The first time I remember being in Windsor, I was about fifteen years old. I’d reached the age where birthday lunches at Pizza Hut were replaced with a more cultured affair as we began the sudden transformation from unfussy girls into complex ladies of leisure. Alas, I found myself one chilly December evening stumbling along cobblestones in platform heels with a pack of adolescents who were each equally trying to be seen with a new level of sophistication.
I grew up a thirty-minute drive away in a town called Sandhurst, another slightly royal sounding destination that is actually just a typical residential area. It just happens to be home to the Royal Military Academy – and no, I never met Prince Harry.
Windsor therefore was always somewhere a little further afield that I only really ventured to for a celebratory meal or spontaneous mooch around the more ‘upper class’ high street, when in fact all I wanted was to pick up a 3 for 2 deal from Claire’s Accessories.
Ask anyone with a somewhat less naïve attitude of the world about Windsor and they’d likely at least reference the castle, and of course a certain upcoming wedding. My juvenile self of circa 2007? ‘It’s for posh people… innit’.
It will come as no surprise that despite living so close, I never actually explored the Royal Borough, nor appreciated it. Until now.
There comes a time in every millennials’ life where they suddenly stop obsessing over the other side of the globe and begin to realise that there are in fact national treasures and scenic delights just within their reach.
At the age of 21 this happened to me. First with a day trip to Bakewell whilst studying in Sheffield and then with a swiftly snowballing thirst for discovering the UK, fuelled by my need to escape the city for some crisp country air. At the beginning of last winter, I felt that countryside calling and ten years after my first notable visit, I set foot in Windsor.
The image I had portrayed in my young mind didn’t quite fit. People weren’t strolling purposefully with heads held high nor were they all robed in Chanel suits or yellow shift dresses. Everyone looked, well, pretty average.
They either walked the paved streets with familiarity – not even a nod at the towering royal residence – or stopped in clusters with cameras, only turning their backs for a predetermined selfie. It felt homely, not because of my distant memories but because it was a perfect blend of my former and current lifestyle; the tourists of London’s hectic landmarks descending on a quaint Berkshire town.
Travellers have been visiting Windsor for almost a thousand years. The lavish castle was originally built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century and became the residence for each following King and Queen of England thereafter, as well as where Charles I was imprisoned by Parliament. The hundreds of years of history that survives within its walls gives it the title of Europe’s longest-occupied palace. Whilst exaggeratedly tiptoeing through the opulent State Apartments and a hoard of crockery galleries, it’s impossible to consume the idea that our royals truly lived their lives here; Henry VII hosting extravagant feasts, Princess Elizabeth and Margaret performing Christmas pantomimes, James I hunting in its grounds.
However, what I could quite simply not get my head around was the residents of St George’s Chapel, who after decades of ruling from the castle halls, were now laid to rest within the vaults and alter. To share such a small space with those who built our country, saw it through World Wars and great fires, rebellions and invasions, inspired a surge of patriotic pride.
Outside against a quick flash of blue sky, the palace’s own town is not much different than the commoner’s just a few hundred metres away. Visitors respectfully walk among the residents’ commune that secures a tan stone terrace for those who commit their livelihood to the castle; the housekeeper, the soldiers, the Constable and the Military Knights, all living as one to uphold the Queen and her family. It’s really quite something.
I truly had to pull myself away from the majestic grounds, but not without missing a Waitrose van swing in to deliver a tenant’s grocery shop. I wouldn’t have expected any less.
Leaving the royal court, the rest of Windsor was as I’d left it; peacefully busy and enchantingly beautiful. The town’s second most photographed structure is perhaps the source of Windsor’s charm. For over 300 years the Crooked House has accommodated almost every kind of trade, serving meat, tea, flowers and beer before it recently opened as a fine jewellery shop, its windows glittering with pearls.
As well as fine diamonds, Windsor’s regal status attracts various high-end boutiques, galleries and beauty brands within the Royal Shopping Centre. But the highlight of the covered cobbled street is none other than The Cinnamon Café, a casual open lounge that serves no-fuss sandwiches, hot drinks and sweet treats, the Queen of which is a ginormous cinnamon bun, drowning in spiced sugary icing.
Sitting on a wobbly chair sipping my hot tea with sticky iced hands, I looked across the street and immediately recognised that same patch of cobblestones I’d stumbled over almost a decade ago. I noddingly smiled at my teenage ghost; at how different my day had been compared to that evening where I was just starting the journey of lifelong self-discovery. However, gazing across the market without that cloud of heightened self-awareness, I could now see Windsor for what it truly is. This quintessential English town unquestionably possesses richness; yet, it lives within its history and charm, and not just in its people.
My trip ended as any should, with a short stroll along the riverside. The Thames riverside in fact. Here where Windsor meets another beautiful affluent town, the parish of Eton College, is perhaps the most magical part of it all. Turning a mucky London river into a tranquil country walk, peppered with white swans and calm ripples, well only Windsor could do that.