Despite being quintessentially British, Windsor Castle contains surprisingly few British visitors on Saturday 17th November. Instead, it is mostly enthusiastic Americans wearing Oxford University baseball tops who frantically jostle along its stocky walls and red carpeted staircases desperately attempting to keep up with their audio guides. They gasp in delight when they learn that, today, the queen is in residence. We are also gasping – but mainly because we have spent five hours trapped without oxygen on the train getting here.
The English Rugby Team are about to take on Australia in Twickenham and their fans – a hoarding mass of overweight braying men – are keen to ensure anyone looking for a day of light history, cream teas and gift shops doesn’t get on the train. When The Other One and I finally squeeze aboard, they taunt us by singing of Jerusalem’s green and pleasant land as we hurtle through Clapham Junction, Britain’s Busiest Railway Station.
Like Wimbledon, Ascot and Working Title films, Windsor Castle is a fantasy land of sedate Britishness that exists far less in real life than it does in the minds of tourists and Conservative politicians. Despite being the residence of many a bloodthirsty monarch in the past, it now feels like a cosy collection of large cottages made of sugary stone. Guides dressed like toy soldiers from the Nutcracker ballet cheerily and inadvertently mix up diamond and golden jubilees – probably because they’re been working here since the 1970s.
Unlike many of Europe’s opulent but cold royal palaces – ghostly shells which haven’t been lived in since their residents had their heads chopped off – here, there is an amusing anecdote to accompany every object. From solid silver furniture made to annoy the French (who melted theirs down to pay their debts), to a dinner service shaped like pineapples, created over seven years in the 1800s by Yorkshire’s Rockingham Works.
The armory room is the only place that dwells upon some of the more sinister parts of our country’s past. Here, belongings collected (or stolen?) during the British Empire line the implausibly high walls – guns, pottery, caskets, a sad little gold mask. Rarely is there any mention of what happened to their owners.
The tone of the tour is predominantly upbeat and jovial – the antithesis of a probing critique of history. Queen Mary’s dolls house with its miniature furniture is a favourite with the crowds, as are anecdotes from the guides about Charles and Camilla’s wedding. In a sometimes tough and abrasive world, the castle manages to be as inoffensive and enjoyable as a fluffy scone.
The rooms we get to see are the state ones, rather than (somewhat disappointingly) Tupperware containers in backroom kitchens. The timelessly chic sets of china, including the Rockingham pineapple one, get less attention than they deserve, while the portraits of defiant nobles through the ages feel more lifelike than many of the visitors looking at them.
We keep being reminded that, through our tickets, we are all contributing to ‘the collection’ – made to feel as if we own it, even though we don’t. After we leave and are walking down the high street, I see a boy sitting in the window of one of the towers checking his mobile. I wave. He waves back. Maybe we’re not so different after all. Read more
Some people are desperate to live in a castle and marry a prince. I simply dream of being an international dignitary on a weekend break – preferably with a room in a tower and dinner on a plate shaped like a pineapple. Crammed into the train back home with the rugby lot tunelessly shouting out a song about a woman’s ‘saggy tits’ and ‘broken nose’, this fantasy quickly disappears into a wave of beer, sweat and near vomiting. It doesn’t matter that verse twenty drowns out the announcement for our station. It’s obvious – we’re home.