Sunday, April 8, 2012

Day 9 - Windsor Castle, Bumbles and a walk down the Mall

There’s some completely accidental genius in my trip planning.  Arriving into the iconic heart of London via the river.. recovering from the journey out in the beautiful but off the beaten track countryside.  Today we find another element. We started off fairly low key on the historic dwellings and have been building to a crescendo.  Blickling Hall, Sandringham, Burghley.. Today is Windsor Castle.  We have allowed the whole day for it.
We are well fed by the brekky at The Alhambra. The dining area is humming and the service is speedy, which is what we’re wanting in London. No time to waste.  Hubby has the full English breakfast which is consistent with the usual eggs, baked beans, bacon and a grilled tomato… in this case a beautifully ripe tomato.. an improvement on the not quite ripe on he had at the Bull and Swan.  I stick with the continental for which a fairly average croissant was provided.  I decide to sample the marmite on my toast. I’m craving something savoury.  I was raised on Marmite (shock horror) so it’s no particular hardship to me and argue that they aren't that different.. though this local Marmite is of a very different consistency to Marmite in Australia.. Hubby is scornful though.
We’re running a bit late departing. I had planned to get the 8:50 train from Paddington and to depart “home” at 8 am to have plenty of time. Haha. That’s all I can say.  We have a bit more difficulty navigating the underground this time due to the two paddingtons and due also to the fact that it seems that some platforms have trains heading in both directions… what the?  Again as I stand shaking my head over a sign for the likely platform a kind besuited man stops his hurried commute and volunteers some directions and advice to steer me in the right direction, before hurrying on.  I think you guys are going to do a fantastic Olympics.  You have the right welcoming attitude to visitors! Simply awesome.
With much continued trepidation we make the appropriate change at Edgeware Road and smoothly navigate the transit to Paddington Rail. Eventually after much looking about we end up in the right queue for tickets for today and buy our weekly travel pass (paper ticket for 241 offers) and a top up to Windsor return.  The Sikh man selling to us was really great and seemed to anticipate all our needs, explaining how to use the tickets and everything. On request he also provided the destination to look for and the change at Slough.  Great service. He must have a very busy job given the queue! We’re running about an hour behind the plan and will be on the 9:50 train.
We head out into the station.  There’s a barrow selling Paddington Bears. In truth the Paddington stories are also more meaningful to me now and I am sure I’m not the only visitor that can really relate to the little bear in a big station helped by Londoners!  Honestly I wouldn’t buy a Paddington bear anywhere else, though I appreciate I’ll probably pay a premium for it.. but we don’t want to carry it all day.. We will need to come back.  

