Windsor and Surrounding Area
Open ‘Country Life’ and you will discover Berkshire and Surrey mansions with price tags to make a lottery winner hesitate. This is generally an affluent county, the heart of England, full of history and places to visit. Drive down the lanes, past high fences and all of a sudden a limousine will enter or emerge from an electronic gate to reveal a glimmering mansion and lifestyle beyond. We passed one house where the children’s climbing frame was bigger than our home.
On Friday afternoon, after checking into our room, we visited the 35 acre Savill Garden about which more later, and then toured the surrounding area. It was a little late in the day to visit the nearby Runnymede, where King John signed the Magna Carta 800 years ago, too muddy to walk by the river and I simply did not know about the 2500-year-old yew at Ankerwycke, all governed by the National Trust. We never did make the visit. Early February weekends are short days and there is so much to do in this region of the country.
Our Saturday morning destination involved a twenty-minute drive on the M25. RHS Garden Wisley is the heart of the gardening world, after Kew the most visited garden in the UK. We were not alone. Families flocked in, but the extensive gardens swallowed them up. May I recommend visiting the alpine houses where plants bloom in impossible colour and the nearby rockery where a range of spring flowers were at least a month more advanced than they should be.
It was perishing, so we visited the towering Glasshouse on the lake to be amazed by exotic butterflies as large as my hands flying through greenery and cameras. Sadly my photographs mostly turned out all misty due to condensation on the lens. Astounding as these were they were however outshone by the massed planting of Narcissus ‘February Gold’ on the banks of the lake. On a grey, cold day the blooms truly were golden. Food outlets were over-subscribed of course though we managed to find a seat and a warm-up. For someone who loves plants Wisley is heaven but don’t miss the Henry Moore sculpture by the main house. ‘King and Queen’ was cast in 1953 and even this old cynic can recognise genius when they are sitting in bronze in front of you.
Polesden Lacey is a National Trust property we had never visited. This Edwardian house on the North Downs was one of the few Trust properties open in early February, particularly in the face of a howling gale that had very nearly closed the place. We did the Saturday afternoon tour, and it was riveting, learning about Margaret Greville, heiress to the fabulous wealth from the McEwan brewing empire. She captivated London society in the first part of the twentieth century, stocking her house with art and treasures, providing a honeymoon home for the Queen Mother and the future King George VI. Indeed, Margaret’s jewellery collection is still worn by royalty to this day. These talks, well told, are one of the gifts of National Trust membership. We braved the wind and had a quick tour of the grounds and there, in the winter garden, I saw the celebrated snowdrop ‘Grumpy’ so called because of the glum face inside the outer petals. ‘Grumpy’ made me happy.
Before returning to the hotel we had one final detour when for some unaccountable reason, and much against my better judgement, my wife determined that we visit Box Hill, the highest point in the North Downs offering an unbeatable view over Surrey. Bent double we struggled against the wind and my eyeballs were dented as I peered into the gathering late afternoon gloom just long enough to snap a photograph. The wind swallowed my “I told you so.”
The Savill Garden is less than five minutes drive away from the hotel. One of England’s most well regarded gardens, they are part of the Royal Estate and free to enter for December, January and February. We visited twice, first after checking in to the hotel on Friday afternoon, and secondly on a bright Sunday when our daughter and family made the short, fifty-minute journey from North London to visit us. It was my first visit to these immaculate and varied gardens. We saw two unusual birds on the ornamental lakes, the Mandarin Duck and the Egyptian goose. Daffodils were out everywhere, particularly the captivating and naturalised Narcissus cyclamineus with their petals peeled back as if in a wind tunnel. It has been a mild winter and shrubs that should not be in flower were revealing their early beauty. The multi-coloured stems of the dogwoods might have been a scene stealer were it not for the beauty of my grandchildren. So many photo opportunities, in the stream or in front of the camellias. There is an award-winning building for the restaurant and shop. On the Sunday crowds were so thick that we all had to eat outside. Luckily in the sun it was warm enough.
We have been to Windsor Castle on a number of occasions though strangely have never properly toured the town itself. As the weather was still benign, and after saying our goodbyes to our family in the Savill Garden car park, we neglected to pay more money into the royal coffers and instead toured the town itself. Those familiar with Chester, York or Stratford will recognise the similarity, particularly with the riverside setting. There is a host of eating, drinking and spending places, the latter sporting eye-watering price-tags though the many tourists on a sunny Sunday seemed capable of paying the bills. But with due respect to the three towns mentioned above, none of them has England’s grandest public school sitting in the town centre.
Eton is unfairly scorned, particularly for those wishing to knock David Cameron and his entourage, and perhaps some old Etonians may be a little self-regarding, but the boys we saw with their plastic carrier bags full of tuck from the nearby supermarket (they can afford the 5p) were fresh-faced and surprisingly ordinary – though why “surprisingly” is purely down to my own prejudices. We peeped into tearooms where mothers enjoyed Sunday afternoon pastries with their sons, sought out the playing fields (of Eton) without success despite the hordes of red cheeked, rugby clad and muddy young men, and were impressed beyond measure by the boys returning in full formal attire from their music lessons or church appearances.
Eton is spread out over quite an area, reminiscent of the Oxbridge colleges, with a very diverse range of building styles, from the impressive library to red brick town houses. Pupils tap in their security codes and enter a world denied the rest of us, privileged certainly, intriguing too. The only code I ever had to press for Carlisle Grammar School was 11+.
They say one should always leave a place with something to do. We left Windsor having scarcely skimmed the surface of an area rich in interest and opportunity. We will certainly return to Beaumont Estate, the same room too if possible. So much to do, certainly Box Hill again, choosing a day when I am able to see clearly and stand upright.