Monday, 13 December 2010

Windsor with Kate and Chris

We're coming into the last furlong of the home stretch here in London, and I'm flagging a bit and giving up some ground. Looks like I'm going to place, though. Erika is heading down to the wire in fine shape leading by a neck and gaining. Benedict is loping along, biding his time and content to finish in the money.

Nephew Chris and his wife Kate spent our last weekend with us. Quite a treat to see them. They drove in from Bristol from a lovely house they've been fixing up the last few years. Good thing they only have a couple of details to finish as they're expecting a baby in February. Kate looks great. They arrived around midday Saturday and after a bit of lunch we piled into their car and headed to Windsor, only about a half hour west of us.

The Thames
Windsor is a huge castle that is one of the official residences of the queen. It overlooks the Thames from a high point above the river and is one of the fortresses begun by William the Conqueror to protect the main approaches to London. It's the largest occupied castle in the world, and none other has been occupied continuously for as long. The castle has been added on to over the centuries, and today is pretty much as it was in the 19th century. As with all the royal palaces, its history over the nearly millennium of its existence provides a microcosm of English history.

The day was overcast but a bit warmer, relatively speaking.

Sign post outside the castle. Eton College is right across the river.

The commercial strip across the street from the castle is dominated by chain food restaurants. See the MacDonalds? There is also a Pizza Hut and Starbucks and British chains. There were also some ritzy and posh shops.
One of the large arcades lined with restaurants and shops. You might notice the clock is about to strike three.

Following behind Kate, Chris, and Benedict outside the castle walls.

Here are in front of the castle gates. We had just discovered that in the winter months that the castle closes at three and decided that we must return on Sunday. The castle is much bigger than we expected. It must be at least 3 times larger than the Tower of London.
There is some serious security around the palace.
A steam locomotive on display in one of the arcades.

Chris and Kate.

We decided to relieve our disappointment with a couple of pints at a local pub. We then headed back to Ealing and dinner at our favorite Thai place in the Forrester. We had a lovely evening chatting and telling anecdotes and getting to know one another better.

The next day after brunch Chris drove us all back to Windsor and we were able to get in. We're grateful to Chris and Kate for suggesting we visit Windsor, otherwise we wouldn't have had the opportunity to visit. Had we been on our own we would have taken the train, which seems to involve taking the underground to Paddington RR Station and then a regular train to Windsor, a project that might have taken close to half a day to accomplish one way. None of us were prepared for the what was available for the public to see, however.
The above photo is still the exterior of the castle. You'll have to look at one of the photos online to get the feel for how large the complex really is. As you can tell, it was a much sunnier and cheerier day than on Saturday.

Windsor is the home of the oldest chivalry order, the Knights of the Order of the Garter, begun by Edward III in 1348. The origins of the Order are cloudy, even to the exact date of its beginning. The full membership is limited to only 24 knights, not including the monarch  who heads the order and appoints new knights, and member of the royal family are also appointed members although not among the 24 full knights. The monarch may appoint people to be Stranger Knights. Among such members are foreign sovereigns. St. George, seen here slaying a dragon, is the Order's patron saint. The spiritual home of the Order is St. George's Chapel at Windsor.

The moat partially surrounding the castle. It serve primarily as a garden.

The Round Tower. The Queen's standard flies, a bit limply on this day, from the flag staff indicating she is occupying the royal apartments on this Sunday. When she is not present at the palace, the Union Jack hangs dolorously instead.

The staffs held up by the creatures on the heights of the Chapel function as effective lightening rods as well as decorative details.

These are photos of the exterior of St. George's Chapel, the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter. Unfortunately the chapel is not open to tourists on Sunday. We were very disappointed. It's said to be one of the best examples of late medieval Gothic architecture. Here are online photos of the chapel, too few of them of the interior. Ten monarchs are buried here, including Henry VIII and Charles I. Here is a timeline of the College of St. George and the Chapel that includes a few photographs of stain-glass windows and interior spaces.
Outside one of the gift shops. If you like, you can get small crowns to decorate your Christmas tree.

