Windsor, Day 1

16 03 2011

We started today later than most, but it was to be a casual day – relaxed.  We woke around 8 am, readied ourselves and ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant around 9:30 and then set out with Billy as our guide.  By this point, we’ve become pretty familiar with the double roundabouts, two in a row, leading away from the hotel towards the motorway.  In fact, we didn’t even need Billy to tell us to get to “take the roundabout, second exit”.  It was almost a fluid motion.

The desk clerk had said to follow the signs to Windsor, which we did.  It was surprisingly closer to London than we had thought, or at least than I had thought.  For some reason I always thought Windsor was a good hour or two outside of the city.  The drive in though was the first alert that today would be much more even keeled.  There were rolling green hills and farms everywhere we looked and finally a lovely river guided us almost into town.  It was everything you would picture when you think of a kingdom.

The pictures I had seen of Windsor Castle showed a massive long sidewalk and gardens with the castle sitting at the end.  We didn’t see anything like this, and we drove around the whole castle – excepting the northeast side, which seemed rather impossible to get to as best I could tell between Billy and the curve of the road.  But we pulled into the antiquated village and it was like stepping back in time.  Not as far back as we had in Wiltshire, but easily a hundred years or so.

Since Windsor was an unplanned escapade, I really hadn’t prepared at all.  I knew limited information about the history or the castle, which bugged me considerably.  I like to know what I am seeing, not try to remember to look it up later.  I knew only that the Queen was in residence here at the moment and that this was the burial home of Henry the Eighth and most of the Windsor royals – the George’s and their brood.

We found a small parking lot at the foot of what looked to be a massive turret, but far too short and wide to be really considered a turret.  Perhaps the castles have roundabouts.  The parking fees were nominal, about the same cost as parking at the hotel, one pound per two hour block.  We paid for four hours and set out.

It was exceptionally foggy, something I’ve yet to get over in the London areas, even as far out as Farnborough and Fleet where we’re staying.  It’s like this blanket that just lies overtop the area as some permanent fixture.  Here too, it was thick.  It makes it incredibly difficult to judge the weather and the need for outerwear.  Home, if it is gloomy, grey and foggy I would presume we’re in the rainy season and to dress accordingly.  But here, it could be a perfectly beautiful day or begin to blow buckets of snow sideways at you.  We decided to go with coats and gloves, leaving behind the hats and scarves.

I couldn’t get over how close you can get to the walls of the residence.  I literally could run my fingers along the wet grey stone and trace the lines and finger the moss.  Amazing.  Granted, I’m certain that not only are the walls thick, but likely well guarded by the AK-47 bunch as well.  I also had not anticipated this castle to be as massive as it was, it is literally sprawling.

We started off walking north, following along the wall and came to a memorial fountain to George V.  What I know of this George is limited, except to say while he had a short reign, he reigned during the first world war, was given a cocktail of cocaine and such to help him die at a better time for the press release, and that’s pretty much it.  The memorial was likewise simple, a stone cut fountain on the corner intersection on the northwest side of the castle.

There was also here a mention of the martyrs, which I actually knew more about.  They came about during Henry VIII’s reign, before he started switching his religions with his underwear.  He was Catholic, but had a huge split with the Catholic church so that he could get rid of Mary’s mother and move on to having sex with what would be Elizabeth’s mother.  There were several religious beliefs (though all based in Christianity) at the time, including Lutheranism (which Henry was not a fan of at all), which was similar to Protestantism.   Anywho, Henry gets rid of the Catholic connection to Rome, but maintains Catholicism for the country and comes up with his religious decrees to enforce Catholicism.  Cromwell helped guide Henry’s hand and thus his decrees had some hints of Protestant ideas.  When Henry wised up a bit, he cut those parts out.  All of the residents were expected to stay on top of the current religious theme and not say a word that would go against whatever was the religion of the hour.  But these guys, four of them (though the sign only noted the three that were killed), spoke out, and to the wrong people, spoke out against the Catholic faith.  And one was rather boisterous about it, I can’t recall which, but nonetheless, he was getting in fights and defacing church property to speak his mind.  The others weren’t so vocal.  But they all wound up together, imprisoned and damned to death for daring to be anything other than the current religion of the land.  They were tortured and in prison for months, some of them almost dying from starvation and injuries and I think one was half dead from the plague when they burnt them at the stake.  Later, I believe it was during yet another religious underwear change moment for the country, it was acknowledged that the guys really had done no wrong.  