Waiting for the train platform to be announced on the departure boards, as far as I’ve noticed I’m the only person snapping photographs.  When our train platform is announced I don’t realize that it’s going to be a bit of a scrum for seating on the train and I linger for another shot. Never mind. Slough is only a short distance away, though by rights we probably should have challenged the middle aged lady who seemed to think her coat and handbag had paid ample fare, despite plenty of people passing looking for a seat.
The change at Slough was very easy and quick. There’s a weird building just across the way.  It looks for all the world like… well, here's a photo I got later. You decide for yourself what it looks like!
 From what little we can see from the station/train it appears to be a bus terminal.  There’s what looks to be a lunch room with a snooker table filling the space facing us. With such a design it must have a name. I wonder what it is.  We’re ill prepared for photos, but resolve to get a picky on the way back.
The train to Windsor and Eton Central is not so crowded and it’s a quick comfortable ride.  As we cross the river hubby gives me a nudge and points out the views of the castle.  It’s surreal to actually be here.  Alone among the alighting passengers I stand to one side and snap a photo of the view from the station.  
We let everyone else rush off and take our time.  The approach to the castle is quite short and heads through an upmarket shopping arcade. There’s a range of cafes too.  We take a stop at the information centre where the fellow there says the entrance and ticket office for the castle are right at the top of the hill, expect a queue.  The town of Windsor sits abutting the imposing castle walls. Snap snap. Then it’s up the hill. OMG look at that queue. We do as everyone else is doing and wander down the side street to join the back of the queue. I comment to hubby that my enthusiasm is waning.  We’ll see how slowly this queue moves.  Hubby is busy photographing the queue when a lady in ER livery comes down calling out for people who are not part of a group.. you can see her approaching in the photo. 
Our saviour escorts us back up to where we should have gone.  Individuals have a separate, much shorter queue.  Though it’s a reasonable length it moves quickly and our air travel skills are employed divesting ourselves of metal for the security process and xrays.
By the time we walk through into the courtyard it’s only 15 mins until the free tour which departs here at 11 oclock. I figure it might be a good thing to do while the crowds are watching the changing of the guard.  I almost change my mind when the military band starts up and the marching begins. I head over to the fence for a look of the squad (?) marching past.  Cool.  We’re committed now though and pretty soon our guide appears. It was awesome hearing about various historical events relating to the castle and being able to look at it all the while.
The tour begins, after the obligatory introductions and so forth with a visit to a fairly new feature which is a rotunda with a large central “symbol” of the knights of the garter.  Origins of the order are not really known though there are various stories about it including one that is romantic but which first appears 150 years after the first references to the order in the historical records.
Throughout the tour and throughout the day there is a prominent focus on the knights of the garter. They are everywhere at Windsor.  I already knew that they are the highest award in the system, but only now, having visited Windsor and learning more about them, do I realize what a truly big deal they really are.  What an extraordinary honour to be given. They are actually more than a title there’s tangible consequences of the award.

We see Beaufort House built by Charles II as somewhere he could get away from an unhappy (and childless) marriage, and presumably into the arms of one of many many mistresses.  Reputedly there was a tunnel from Burford House to a small house nearby which now houses a Chinese restaurant, but which was originally built for Nell Gwynne.
We stop again by the round tower on the mott which is a steep mound on which the towers were built. The mott is surrounded by the moat.  People think of moats as filled with water, but this is not necessarily so.  There has never been water in this moat. There has been a garden in the moat since the 14th century. Today there are artists sitting sketching. 

Although there has been a castle occupied by the monarch here for 900 odd years much of what you see today is of more recent construction.  For example, the round tower we’re admiring was built up by 18 (?) metres by George IV because he didn’t think the original tower was imposing enough.  The original tower only extended to the horizontal band which is still visible.  The section above that band is totally cosmetic and contains no usuable space whatsoever.  George IV also did extensive work elsewhere. Opinion various on his efforts. Some see him as a beautifier of the castle. Others see him as a vandal.  I see him as both! One does not exclude the other does it? Today the royal standard is flying which means the Queen is in residence here at the moment. She comes to Windsor most weekends but is at Windsor for all of Easter for “Easter Court”. Water falls in a multitiered cascade down where the garden climbs the side of the mott.

Slightly down the hill are various dwellings where the garter knights have apartments.  Opposite these is St George’s chapel. 

We admire the (original) Norman gate with portcullis and murder holes.  If someone tried to breach the castle the portcullis would be closed and various murderous substances tipped down the murder holes to deal with the invaders.  Perhaps hot water, molten lead, rocks but contrary to popular perception never hot oil.  Oil was far too expensive for that purpose.  There have been four attacks on Windsor Castle over its history, but it has never been taken by force.

Before we head through the norman arch a group of soldiers in their red jackets and bear skin hats march past.

