Photo of souvenir guide by April Harris
As regular readers will know, my family and I are celebrating the Christmas season in New York City at the moment, but a few days before we left London we were able to take a smaller exclusive evening tour at Windsor Castle. It was a wonderful experience, and I’d like to share it with you.
Windsor Castle is one of the oldest complete castles in England, and one of the largest inhabited castles in the world. Begun in 1066, it has evolved over the centuries into a veritable fortress, and is a place where our Queen spends much of her time.
Windsor Castle is open to the public most days of the year, but there are also a few exclusive after hours tours. These allow you to go round the castle in a smaller group (usually of less than 25 people) after it has been closed to the public in the evening. Experienced warders take the group round, and the velvet ropes come down, so you can get right up close to the amazing furniture and artwork. There is something about being able to study the detail on George IV’s desk as he would have seen it and walk right up to the throne that Queen Elizabeth II uses when she invests Knights of the Garter, that really does invoke awe.
Of course, security is tight. Photographs are not allowed, and as the Queen was in residence during our tour, the police outside were armed with very large guns. Just after we arrived, we found ourselves giggling nervously as one of the policemen answered a call from an armed colleague situated on one of the balconies of the castle, “No, no, it’s all right, stand down, they’re on a tour” as nearly twenty people came through the ancient gate not normally used for entry by the public.
Windsor Castle is grand, with massive rooms, high ornate ceilings and gorgeous crystal chandeliers, but some of the rooms are cozy as well. There’s the small dressing room that Charles 2 preferred to sleep in instead of his bedroom because it was warmer – and perhaps also because of the secret door carved into the wall that allowed him to slip downstairs to the rooms where his mistresses slept! The room Charles IV used as his office is huge, the walls lined with large paintings by Rubens and his school, but its dark green silk walls make it feel warm and inviting.
No one can forget the harrowing scenes of Windsor Castle alight in November 1992, the flames visible for miles as fire destroyed a large part of the castle. St George’s Hall, the spiritual home of the famous Order of the Garter was virtually completely destroyed, along with a large section of State Rooms. However all has now been beautifully restored. Huge care was taken – some rooms were even decorated from the notes left by nineteenth century interior designers to ensure authenticity. St George’s Hall has been rebuilt in oak, and looks much as it must have done when it was first constructed hundreds of years ago. Looked over by a massive statue of the King’s Champion at the far end, the ceiling is decorated with the crests of every Knight of the Garter all through history,
The after hours tours of Windsor Castle are generally around Christmas time, so some of the rooms are decorated for the season. This year the theme was a Victorian Christmas. A beautiful painting of Queen Victoria in her later years looked down over the fireplace in the dining room on to a table laid as she would have seen it in her youth. Her china, in beautiful blues, pinks and golds, graced the table setting, and huge silver bowls overflowed with fruit. In the next room, the chandelier had been removed to allow a fully lit Christmas tree to be hung from the ceiling, and the side tables laid with gifts as they would have been in the days when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrated the season with their children.
The tour ends in the last room to be refurbished after the fire. In the centre of the beautiful marble floor, made up of stone from all around the UK, Prince Charles laid a commemorative coin to mark the occasion. We were told he ‘stuck it down with superglue’ to prevent children trying to prise it out!
As our tour left each room, the yeoman warder turned the lights off and switched on the laser security system in each room before he shut the doors behind us. As we left the last room, I turned back to see the grand staircase we had walked up at the beginning of the tour in darkness, and felt like I had seen part of this wonderful castle asleep. We were then invited to enjoy a glass of champagne in the gift shop, where I treated myself to a Christmas ornament and a beautiful teacup from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee china range.
It’s always a pleasure to visit Windsor Castle, but if you do get a chance to take one of the exclusive after hours tours, it is very special indeed. Sadly they are all fully booked at the moment, but after hours tours are usually run around Christmas time each year. You can also visit on normal self-guided tours all through the year though, and different parts of the castle and different exhibitions are open at various times of year. Visit The Royal Collection website for more information.