Today I’m just down the road from home in the twin towns of Windsor and Eton, joined by a bridge over the Thames. Both are pretty famous – one has the most renowned castle and the other the most well-known school in the UK, if not the world.
I’ve been here many times before, but writing a blog makes me look a bit closer and find out a bit more than usual. It’s always informative to look at a familiar place with a new lens. So let’s get to know this place better together.
It’s not a great day but hopefully the rain will hold off as I don’t own a brolly. Yes, that’s quite unusual for a Brit and possibly unwise too, but I have a habit of losing them so I just gave up. I start my walk by crossing the Windsor Bridge into Eton. Aptly, the name is Old English for River Town. Looking down the High Street, I’m immediately heartened by signs proclaiming ‘We are open’ outside the pubs and restaurants. After months of walking past forlorn, shuttered buildings, it’s amazing to see signs of life again.
I actually think Eton is much nicer than Windsor. Fewer tourists and more independent shops and restaurants make it a more interesting place for a stroll. The High Street is really pretty and always festooned with flags, giving it a festive air, although it’s quieter than usual.
Keep your eyes peeled as you wander along, as there are quirky details to be seen in the shop windows and little laneways that line the road. Bronze markers set in the pavement mark the route of the Eton Walkway for anyone interested in finding out more about the history of the town.
At the end of the main street, you’ll find that almost every building belongs to the school, and very impressive they are too. Eton College was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI and much of the land around the town was bequeathed to the school, which has prevented development and helped Eton to retain its character over the years. Hurrah! I approve.
The schoolboys here wear a bizarre, old fashioned uniform of black tailcoat and waistcoat, starched collar and pinstriped trousers. They look quite surreal usually, mingling with the tourists, but today due to the pandemic neither are in evidence. Currently 1311 boys attend the school and each pay over £40,000 per annum to wonder around Berkshire in fancy dress. Ah, British tradition, it’s so wonderfully weird sometimes.
Twenty of our Prime Ministers have been educated here in Eton, including the lovely Boris Johnson. Numerous other statesmen, famous writers, eminent scientists and stars of the screen have attended. Old Boys Club? Whatever do you mean? Although some have spoken of the ‘stigma’ of being an Old Etonian blighting their lives, I’m not sure I have much sympathy.
Princes William and Harry also went to school here – nice and handy for Granny’s ‘house’. In fact I remember spotting Harry in his school uniform years ago when I was visiting London to see a Spice Girls concert with my friends Sue and Jayne. We were strangely excited about seeing him, despite the fact that we were grown women and he was about 12. Yep, another shameful secret emerges thanks to this blog! Moving swiftly on…
I walk back to the Thames via the parkland area known as the Brocas, named after a local family who served the Crown during the 14th century. The swans on the river here are the personal property of Her Majesty. Each July, a ceremony called Swan Upping takes place to count and identify all the swans along the River Thames – another of those strange customs that make living here so enjoyable.
It’s a criminal offence to disturb or hurt the swans. They, on the other hand, are perfectly free to hurt or disturb innocent passers by, and there are two coming towards me right now. Don’t they look huge when they get out of the water? Time to leave!
Back across the bridge and into Windsor we go. There’s been a settlement here since the 7th century, and it has always attracted royalty, probably due to the excellent hunting. William the Conqueror liked it so much he built a castle, and the rest is history.
The British Royal family changed their family name to Windsor in 1917. Having a German surname (Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) was obviously not advisable during the first World War, so why not take the name of your weekend retreat? The Royal Standard is flying over the castle today, signifying that the Queen is in residence – she’s not generally here midweek, but she’s been living here throughout the coronavirus crisis with Prince Philip. Confusingly, if the Union Flag is flying, she’s not here.
I’ve talked about the castle before – it’s old, it’s huge and it looms over the town. It’s definitely the main attraction here in Windsor, but there are other things to see. The 17th century Guildhall is lovely and houses a museum about the town. It’s also used for ceremonies – Prince Charles and Camilla got married here, as did Elton John and David Furnish. Back in 2005 this was one of the first same sex civil marriages in the country. Fancy that! Windsor is more ground breaking than I realised.
The old train station makes an attractive entrance to the shopping precinct, which is normally bustling. Unfortunately, many of the shops here are empty right now and unlikely to open again in the near future. This is a tourist town, and when visitors are few and far between that soon takes its toll. The castle is still closed (unless you are royal and live there, of course) so there’s no compelling reason to come here. Poor Windsor is suffering badly in this pandemic, I fear.
I usually give a round up of famous residents when I visit somewhere, but Windsor really only has the royals. I don’t think celebs are keen to go up against the Queen – they are never going to be more famous, have a bigger house or a better garden are they? What A lister wants to be constantly overshadowed?
Heading back to my car I pass the forlorn exterior of the Theatre Royal. Other venues may be opening but the future still looks murky for the performing arts. It looks like there will be no Christmas panto for us all this year, and that’s a bizarre tradition that will be sorely missed. Oh yes it will!