Just through the norman arch is a section of the complex which is quite different.  It is built of different stone and looks almost out of kilter with the surrounds (to my eye).  This was built by Elizabeth I as a space where should get some exercise in bad weather. Elizabeth’s exercise space now houses the royal print collection.  This is not open for visitors, but a selection of the collection is placed out for viewing.
We pause to look at the royal mail postbox where you can post letters.  The castle is a working community housing about 150 people.
Across the way people are still gathered around the railings for the changing of the guard. Those attractive building in the distance dates from the 19th century and the work done by George IV.  Over in the far corner is the Sovereign’s Tower and around that are the Royal Apartments.  These are the home of the royal family.  Here’s a photo I took later once the crowds had gone.
The areas that are open for viewing are the State Apartments where official State functions are conducted. These are in another area of the castle.
Next our tour heads down onto the North Terrace which tops a 30 odd metre cliff.  Various sovereigns have established or expanded the north terrace. If memory serves originally it was wooden and used by Henry VIII as a firing range. Elizabeth I used it for outdoor exercise with a degree of privacy.  A later monarch (name escapes me.. was it Charles II?) widened it to it’s present state.  It is here the tour concludes. The queue to enter to see Queen Mary’s Doll house and the State Apartments our guide currently estimated as 20 minutes. 
St George’s Chapel is my priority though so we double back and do that first, taking our time listening to our audio guide and admiring the beautiful features of the church.  There are many moving and impressive elements to this place, but easily the most outstanding feature in my mind is the truly magnificent marble sculpture commemorating the death in childbirth of Queen Victoria’s cousin, Charlotte, the only legitimate child of George IV. 
Throughout the tour and throughout the day there is a prominent focus on the knights of the garter.  St George’s Chapel is no exception. The arms and decorated helmets of the knights of the garter are all on display. 
We pause at graves of various monarchs who are buried in the chapel.  Edward VII and George V both and their queens each have a beautifully carved sarcophagus out in the main body of the cathedral.  George VI and Elizabeth have a small private chapel but their graves are marked by a simple black slab in the floor.  Princess Margaret’s ashes are also interred in this small area.
Emerging from the chapel it’s pretty much lunch time.  As far as we know, if we want anything substantial to eat we need to get a pass out and get something in Windsor.  It’s not a long walk, but we’ve been on our feet all day and in anycase we don’t really want to spend the time that would consume.  We decide we’ll make do with an icecream from one of the vendors around the castle grounds and have that while we stand in the queue.  When we return to North Terrace we find the queue now looks about double the length it was when we ended the free tour.  Maybe 40 minutes then.  Nothing else for it but to join asap and this is what we do – obviously.  The icecream was OK. The icecream was pretty expensive for what you got we thought.  Captive audience. …also the icecream which is in a tiny tub comes with a stupid flat paddle thing to eat it. Uggh.  Glad I have a teaspoon in my handbag! :o)
The queue moved much more quickly than we expected and not too long after we had finished our icecreams and a small sample of nutella I’d bower birded from breakfast  (knew that would come in handy!) and listened to the audio guide material for this location we are heading up the stairs in to see Queen Mary’s dollhouse.  The amazing thing about this dollhouse is that everything is made by the people who would have done the full sized original.  The dollhouse was a gift for Queen Mary, who collected miniature things. Manufacturers where approached to provide miniatures of their products. Even paintings are reproduced in miniature by the people who did the original. The doll house has working plumbing and lighting. The level of detail is quite extraordinary.
From the doll house we emerge into another more brightly lit area and go into an exhibition of photographs. 60 Photographs for 60 years.  It seems the photographers on the tours of Australia fell down on the job and didn’t get any image that makes the cut.  None-the-less the exhibition is quite interesting, each photo having a little interpretive panel.  There are quite a few photos of the Queen enjoying herself at the Races, which, thinking about it, seems an odd focus when the exhibition is about the Queen’s reign as monarch.  Lovely photos, and it’s nice to see the queen smiling, but what on earth does going to the races have to do with being a long reigning monarch?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to concentrate on images of the Queen on the job?  Photographs of racing seem more appropriate to a birthday exhibition.
On with the tour.  We start to get a hint of some of what is ahead as we climb the stairs past some wonderful armour.  I do love the armour. A pink sequined Easter egg has been balanced on the foot of one of the mounted suits of armour. One of the older English tourists can’t quite get her head around the presence of this egg in such a place and is loudly questioning.. her family try to hush her up a bit.  I smile.  There’s another sequined egg in another room where the public couldn’t reach.  Official Easter eggs then :o).
