Monday, July 5, 2010

Sunday, July 4, 2010 "Cultural Shock and Awe!"

Windsor Castle

Today I went to Windsor Castle! Man oh man, is it ever big!!! I knew it was the largest castle in the world, but, wow, it is GINORMOUS!!! Imagine Biltmore House multiplied three, or maybe four times. You only get to see a small portion of the castle, but my feet were aching when the tour was over. The town of Windsor looks like a picture post card or maybe a movie setting. As much as I tried to suppress them, the words "quaint" and "picturesque" started to tickle my tongue as I walked the twisty streets radiating out from the castle.

Walking towards the castle's keep.
I arrived at the Eton Station, which is right on the Thames. Huge geese and sea birds I've never seem before were just strolling and paddling around begging for their pictures to be taken. I followed the crowds up and around a very steep hill passing all these adorable little shops in old Edwardian buildings. I was making a mental list of which ones to come back and explore. Then, I turned the corner of the hill and heard this American man ahead of me say very quietly, "It's huge! Wow!". And, there it was, that round tower in the middle of the castle grounds. If the queen's flag is flying, it means she is in residence. If the Union Jack is flying, she's not at home at the moment, Elizabeth wasn't there, but that hardly mattered. I started snapping pictures like some mad woman. Unfortunately, no one is allowed to take pictures inside the castle for security reasons. When all of us gawking tourist first entered the castle, we were taken in through several rooms stocked with weapons and armor from down various time periods. Remember last summer when I got so excited about the armor at the Wallace Collection? Well, the royal collection put that one to shame. I just stood there in the middle of the room and started laughing at my naivety.  That's probably why the woman and her assistant laughed at my amazement last summer.  They knew there were bigger and more amazing collections!   

The Queen's Guard marching to their next post.  If you click on
the picture and enlarge it, you can see that all of the
soldiers look like they are about 18 years old and taking
their responsibility very seriously.
Next , we were guided through a series of public rooms like "The King's Near Presence Chamber" and "The King's Presence Chamber," where kings would actually see people, if they were dressed well enough. No unwashed masses, please! These rooms and this castle was created for pure shock and awe.  They subtley scream (which is contradictory but possible when you are British), "Who do you think you are, peasant?  You better check yourself before you even think about coming to see the King, or Queen!" 

The famous portrait of
the young Elizabeth
Each of the rooms were beyond grand and filled with incredible portraits. Some were by famous painters like Hans Holbien, and some were just famous paintings by relatively unknown painters. I couldn't believe that they had one of the most famous paintings in the world right out there within four feet of millions of people. It was the painting of the young Elizabeth. She was about 13 years old and on the outs with her father. He had declared her illegitimate and banished her to the country. He had more or less abandoned her. The painting was the idea of Elizabeth's far-sighted supporters. It shows her standing in an orange dress with her hair pulled back severely. She is holding a book and on the table next to her are more books, a Book of Days, and a globe. The message was. "See, I am studious and serious, not frivolous. And above all, I am loyal to the King (even when he is being a big jerk!)".  The plan worked.  He increased her allowance and invited her to celebrate Christmas at Hampton Court that year.

A truly HUGE round tower.  It's the highest point in the castle
grounds and would have been used to survey the
surrounding countryside.
A good offense is the best defense! 
After that, we entered St. George's Hall which is dedicated to the Knights of the Garter and where State dinners are held. That room was amazing and huge! It is decorated with the coat of arms of everyone who has ever been a Knight of the Garter. The audio said that for dinners the room is filled with ONE giant table that stretches the length of the room and seats 160 people. I've seen it on television. The people are not crowded! This is also the room that received the most damage when Windsor burned. Remember the "anus horriblus?"  It was all the more impressive that this room was rebuilt carefully using ancient techniques and craftsmanship. They took pains to rebuild everything just the way it had been constructed originally. 

St. George's Hall inside Windsor Castle.  On the ceiling are the coat of arms of every person 
who was ever made a Knight of the Garter.  If that person disgraces his queen and country,
his shield is not removed.  Instead it is covered over with white cloth, but his name is left
exposed.  Shame in perpetuity!
Since it was Sunday, I decided to come back after the Castle closed to go to Evensong in St. George's Chapel. I don't have words to describe it! The chapel was built with Gothic architecture, but it is light and airy. The stone was a light grey, and the stain glass windows were surrounded by lighter yellow and green pastel glass. That kept the chapel from being dark like most churches from that time. It was serene and introspective.
And then the angels started singing. How do you describe sound? I can't do it justice, but just imagine the most beautiful, clear, precise singing you have ever heard and then double it. I thought I was hearing heaven, but then, a beautiful cherub opened his mouth and broke my heart!

St. George's Chapel
It was an all male choir and I couldn't see them at first because they were singing from behind the nave. When they processed out, I was astonished to see that there were only ten adult men and fourteen boys. It sounded like there were twice as many choristers. As they continued to sing the service, I was trying to find the cherub who stole my heart. Suddenly, I spotted him. The goofiest, gangliest ten year old you can imagine! I almost started laughing. The boys were truly regular boys. Several of them tried, rather unsuccessfully, to hide yawns. One boy had a cold and kept wiping his nose with a tissue. Another one couldn't keep quiet during the prayers. Somehow, that just made it all the sweeter. These regular boys were blessed with this beautiful gift that they can share with us for a few years, then they can go about their normal lives. Oh what an experience! I will never forget it.


     The Lavender!  You could catch the aroma drifting on the breeze all over the castle grounds.

These are "Grace and Favor" apartments which the queen gives to her loyal employees when they retire.  Can you imagine living at Windsor Palace or Buchingham Palace or Hampton Court?

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip at the Knights of the Garter cereminy in 2009.

I had to include Prince William because he is just so handsome
even in that goofy, Knight of the Garter get up.

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