who have made good in Britain. When Sarkozy visited, for example, one of the guests was fellow Frenchman and Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. At the table with the Higgins, one assumes that they’ll have the likes of Terry Wogan and Graham Norton for company. There might be Eddie Jordan or some of the acting fraternity, such as the Cusack sisters or Allen Leech of Downton Abbey. From the world of sport, it’s fair to say that Roy Keane stands a decent chance of getting the call-up.

President Higgins should also get the opportunity to witness one of the highlights of any visit to Windsor — the Changing of the Guard. This takes place every second day throughout the year and involves the new guard marching up the High Street of Windsor and into the Castle, where a fascinating ceremony involving a lot of men resembling classic toy soldiers stamping and shouting ensues.

During such ceremonies, you really get a feel for the ancient traditions of the British Royal Family that look somewhat strange in the context of the modern Europe — a royal game of kings, queens and life-size model soldiers that march and play. The visit will be ground-breaking and a good dose of fairytale fun in an historic setting and will surely be one of the spellbinding television highlights of the year.

Even though President Higgins will lay his head here, there isn’t any overnighting facility available to the common man or woman within the confines of Windsor Castle. For anyone thinking of making a presidential weekend of it, however, the smart option would be to opt for the very stately Stoke Park — just 10km down the road and equally accessible from Heathrow Airport.

Sitting on a vast 300-acre estate, this is country club, hotel and spa all rolled into one very grand package. Its proximity to Pinewood Studios makes it a place where you are always likely to bump into someone famous and several films have used the 18th-century mansion and its beautiful grounds and interiors as film locations.

These include two Bond films (including the famous golf match from Goldfinger), Bridget Jones’ Diary (their “weekend away”, including the slapstick boat trip, was filmed here) and Layer Cake (several scenes were shot inside and out in Daniel Craig’s 2004 film).

The facilities are befitting of a grand country club and include a 27-hole golf course, swimming pool, gym, spa and a variety of indoor and outdoor tennis courts that welcome star professionals for a pre-Wimbledon tournament.

The rooms and décor are a magnificent blend of grand country club and royal hunting lodge with opulence as standard. Mercifully, the rooms in the main building (there are more modern but equally fantastic rooms in the modern Pavilion building) feature such rare home comforts as metal keys and logical light switch systems.

Various deals are available, such as the Humphry’s Dinner, B&B package on Fridays for £160pp (€190) per night. For further information photos, videos and booking, see www.stokepark.com or call 0044 1753 717171.

The village of Cookham features an art gallery dedicated to the works of one its most famous sons — Sir Stanley Spencer.

Flights

Aer Lingus fly daily from Dublin, Cork and Shannon to London Heathrow and from Dublin and Knock to Gatwick. Fares start from €29.99 one-way including taxes and charges, for travel to May 31. For more information on fares and schedules, visit www.aerlingus.com or phone 0818 365000.

Shopping

With a surprisingly wide range of shops from tourist trinkets to haute couture, the Windsor Royal Shopping Centre — located in the beautiful surroundings of a former railway station — is a very pleasant place to shop.

What to see

There are many disarmingly pretty villages in the area. Right across the River Thames from Windsor is Eton, with its famous boys’ school. A little further away down the Thames, are the villages of Bray and Cookham. The former is the location of Heston Blumenthal’s famous Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck, while the latter is a village packed with 15th-century buildings and more wonderful restaurants and pubs and also features an art gallery dedicated to the works of one its most famous sons — Sir Stanley Spencer.

Food

In both Windsor and Cookham, the Bel & The Dragon offers first-class food in authentic English pub atmosphere at reasonable prices (www.belandthedragon.co.uk). On the Eton side of the Thames, you also have Gilbeys (www.gilbeygroup.com) and The Côte Brasserie (www.cote-restaurants.co.uk) offering similar modern European fare served with charm and reasonable charge.

Additional Information

www.visitengland.com

www.windsor.gov.uk

www.royalcollection.org.uk

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