Windsor, Westonbirt, Bath and Bekonscot.

Posted on November 19, 2012 by

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        Finally got round to visiting Windsor. Oh dear. What a disappointment. Talk about Follow My Leader, it’s full of multi-nationals (hooray for Totnes in Devon which gave the boot to Costa Coffee). Not tempted to linger longer than needed to we head for the castle which dominates the skyline. How lovely to have a castle in your back garden.

          Sod’s Law. The State Apartments were closed for Investitures. Prince Charles was standing in for his mother whose back was playing up. She would have had to stand for over an hour and pin medals on the chests of ninety of the great (sic) and the good (sic). Good News. Because of that, the entrance fee was slashed. More Good News. Tickets are valid for a year. We can go back to see what we missed. We sort of saw Queen Mary’s Doll’s House – very dark in there – but definitely saw the wonderful St. George’s Chapel where many of England’s kings and queens are buried.

          No thanks to Oliver Cromwell, who wanted to demolish it (he lost by one vote) the castle is over a thousand years old. William the Conqueror built it to defend himself against the English. He needn’t have bothered. Then, as now, apathy ruled. Without a real life guide, it’s impossible to see which bits, if any, are original. The vast site covers thirteen acres. The five hundred who live and work there making it the largest inhabited castle in the world.

          The Queen, apparently, likes Windsor. Edward I liked it too. Four of his children were born there. Known as The Hammer of the Scots (and the Welsh) he is remembered for being so grief stricken when his wife died, he ordered Eleanor Crosses be built at the twelve places her corpse rested on the way to Westminster Abbey.

          His grandson, Edward III, was born here too. He’s remembered for the Battle of Crècy and for his fascination with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It was he who started the Order of the Garter at Windsor and rebuilt St. George’s Chapel where Garter Knights still meet today.

          Charles I, beheaded by Cromwell and his cronies, was buried by devout Christians (sic) in the Chapel with no ceremony and no religious service. At least they sewed his head back on.

          Windsor Castle is where Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert died and where, during WWI, with German Gotha planes bombing England, the royal family thought it wise to change their name from Saxe Coburg Gotha to Windsor. It was here too the funeral of a King who abdicated, the Duke of Windsor, was held in 1972.

          Then it was on to Bath. No room at the inn so a purple palace (Premier Inn) it had to be, although the one at Alveston near Bristol was a pleasant surprise. In Bath, rain came down in stair rods, the sandwich ordered for lunch took an hour to arrive, the queue for the Roman Baths stretched as far as the eye could see and supper at Café Rouge was a disgrace. However. Bath Abbey made up for a less than successful day. It’s wonderful.

          Prepared, as usual, for Abbey Guides snarling No Cameras, we were delighted to be told photography is allowed. A stained glass window shows the coronation of Edgar, England’s first king, in 973. In 1973, the Queen visited the Abbey to mark the 1000th anniversary of the British monarchy.

          After Bath came Westonbirt Arboretum which backs on to Highgrove, home of Prince Charles, a regular visitor. Don’t expect to commune with nature. The day we went, 8000, not a misprint, turned up. We were lucky, sometimes it’s 14,000. Do not go on a Sunday but do go on a guided walk with John and Rosalind who take you off the beaten concrete track and into the woods (walks are advertised as free, what should be said is that they are included in the admission price (£9).

          The idea for an arboretum was dreamed up by Robert Holford when he inherited Westonbirt in 1839, a time when plant hunters were bringing specimens back to England from all over the British Empire. Many formed the basis for the Arboretum, now one of the largest collections of trees in the world. Walking around, it’s hard not to think of Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell song). They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum then charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em.

          Look out for the UK’s oldest tree in Silk Wood. Growing there long before Robert Holford was a twinkle in his father’s eye, the lime, native to  Britain, is 2000 years old. The lime, incidentally, is a tree you won’t want to park under. Aphids who live on it make a sticky mess on cars.

          Forestry Commission Rangers were on the lookout for signs of infection on ash trees (also native to Britain). Even I know the ash. As children we called the spiralling winged seed pods, helicopters. Sadly, a fungus is killing the ash all over the east of England, wreaking the same kind of damage Dutch elm disease did in the 1970s. It has wiped out 90 per cent of ash trees in Denmark in the last seven years.

          Our last visit to this – pardon the pun – neck of the woods – was to Bekonscot, another wonder created from the imagination of one man. If you consider a tree museum eccentric, what about building the world’s first model village? In 1928, fed up with his wife nagging about his train set taking up room in the house, Richard Callingham set it up on a piece of land opposite.

          First impressions of Bekonscot? Think Time Warp. Think Midsomer Murders. Think the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. You can’t help having a sneaky feeling someone from the team came here. This is Danny Boyle’s idealised vision of a Britain with villages, coaching inns, farms, castles, meadows, babbling brooks, water wheels, sheep, horses tilling the soil, cows, goats, chickens, ducks, geese and birds chirping. Here is a smithy, cinema, colliery, cement works, fairground, cattle market and oil refinery. There are docks, schools, churches, chimney stacks, brass bands, a hospital with nurses and patients, country folk playing cricket, a zoo and railway stations. It even has a cottage billowing smoke.

          Mr Callingham’s England ends in 1939 which, when you think about it, is when England did.  One worrying note. It has a Marks & Spencer. We do hope Britain’s obsession with chains has not infiltrated Bekonscot. Wouldn’t want to see it ending up like Windsor.

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