The next large space is filled with more arms, armour and spoils of war presented to the monarch by successful generals.  There is even a piece of jewellery that contains the bullet that killed Nelson at Trafalgar.
One could summarise the tour of the State Apartments by saying that they are as grand and yet as tasteful, as one would hope, given that they are the premier reception spaces of the monarch of the United Kingdom, and in the past, of the Empire.  Windsor Castle has to be a definite must on the agenda of any tourist.  It is worth the effort and the entry fee. The State Apartments are spectacular and blow every other grand room we’ve seen completely out of the water. The competition isn’t even close.
A particularly interesting element of the tour is the restoration of those spaces that were either damaged or destroyed by the fire of 1992.  It’s a bit shocking to think it’s 20 years ago. Seems like only yesterday.  Like all catastrophes, the fire provided opportunities as well as losses.  There is a small space called the Lantern room or something like that.  This space, the Duke of Edinburgh suggested that rather than restore it as it was, it could be used to provide a better place to provide a transition from one area to the other.  It’s been beautifully done and is a very lovely room.  It is here that the fire started and there is a small memorial plaque about that.  In other regards though, the design is modern, but pays respect to the context and it doesn’t look at all out of place.  It’s particularly satisfying that in such a long reign the Queen and the Duke have done something that will leave their clear imprint on the fabric of the castle. I imagine tours in a few hundred years relating the events discussing QEII.
In other rooms there are the painted Verrio ceilings and walls hung with ancient tapestries and decorated with the most elaborate furniture..It has all the elements in place at Burghley and yet… it looks good.  Really good. I contemplate why it looks so much better here. What is different? They knew when to stop!  Someone responsible for the decisions understood that an area of plain wall enhances the nearby features.  We take our time in each room and listen to our audio guide as we move along.  We have a nice chat with one of the attendants in what I think of as the “gold room” and she is moved to show us the state of the room after the fire. We also hear about the huge green urn. It looks solid, but is actually a lighter material covered in a malachite veneer, VERY skillfully applied.  It came through the fire OK where it stood. Too heavy to pick up and carry out.  But then a few days later all the veneer just fell off.  The malachite had to be carefully collected and the urn restored. What a job! You would never know.
We’ve passed through grand chamber after grand chamber, each with it’s own individual character and associations. Each splendid and tasteful. Owned by the State, Windsor Castle is something the people of Britain can be immensely proud of.  I have heard it oft repeated that the Royal family refer to the business of Monarch as “The firm”.  I can understand that having toured the State Apartments.  I really got a clear sense in the spaces here, that there are times where you are “at work” as the Monarch. It’s not personal. The Queen is simply the occupant of a role. There’s nothing personal at all in these rooms.  They are all about Statehood and tradition and history. They are simply awesome.
Every now and then along the way we ask eachother what has been the greatest highlight so far in our trip.  Windsor Castle does it for me!  Hubby’s favourite is still Norwich. The food, the places we went to. He loved poking about and getting lost in the Lanes and the people sitting about on the grass in the churchyard picnicking…. Yes, possibly Norwich is benefiting from first experience lift. Then he adds “Norwich is the only place that I’ve seen a KFC” haha.. oh you’re not serious!!  Hubby does love his KFC!.. and we both find the slight differences in the product from country to country quite fascinating.  Hubby made a decision some time back that he will try the KFC in every country he visits. Maybe it was finding that NZ KFC still has the bean salad, that was our favourite thing they did, but was dropped in Australia many years ago now. I think he’s getting worried about the possibility of not finding a KFC again.
The tour of the State Apartments emerges near to the entrance of a “secret” facility.  The Undercroft Café. Oh how we wish we knew that was there earlier.  This is where those people were disappearing to when we were in the queue.  Who knew?  There’s nothing about it in our map/guide leaflet.  We revive ourselves with a shared bagel and scone with clotted cream and jam, and some yummy Sandringham apple juice. Mmm.  The Undercroft café is another benefit of the fire. It was divvied up into smaller rooms but when the ruined walls were removed this grand medieval space was revealed.  It was originally an eating space too, so it’s use as a café is inspired. The café is only a trial at the moment and feedback welcomed.  We make sure we complete the feedback form and hand it in. Keep the café. In fact hubby reckons they should have a restaurant like at Burghley I say the café format should be the priority so that people who can’t afford to spend the $$ on a more fancy meal can still get something to eat on site. I guess there may be some repercussions for the village too. The restaurants in the nearby village must get a lot of trade from the tourists to the castle.
The only task remaining now is to get some photos of some spaces now that most of the crowds have gone, and we have a quick look at in the gift shop, then we really need to be heading back in to London if we are to make our dinner reservation at Bumbles. Checking the manifesto we should have left half an hour ago.  Oops.