So sorry, how about we put this little sign here buried beneath some flowers to acknowledge our little mistake?  Maybe King George V was a swell guy, he probably was, but he’s not likely to go away forgotten; so why are the martyrs tucked away like crumbs under the carpet to be forgotten?  Nonetheless, here is a somber acknowledgement to these poor fellows, their memorial partially obscured by a park bench, you weren’t overlooked.

We walked forever until we came to a small wooden fence in the stone barricade of the castle wall and I began to surmise we were likely not heading in the direction we wanted to go.  The castle was further away now than before and these brick and stone walls didn’t really look secure enough for a castle.  Perhaps it was some manor house or just a private entrance, but certainly not the castle itself.  So we doubled back on this Datchet Road (in hindsight Datchet – Dash It…eh maybe I need some coffee).  We once more passed the St George’s School at Windsor Castle and I couldn’t help but wonder how special it must be to go to school there.  Were one’s classmates royals?  What about secret passages from days gone by?  And field trips must be terribly exciting!

We came across a modern looking establishment that seemed to be trying much too hard to look Tudor-esque called the Royal Oak.  The only appeal was the outdoor seating, but as damp as the air was I didn’t care to risk it.  I also wanted to find a place that seemed more authentic.  I don’t know how to word it really, but I want to sit and eat in a place that is if not historically relevant, at least is older than I am.  This Royal Oak didn’t look to even have been that old.

Just past this was what appeared to be an apartment complex called the Chapter Mews.  It’s literally below the castle, I mean should the castle wall fall down, it would hit this complex.  How incredibly cool would that be?  To live in that is, not have the castle fall upon it.

Back again past our martyrs, protected by the towering statue of the kingly fellow.  Across the street sat a time weathered establishment called Bel and the Dragon, which really looked like it would be a nice place to pop in to.  It screamed turn of the century, complete with stuccoed white walls and hunter green trim.  Alas, they weren’t open yet.  The mail delivery man who passed us peering in the window said to come back more towards noon and we thanked him.  As we continued on there really was no lack of dining establishments.  Every other building seemed to boast its own little hole in the wall.  Italian, Thai, Chinese, Indian and two pubs all within less than a quarter mile walk from the intersection with the dragon place.  Even a McDonald’s and a Starbucks sat ahead of us.  I quickly glared at Glenn, the girls chuckling.  I’d already once endured an American establishment for lack of nothing else to eat, there was no way I was going to go into American establishments that I don’t even like while in the heart of such a culturally rich country.  We laughed and trudged on, but the joke came as a result of a trip he had taken to Texas.  Find a steakhouse or barbeque joint, those had been his plans.  But instead he complied with his co-worker’s wishes and they ate at an Applebees.

There was a slight rise to the pavement now, a gradual incline, but noticeable.  And the air was heavy again, as if it might rain any moment.  We finally came to a statue of Queen Victoria, standing like some crossing guard in the centre of the street, her scepter in hand.  In the distance we could hear drum beats and as I started accessing the activity around us, I realized it must be the changing of the guard.  The street was cordoned off from traffic, there were police officers standing on alert on each corner and people were stepping up onto the curbs.  I quickly gathered the troops and we all readied our cameras, moving into ideal spots for once they came round to the castle itself.  The girls and I stood right on the corner of what we hoped would be their final turn into the castle gates.  Glenn dashed across the street for a vantage point.  The marching grew more loud and the excitement was growing with each stomp of their feet.

(If I can figure out how to upload video, I will add it here.)

A local said that the oncoming guard was part of the Irish guards, which I saw nothing noting them as such, but I’ll certainly take his word over my lack of knowledge anyday of the week and twice on Sunday.  And not that anyone would dare try to take on any singular member of this barrage, much less the whole, the AK-47 fellows were on hand to ensure their safety.  Coupled with several escorts in fatigues and street police in neon yellow jackets, it was obvious no one could dream of interrupting this process.

The leader of the entourage held a baton that looked much like a sceptor and I wonder if ceremonially speaking it is part of some pass off.  I could almost envision the old guard and new guard having some sort of baton toss in a regal fashion.  In reality they probably just swap places in some locker room and shoot the breeze over the water cooler.  Next were some drummers, a row of them, with snazzy regal drums in crimson and gold colours; followed by fifers and the gun toters with their bayonets readied.

All in all, the guard was not as overwhelming in number as I had anticipated they would be, perhaps I’ve just watched too many movies or maybe they have a larger number of guards at Buckingham’s ordeal.  Truth be told, I never knew there was a changing of the guards anywhere other than Buckingham, at least not in such a ceremonial fashion as this.

