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A ROYAL WEEKEND IN WINDSOR

Windsor Guildhall, where Prince Charles and Camilla were marriedReg Butler headed to Windsor to make a royal weekend of castle, theatre and shopping, with just a pedestrian bridge across to High Street Eton and its college.

We booked a theatre package arranged by MacDonald Castle Hotel. The leisure deal gave us dinner, bed and breakfast with seats at Theatre Royal Windsor, which changes its programme every week year-round. There has been a Theatre Royal close to the castle walls since 1793, when King George III was a regular playgoer.


The Castle Hotel has a much longer history, standing on the site of the original Mermaid Inn, founded five centuries ago. It was reconstructed as the Castle Hotel in Georgian times, and the frontage is Grade Two listed.

In April 2005 the hotel was filled with the world's press, and first-floor balconies bristled with TV cameras. Just across the street is Windsor Guildhall, where Prince Charles and Camilla were married. 

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TRAVEL FACTS

Windsor Castle open 9.45 to 17.15 (16.15 Nov-Feb). Entrance: Adults 20.50; Over-60s 18.50; Children 10.50 (under 5 free); Family (2 adults and up to three kids) 53.500. An excellent 80-page guidebook costs 5.

State Apartments are sometimes closed. Before making a special journey  check first, as opening arrangements may change at short notice. 

Mercure Castle Hotel, High Street, Windsor, Tel: 01753 851577 . 
A free Visitor Guide is available from Royal Windsor Information Centre. Tel: 01753 743900. Email Windsor.tic@
rbwm.gov.uk
  Web: www.windsor.
gov.uk


Eton College

Tel: 01753 671177.

Theatre Royal

Tel: 01753 853888.

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Today's visitors are mainly interested in the State Apartments. The tour starts with Queen Mary's Dolls' House - built over three years with input from 1,500 craftsmen. 

Through St. George's Gate and up Castle Hill to the State ApaartmentsAnyone with limited mobility will find that access to the State Apartments is heavy going up Castle Hill. Wheelchairs are available but pushers have hard work. Within the Apartments, a lift is available, and the castle wardens are very helpful.

You need at least two hours to go around, or longer if you aim to give the art masterpieces more than a quick glance. There are famous works by Holbein, Pieter Bruegel, Rembrandt, Rubens, Canaletto and Van Dyck.

For sheer magnificence, the State Apartments easily top the Stately Home league. Every item of furniture, pottery, sculpture, tapestry and carpeting is a treasure.

Ceilings, chandeliers and even the wall coverings all add to the stunning effect. The admission charge includes a free audio guide, so you can tour the apartments at your own pace. 

Quite outstanding is St George's Hall, superbly rebuilt after destruction by fire in 1992. The adjoining Semi-State Rooms, built by George IV in the 1820s are of equal magnificence. They rank as the finest late Georgian interiors in the country. 

Designed for George IV's personal occupation, the apartments are used by the Queen for official entertaining. They are open to the public only from October to March. Finally St George's Chapel, dating from 1475, is among the finest church buildings in England. Ten monarchs are buried there, including Edward IV who founded the Chapel. 

Public exit through the King Henry VIII Gate leads directly across to a charming cobbled street which curves round to form what's locally known as the Guildhall Island.

A Nell Gwynne lookalike invites you to her shopMostly 17th century, the buildings are now used as tea-shops, restaurants or souvenir stores. But several have their share of history. 

At Burford House Charles II kept his mistress Nell Gwynne. Shakespeare probably stayed at the Old King's Head in Church Street when he was writing The Merry Wives of Windsor.

A branch railway line was built in 1849 from Slough into the heart of Windsor to give Queen Victoria easy access to her Castle. The refurbished railway station is now renamed Windsor Royal Shopping, with numerous chic boutiques, designer outlets and stylish cafes and restaurants. Don't miss it!

Cross the Thames by pedestrian bridge into High Street Eton, lined with antique stores and quirky shops that sell dolls-house miniatures, purr-fect gifts for cat lovers and even glamorous corsetry made to measure. 

But the end of the road is educational, with Eton College open to visitors March till October, when guided tours take place at 14.00 and 15.15 hrs( but not every day). 

King Henry IV statue in the School Yard at Eton CollegeFounded in 1440 by Henry VI, it was primarily a religious institution with a hundred priests. Seventy poor scholars aged 8 to 21 slept in one long room, two or three to a bed. 

They were awakened at 5 a.m., chanted prayers while they dressed, and were all taught together in Latin by a single master in a school room which still exists. 

Times have long since changed. Today Eton has a staff of around 300 for 1300 boys, mostly at fees over 20,000 a year. 

Henry IV's intention was to build a church of cathedral proportions. But money ran out, so the Chapel is less than half the intended size, though it's still magnificent. 

There's much more to see and do around the Royal Borough, including two racecourses: Royal Windsor; and Royal Ascot which re-opened in June 2006 after a 200m redevelopment.

The 35-acre Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park now has a new visitor centre of unique timber design. Trips along the Thames are ever popular. 


 

Consider these other South East suggestions

LONDON - the capital free show

LONDON - rooms at reasonable cost

NORFOLK BROADS - by slow boat

OXFORD - Just Pottering around 


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Windsor Castle: The Official Illustrated History by J.M. Robinson - Trces the 1000 yeaars of history with wide choice of illustrations.

The Royal Collection: Paintings from Windsor Castle by Mark L. Evans - Maybe slow in delivery, but worth waiting for as a permanent reminder of a great collection.

Windsor and Eton: Centuries of Change by local historian Sheila Rooney -  Looking at the centuries of history of the town itself, which initially grew to serve the Castle. 

Mrs Simpson: Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor by Charles Higham - An explosive account of the woman who nearly became the Queen of England. This is an updated version of the original best seller, with added revelations from FBI files.


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