It's an easy walk down the hill to the train station. Windsor, from what we can see of it, is a very nice little place that would be nice to explore, but we have no time to linger. Hubby takes control of the camera and snaps a few things that capture his attention.
On our way to the restaurant we call them and reassure them that we’re on the way. Bumbles is only a short walk from Victoria and we’re happily settled by 6.20 pm. The place is pretty much full.  We are brought bread and butter and order drinks.  Predictably, I go for the iced tap water and hubby selects.. oops I’ve forgotten to note that. When I ask him now and note my failure on the record keeping Hubby says. “Perhaps we’ll have to eat there again then”  .. we think the beer was Grolsch and it was “good”.
As we nibble on the breads the young woman at the table next door receives a delivery of a rather theatrical dessert. It has a neat round sphere of chocolate dominant on the plate, but as we watch it melts and collapses dramatically draping the underlying elements in a seething mass of molten chocolate. She and I exchange exclamations of delight. Awesome.
To start I go for the Beer Battered Haloumi, mushy peas and tomato chutney; hubby opted for Morecombe bay shrimp and snail lasagna, capers and hay veloute, truffle oil.  Puzzled initially why they brought him a spoon.. Both starters are outstanding. We both claim victory. Even so far in the ordering competition.
Mains: Me: Essex Telmora duck breast, confit leg, orange puree, duck soil, cheese mash (supplement £2.50) Hubby: Norfolk baby chicken, ballotine, pickled and barbequed cauliflower and carrot puree.  Both outstanding. Another tie. We play a decider for dessert. Me: I got in first and bagsed the Peanut Butter soufflé and strawberry sorbet (please allow 20 mins) this came out and the spoon of sorbet is dropped into the middle of the soufflé with dramatic effect. Hubby: obliged to settle for the Cold chocolate fondant, brownie with orange sorbet…not the dessert the young woman had.. I wonder what she ordered…  Both of our desserts were outstanding but I win the tie breaker by an easy margin….you usually win if you choose the soufflé!  :o)
Bumbles knows what they’re about and we’re out and on our way before 8pm.  It’s a cold evening and I’m dressed quite lightly under my coat. I don my triple layer raingear. Glad I’ve got that with me.  It’s only a short walk up the street to Buckingham Palace which is lit up. We loiter about as darkness falls capturing this or that with moonlight setting. Very atmospheric.

When we’ve had our fill of the palace we head off down the mall. St James’s park is dark and it doesn’t seem like much to gain by extending our walk by heading in there. People are about in reasonable numbers. Most with shoulders hunched in that way you do when you’re a bit cold. A couple of bare calved runners jog past us. A long row of brightly lit low arches glows across the street.
Statues and monuments lurk as dim shadows atop imposing plinths.  Hubby points out the statue of Captain James Cook.
We pass into Trafalgar square and on the way we observe that Admiralty Arch is actually bow shaped with room for offices in it.  Not just a monument, it's actually a building.
We huddle in our black hooded cloaks pointing at the huge lions guarding Nelson on his tower. Lots of people around.. we scurry into the bright warmth of the underground station.  Home and in bed by 9:30. No wind down. We’re asleep within moments. 

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