The first stop within the castle was the Drawing Gallery. The gallery was lightly lit and the art, which was primarily drawings, is often rotated to protect them from damage to light exposure. The Royal Collections, which holds over 1700 drawings, supposedly contain the largest collection of Da Vinci drawings in the world, and  we saw several of them, and drawings by others (these are samples from the collection, not necessarily what was on exhibit). There was also a special exhibit of the photos of the queen as a young girl along with her sister Princess Margaret, parents George VI (the subject of the current film about how he overcame his stuttering) and his Queen Consort Elizabeth, and QE II's children too. Prince Charles looks as priggish as a four year old as he does today. Still, when angry protesting students pelted his car last week while the Prince and the Duchess of Cornwall were on the way to a night at the theatre one of them, heard yelling 'Off with their heads', was attacking the wrong target.

We visited the Queen Mary's Doll House, which is probably the biggest and best I've ever seen. The house is built to 1:12 scale, and everything little thing within it is built to scale. Tourists are not allowed to photograph inside the castle, but perhaps you can get an idea of the detail from this photo. Mind you, this photo only shows one side of the house. Each side is just as carefully crafted with garages, servant quarters, the queen's bedroom, etc. Craftsmen and the best artists of the 1920s helped to put this together. Phenomenal.

From the Doll House gallery we flowed into the main state apartments. More armour (Henry VIII really was obese), fabulous swords and other weaponry, gifts from leaders from around the world when the empire was at its height, as well as absconded treasures from India and other corners of the old empire. It gets a bit tiresome to pronounce another collection of stuff as fabulous or fantastic or brilliant. Why am I surprised that a royal palace holds incredible works of art? I should take it for granted by now. I should be surprised from now on if a palace did not contain extraordinary works of art. The paintings at Windsor alone are mouth watering. Never mind the the stately rooms, the solid silver table and mirror frame. Forget about the tapestries and rugs. Ignore the sculpted heads of Nelson, Churchill (both Winston and his ancestor John, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, who won the crucial Battle of Blenheim in southern Germany to save Vienna from assault by France's Louis XIV during the Spanish War of Succession), Wellington, various other monarchs and military leaders. I lost count of the ceramic dining services.

The Royal Collection numbers over 7000 paintings and it's distributed among the various royal residences. That's staggering. It's one of the largest collections in the world. What would rival it? The Vatican? The queen does not own the art; she merely holds them in trust for the state. The state actually owns the collection, but since the queen is the head of state it seems she's the de facto owner if not owner de jure. There are Rubens, Rembrandts (the fourth self portrait we've seen in our gallery hopping), Canalettos, Van Dycks, Raphaels, Holbeins at Windsor alone. On the walls of one large room, the Waterloo Room, which was being used by the Eton College Orchestra as they rehearsed for a performance that night for their parents (so I heard; might the queen be eavesdropping from her apartments that night?) hung at least a couple of dozen portraits by Thomas Lawrence of the monarchs, military leaders, diplomats, and a pope who together ganged up on Napoleon to finally defeat him at Waterloo in 1815. In the center, of course, is Lawrence's portrait of Wellington. (The loss of life at this battle was so severe the Duke commented: 'Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.')

What was at first was a great tragedy, a fire in the palace in 1992 that severely damaged about 20 percent of the castle, turned into an opportunity to restore many of the rooms to their original state of glory using traditional and modern craftsmanship. The results are magnificent.

What a treasure to experience something special. Again.

Perhaps if we come again we'll be able to cross over the Thames and see what Eton College, seen here in the middle distance, looks like. After all, the Duke of Wellington allegedly said, 'The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton'. Sadly, there were no organized sporting games at Eton during his three unhappy years there and the quote seems to have been attributed to him after his death. According to rumour, that quote may have been meant more literally than it seems. Did Eton own the land the battle was fought on? Perhaps not, but the current Duke of Wellington collects 100,000 pounds in annual rent from farmers near Waterloo in Belgium who work the land granted to the original Duke by the King of Holland in gratitude for the Duke's victory..
The guard marching in the quadrangle to relieve a soldier on watch. I don't think those are old muskets the guard is carrying.
Members of the Eton College Orchestra in the quadrangle leaving the palace after rehearsing in the Waterloo Room. Prince William of Wales, second in line to the throne, is a graduate. And who knows, perhaps one of these young men is a future prime minister. Nineteen English prime ministers, including the David Cameron the current prime minister, attended Eton.

That's definitely not an old musket.

After dinner in the shadow of the old castle, Chris drove us home through heavy traffic on the M4. An accident caused us to crawl along. When we finally made it home we enjoyed a final cup of tea with Chris and Kate before they returned to Bristol.

A note: Last week many people in England remember the anniversary of the death of John Lennon exactly 30 years earlier. It was a very big deal here.

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