I’m not one to name drop, but I do live just down the road from Her Majesty the Queen. In the Royal County of Berkshire. In the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. Lucky old me! Hopefully I’m not lowering the tone too much.
You’ll know about Her Majesty’s home at Windsor, it’s quite impressive. The oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, in fact. Founded in the 11th century by William the Conqueror, it’s been home to 39 monarchs, and the Queen spends most weekends here. Little known fact – our dog Lizzie is actually named after her. Yes, we’re secret royalists (not so secret now) and name all of our dogs after British monarchs.
But did you know that the Castle sits within the Great Park? 4,000 acres of countryside stretching from Windsor town to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed by King John in 1215, giving away much of the authority of the Crown. That’s probably not Her Majesty’s favourite part of the park!
Windsor Great Park is our walking destination today. We start on the Long Walk which leads from the Castle to the famous ‘Copper Horse’ statue. It’s 2.65 miles and it feels even longer on a very warm day when you foolishly set off without water.
The Long Walk is basically a tree lined avenue, originally planted by Charles II in the 17th century, as he wanted to add a bit of French style to the estate. If you see anyone driving along the Walk, it’s either a Park Ranger or the Queen herself – no-one else is allowed. We saw a car approaching and hoped for once we would strike it lucky, but it was just a ranger. Tant pis, as our French friends would say.
At about the 1 mile mark, gates and a lodge mark the entry to the Deer Park, as well as preventing rogue vehicles from entering. You can’t even ride a bike along here. A large teddy is currently manning the post – it’s nice to see that even the Royals have joined in the lockdown bear hunt, although I’m not convinced about security standards.
The Deer Park is home to around 500 free roaming red deer, who are apparently ‘easily spotted’ according to the website. Do you think we could spot any? Not a single one, even though I nearly got whiplash turning my head at every movement. Geese, and more geese. Very disappointing. But it is a lovely expanse of countryside, pretty much unchanged in hundreds of years.
I think the Copper Horse may be like a mirage in the desert for a while, but the statue very gradually changes from being a speck in the distance to actually looking like a man on a horse. It’s King George III, who famously went ‘mad’, although in current times we may have been slightly more understanding about his mental illness. In the late 1700s his family and doctors hid him away and performed some fairly primitive treatments on him – blistering his skin and strapping him into tight waistcoats, poor man.
His son George IV commissioned the statue, and had him depicted as a Roman Emperor, perhaps trying to regain some dignity for his dead father. But rumour says they hated each other, so maybe he was more concerned about enhancing his own reputation. A cunning ploy!
By the time we reach the statue on the top of Snow Hill we are almost too hot and sweaty to appreciate the view, which stretches back towards the castle and beyond. It’s a bit hazy today, which means we can’t quite see Slough in the distance – not a bad thing! Apparently the Queen Mother was unimpressed when the urban blight of Slough spoiled the view from her castle. I can’t say I blame her.
Legend says that Henry VIII sat at the top of Snow Hill and waited to hear confirmation that Anne Boleyn’s head had parted company with her body. Today there are just a few tired walkers having a breather.
Behind the statue and through the trees we can just make out the Royal Lodge, where the young Queen spent many happy holidays with her parents and sister at their country retreat. The Queen Mother died here in 2002. Prince Andrew moved into the Lodge in 2004 and spent £7.5 million on refurbishments. He’s not known for his good temper – he allegedly rammed open some gates to the Park in his Range Rover a few years ago as he wanted a short cut home – so we head in the opposite direction.
Snow Hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, due to its acid grassland and veteran trees, which are home to over 2,000 species of beetle, some of which are found nowhere else in Britain. I have to admit, we don’t spot any of those either. Today’s walk really isn’t coming up trumps in the wildlife stakes, is it?
We head back towards Windsor via a different route – The Gallop. You can buy a permit to ride your horse in the park, and until recently you may have bumped into the Queen on her daily pony trek around her extensive ‘garden’ Apparently the coronavirus pandemic has stopped her from getting out recently, nothing to do with being 94! She is one tough lady.
Like the Long Walk, it’s a rather extended ‘gallop’ back to town, broken up by a few trickling streams and some mighty impressive trees. The park has some of the most ancient oak trees anywhere in northern Europe. Some are even classed as ‘Monumental’ with individual names.
By this point, I wish I had a pony myself and could actually do a bit of a canter, rather than trudging along in the heat. We marvel at a young couple who pass us chatting animatedly. We just don’t have the energy to talk, we’re too dehydrated!
We exit the park (eventually) by Queen Anne’s Gate and admire the pink lodge which dates from 1830. But mostly we’re just glad to be heading back to our car. It’s been great hanging out with royalty, but it seems we just don’t have the stamina of our nonagenarian monarch – we’re knackered.
See you next time, for now I’m going home for a nap.