As they marched in through heavy doors that had been opened for them, I had an opportunity to peer into the courtyard of the castle.  I figured I would play it safe and asked one of the AK-47 men if it would be okay to take pictures of the courtyard.  He sternly said as long as I stayed where I was standing.  I moved into zoom mode and started snapping away.  Perhaps I could see the Queen on a stroll or her puppies being taken out to do their business.  Over Mr. AK-47’s walkie talkie a voice said The Queen will have her tea in the drawing room and I started zooming in on windows next.  Maybe I could see her!  Wouldn’t that be a riot?

For all the good of my zoom lens, there was no glimpse of the queen.  I did find a window with an office of sorts where I could peruse the books on their shelves, another room with a bowl of lemons, and a gargoyle picking its nose.

But no Queen.

The doors shut and the black barricades rose back up from the ground, blocking the entrance from baddies once more.

We meandered across the street into a little shop called the Edinburgh Woolery and as much as I disliked Edinburgh, I had been a bit dismayed that we hadn’t bought anything from there.  So I decided this was our second chance, though I had to wonder the authenticity of a Scottish store in England.  The shop was tiny, a two story building cram packed with everything imaginable.  The shop ladies greeted us and went back to chatting and we perused around inside.  There were so many beautiful things, sweaters and blankets and such, that I really contemplated getting.  The downside was that I would never have a use for them, ever.  The coldest it ever gets back in Florida is the 30s and that is a rarity.  Typically, cold in Florida is about 65.  Certainly not thick woolen sweater weather.  But they were tempting.  And so soft.  Not like the wool I remember having for blankets as a kid, which was always rough and scratchy.  These were brushed to feel like Angora fur.

We climbed up the spiral stairs and I spotted the fitting room for the kilts with a row of men’s kilts in front.  We’d pestered Glenn before and during the trip, many times over, to at least try on a kilt.  The answer had been a firm no each time.  This was our last chance.  He finally gave in and all three of us gals whipped out our cameras, ready for action.  He wouldn’t actually put it on, but he agreed to hold a kilt up so we’d get the idea.  Seeing as this was as good as it was obviously going to get, I agreed.  We laughed as he posed in a Ladies From Hell manner and the shop lady sitting there gave us an exasperated look; I presume she probably gets tourists like us all the time and is never enthused by it.

We made our way back downstairs and the girls found themselves some Highlands’ sheep dolls, their fur made from actual wool, that were must have’s.  I also picked up some fudge and shortbread’s and we made our way out of the little shop.

Then we saw our idea of a place to grab a bite.  It wasn’t historically relevant or even older than me, but a cozy modern little place called Cafe Maud’s, situated directly across from the gates of the castle.  They had paninis and waffles and ice cream and tea and coffee.  We shuffled in and Alannah instinctively had to find a toilet.  No, they didn’t have that.  No toilet?  No.  The lady gave us directions down the road about a block to the guild hall, then go down the steps on the other side of the guild hall and the women’s toilet would be there.  It almost sounded like a wild goose chase and I could imagine having to walk that far to potty when the urge arose on a normal basis.

So we left the smells behind to trudge a block up the road to find this toilet.  It was actually a bit more than a block, almost two and I began to think we were in Cardiff once again.  But we arrived and after peering down the steps and seeing it looked relatively clean and safe, I let the girls go on by themselves while Glenn and I relaxed in the guild hall.

I’m not really at all sure what a guild hall is or was, nor do I know what the significance of the statues and plaques were. I know Nell Gywn called this one of her stomping grounds and that Prince Charles and his little mistress were married here.  Beyond that, the only knowledge I have of Windsor or its history is only relative to other, more significant (to me), factoids.

As we sat resting and enjoying a fag in this guild hall, it was interesting to note that light shined on the beams, between the columns and the roof.  Meaning they were columns for appearance only, not support.  It isn’t the first time I’ve seen such instances in older structures, but it always catches my eye.  Kind of that little I’ll show you secret by the architects.

(It isn’t easy to see in this picture, but after doing so fact checking, indeed this was designed by Cristopher Wren and at the insistence of the town know it alls, the columns were added for support, but Wren did not meet them to the ceiling, to prove he was right when he declared them unnecessary.)

As we sat resting, I noticed the police were once more clearing the streets and after the girls rejoined us, we inquired with one of the officers about what was going on.  She said that the changing of the guard was about to occur – again!  This time the off duty guards would be marching back, coming from the castle.  So we decided to find some decent vantage places, much more easily done since we were two to three blocks away from the castle now.  Alannah and I sat up on one side of the street, while Kayla and Glenn took up spots on the opposing side.

