Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Royal Residency and the Final Resting Spot of Royalty

For some reason, I can't quite figure out how to post pictures here from iphoto; getting two photos resized and into a previous entry caused me so much frustration that it takes away from the joy of blogging, so I am going to stop trying until I get back home and can get some help. I hope that when I do add photos, you'll come back and browse through the entries again. Until then, I apologize. 

This past Friday found the students and I heading out on an excursion to Windsor, the town famous for being the home of Windsor Castle (http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/windsorcastle) and Eton College. We didn't visit Eton, but we did have the opportunity to tour Windsor Castle, touted as Queen Elizabeth II's favorite home. The largest inhabited castle in the world and the longest-occupied palace in Europe, it is far grander than I could have ever imagined it would be.

Once again, we were given individual audio guided tour devices and headphones, cautioned that photos could not be taken inside the castle, and sent on our way. I spent a glorious morning moving from room to room at my own leisure and soaking up as much as I could. Of course, not all of the castle is open to visitors; visitors are able to see Queen Mary's Dollhouse, the State Rooms, and the Semi-State Rooms. Having never been a great fan of dollhouses, I was going to skip Queen Mary's, but when I saw there was no line (according to the audio guide, the queue is often quite long), I made the quick decision to check it out, and I'm glad I did. It is exquisite, and if you go to the URL given above and scroll down a bit, you will find a link to pictures of it.

Without a doubt, though, my favorite parts of the castle were the state and semi-state rooms. As I meandered from room to room, my audio guide shared more facts and interesting tidbits than I could ever hope to remember or share here in a blog entry. One of my favorite tidbits had to do with the morning routine of the earlier kings. When I entered "The King's Bedroom", I learned that the king did not actually sleep in the large, ornate 4-poster bed with luxurious draperies and linens. Instead, he slept in the room next to the bedroom (the name of this room escapes me) in an equally large, ornate 4-poster bed with equally-luxurious draperies and linens. However, in the morning, the king would get out of the bed he actually slept in, move to the one in his bedroom, and then, with secretaries and those wishing to meet with him about important business in attendance, his servants would help him get up, dress, and get ready for the day!

I asked one of the marshals  (docents) if the children in the royal family actually *played* in these rooms, and he assured me that they did, but only when there were no dignitaries or official guests present. He reiterated (this information is also shared at the beginning of the audio guide) the fact that Queen Elizabeth II spent much of her childhood at Windsor Castle; like many other children who lived in London during WWII, she was sent out of the city -- she and her sister to Windsor Castle -- to avoid injury or death from Hitler's bombs. I had to laugh at the image of Princes William and Harry playing hide & seek or driving their little Hot Wheels cars (or whatever is the British equivalent) on the beautiful rugs!

I finally exited Windsor Castle and strolled a few hundred yards to St. George's Chapel (on the castle grounds). Not knowing anything about the chapel, I thought I'd "pop in" for a bit, look around, and then go find a nice tea shop or pub and get a bite to eat before strolling through the streets near the castle.   http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/worship-and-music.html

I slipped off my headphones as I entered the chapel (a very large structure) and an "older" female marshal greeted me with a warm smile. I smiled in response, and when I said, "What a beautiful chapel", her face lit up. She asked me where in America I was from, and she explained that she and her late husband loved to visit the states (California, New York, and Florida), visited 2-3 times a year, and have a daughter living in California. Her eyes misted a bit as she explained that they had planned to go for Christmas, but he had passed away in August, and she just wasn't up to it. I told her I was also a widow, and we hugged.

Just then, I heard (I don't know how else to describe it) an elderly man's voice say, "If the young lady is giving hugs, I am most definitely next!" I turned, and there was an elfin white-haired man in a marshal's uniform; his blue eyes were twinkling, and he had the most adorable smile! He took my arm and proceeded to give me a personal tour of the chapel, complete with anecdotes about the various goings-on that he's seen in the many years he has served as a full-time marshal -- a story about Tony Blair, for example, and two about Margaret Thatcher.

He explained that when a person is crowned king or queen, they write their will, and one of the things they must state in their will is which of the two possible burial sites -- Westminster Cathedral or St. George's Chapel (very early monarchs had other options as well). As we walked through the nave and the quire, he pointed out each resting place and shared a fact or story about each royal buried there. For example, he explained that when Princess Margaret passed away, she was cremated, which is unusual for British royalty. However, he explained, it was evident that the Queen Mother was "also soon to leave this world", so Princess Margaret was cremated so that her burial could be delayed until her mother's death, which occurred 7 weeks later. Princess Margaret was then buried with her mother and father, who had died 50 years to the day before Princess Margaret's funeral.

In the quire, he showed me the kneeler at which the Queen confers knighthood on any new Knight of the Garter and other knights and dames, and with eyes twinkling even more, explained what I could expect to happen when the Queen made me a Dame! :)  I noticed a section of the quire floor that indicated it was the burial place of more than a few former kings and queens, and my new friend explained that 16 or 17 (I forget which) royals are buried in a large vault beneath the chorister floor. I asked if he'd ever been down there and he said no, but if I wanted to go down and dust the cobwebs he knew just the person to talk to. He then led me to a man in a pastor's robes and told him that I was interested in the burial vault.

The "pastor" explained a bit about it to me while my guide searched in his pockets and found a picture of it. With a flirtatious smile, he assured me he doesn't show it to just anyone, and then he handed it to me. The 8 x 10 wrinkled and worn black/white photo showed a very large room with what appeared to be stone walls and a stone shelf (not on legs but built into the wall) around the perimeter and what looked like metal or concrete vaults arranged around the vault on that shelf. Oh how I would love to be able to go down there!

I glanced at my cell phone and saw that I needed to head back to our meeting place, so I said a reluctant goodbye to my charming guide, who urged me to return to Windsor and visit him again before leaving England. I stopped to say good-bye to the marshal I met when I first entered and to give her my card with my email, and she promised to email me and to try to visit Missouri on her next visit to the states.

I had just enough time to buy a take-away chai tea latte and a slice of an absolutely scrumptious "pie" with a light pastry bottom, a layer of butterscotchy caramel, and a top layer of the best chocolate I think I have ever eaten, which I savoured as I strolled through a few Windsor streets and back to our meeting place.

While I have enjoyed every excursion we've been on and every site we've visited, I do believe this day in Windsor might be my favourite so far. A beautiful sunshiny day, a spectacular castle, and a courtly & flirtatious guide made for a day I will never forget!

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