Then we began to wait.

We all shared a chuckle as a white rabbit in a waist-coat with a watch hurriedly hopped up and parked on the side street to put her letter to post.  The officer stopped the rabbit and told her to move her carriage, to which the rabbit began a huffing and puffing version of “I’m Late” and drove away, singing angrily.

Then we waited some more.

Alannah and I checked out a war memorial on our side of the street, which was actually quite simple and touching.  It sat on the sidewalk, beneath the raised cemetery of the Windsor Parish Church, which was mighty aged.  The stone inscription read:

1914 – 1918

Remember with thankful hearts the men of this royal borough whose names here and elsewhere are recorded.

 Brothers in arms.  

Jealous for the common good.  

Faithful unto death – they left the issue in your hands.  

Remember and be strong.  

They live on – brothers in love to all citizens of the heavenly city.  

Remember and be glad.

Remember also for good.  

Those who by sea, land and air laid down their lives:

1939 – 1945

Their names are inscribed within this church.  

Their memory lives that we who come after them may remember the debt we owe to them and fail them not.

Simple.  And touching.

The drum beats began faintly in the distance and you could hear it swell as they came closer.  But another five minutes passed and we still waited.

This is the look of impatience.

It seemed like forever before we finally could see movement at the end of High Street, little heads bobbing as they marched along.  Their grey woolen coats blended in with the bland weather; only the neon yellow jacket of the police officer leading the ceremony stood out.  It was so impressive how in tune with one another they were.  Each foot rose to take a step at the same moment, their arms swinging with precision.  In fact, the only disappointment of their formality was that I believed these guards were not to look at people and make eye contact and yet these men seemed to be absorbing all of the sights of tourists like us that lined the street.

Notice the right foot of each soldier is lifted to the same precise degree, even midstep. And to correct what the local had said, these are actually the Coldstream Guards, as is noticed by the red plume on the right side of their bearskin hats.

After the guards passed we decided to tend to our growling stomachs.  Our intentions were to head back to the Maud’s place with the waffles and ice cream and everything but toilets.  But before we got there, we came across a crooked house.  Literally.  It had the name of “The Crooked House of Windsor” and sat at a tilt that would rival Pisa, if only it were about fifteen stories taller and a bell tower.  The first floor was a combination of painted bricks and wooden timbers, the second story was the stucco-esque styling we’d seen on many of the old houses here in Windsor.  This certainly fit the bill of something historically relevant and older than me, as well as being something worth talking about later.

Stepping inside the chilly cafe was one thing, the chilly atmosphere was another.  The waiter was all dressed up with no place to go and seemed a bit put out that we interrupted his silver polishing chore.  Sitting in the basement or upstairs was not an offered option, though after we pressed for information on the house I really began to wish we had been down in the basement.  Instead, he seated us at the table next to the front picture window.

He informed us that the house was built in the late 1500s and then torn down to make room for the guild hall.  It was then rebuilt in the 1600s, but in doing so with such haste, the builders used wood that hadn’t yet been treated.  Over time it gained its tilt and though it is structurally sound – it continues to lean more.  He also shared with us that Nell Gywn had a secret tunnel she would use from the house to get into the castle to see Charles (it still is interesting to me the connection of the mistress and King Charles vs. the mistress and Prince Charles with this sleepy little town).  The tunnel is now walled off, he told us, but it would have been really nice had we been able to sit down there to scope it out.

Alannah decided on a spot of afternoon tea (which they referred to as High Tea), while the rest of us settled for coffee.  Glenn and the girls opted for scones and clotted cream, but I’d been seeing the Spotted Dick on menus since we landed and being our last day here, I had to give it a go.  I restrained myself from a Beavis and Butthead moment as I ordered the Spotted Dick (heh heh…she said dick).

What he brought to me was so much better than the name implies.  It was a cake, kind of dome or bundt shaped, upside down with raisins in it – which I could have lived without but then I suppose the dick would have been spotless.  And a thick creamy custard covered it.  Oh my lord, it was heaven on a plate.

We finished up and stepped out onto Queen Charlotte Street – which coincidentally is fifty-one feet and ten inches in length and recorded as the shortest street in all of Britain – and we found some American tourists who were happy to take our picture for us.  The ladies passed their cameras to us as well, and we happily returned the favour.

It’s late and I’ve still six more pages to type, but I think I shall leave that as an additional entry.  I’ve been so busy as of the last two months I’ve got a lot to finish typing here.

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