Even on a cold winter’s morning, the hedges of rhododendron in Windsor Great Park are jungle green and glossy. Ducks tread over the wafer-thin ice of Wick Pond and coots bob along, unfazed by the frigid waters. Most visitors come to Windsor for the castle, spilling off trains and coaches for history’s sake. They jostle their way up the High Street, perhaps pausing for a glance at Wren’s Guildhall or stopping at The Crooked House for tea and cake. It’s only right that Europe’s longest-occupied castle attracts so much attention, but a morning of crowds and dazzle calls for a more sedate afternoon.
Fortunately, Windsor’s charms don’t end at the palace gates. Just a few hundred feet south – in the grounds of Windsor Great Park – there’s peace, tranquility and a new perspective on a millennium of history. The Great Park, as it’s known locally, sprawls across 5,000 acres (2,020 hectares) of hills, forests, woodland and open grassland. Like many of the stone turrets which overlook it, this parkland traces its origins back to the 12th the park’s forests remind visitors that this land was originally a Norman hunting chase. The manicured gardens have remained relatively untouched since Hanoverian times and after the death of her beloved Albert, the widowed Queen Victoria – one of the park’s greatest patrons – often retreated here for solace.
To break away from the masses, head up the High Street and veer onto Park Street for a quick lunch at The Two Brewers. There are no pubs within the park and you’ll want to be fed and watered before setting off through the gate at the end of Park Street. The elm-lined Long Walk, which runs up to the statue of George III – referred to locally as The Copper Horse – will be your gateway into the Great Park.
Begun by Charles II, most of the Long Walk is smoothly paved and there’s almost no incline. But as it crests up at the summit of Snow Hill – where George’s horse rears above the horizon – the paving ends and the grassy slope is a little steep. Thankfully, years of walkers have worn a path that leads directly up to the statue and the view back towards the castle is well worth the scramble up.
Coming down from Snow Hill, enter the Deer Enclosure through another gate. They may be the descendants of the park’s medieval inhabitants, but the creatures behind the chain-link fence are anything but tame and they remind visitors of the wilderness that this place once was. From here, the choice of route and scenery is yours. Go right and you’ll end up in The Village, a community established in the 1930s to house employees of The Crown Estate, the body which manages the Great Park. The Village isn’t particularly noteworthy in the historical sense, but there is a small shop and post office here where cold drinks and snacks can be purchased. There are toilets around the back of the shop (ask before using), but watch out for the swans. They generally keep to their nests in the pond opposite, but it’s not unknown for them to waddle up to the gate, especially if there’s food around.
If you head straight on from the Deer Enclosure, you’ll soon come to Royal Lodge – the former residence of The Queen Mother – and Cumberland Lodge, the crenellated building constructed in Cromwell’s time. Past Cumberland Lodge on the left is Cow Pond, which in warmer months is opaque with water lilies. In summer too, the nearby Rhododendron Ride is a tunnel of blossom, but even on a frosty day – when it’s just you and a few bright-eyed blackbirds – the high green hedges are perfect for those seeking solitude and fresh air.
By this point, you’ll likely have seen signposts for The Savill Garden . This is an enclosed garden within the grounds of the Great Park and there is a fee to enter (see link for details), but it’s worth passing by to admire the roof of the visitor centre, the curves of which echo the rolling topography of the surrounding environment.
Skirt around the garden and follow the signs to Cumberland Obelisk and the nearby Obelisk Pond. The monument was raised to commemorate the victory of William, Duke of Cumberland, over the House of Stuart at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. From there, follow signs for Virginia Water. As you move closer to the lake, there’s no missing the 100-foot high Totem Pole, carved from a single Western Red Cedar and erected in 1958 to mark the centenary of British Columbia.
As substantial features of the Great Park, Virginia Water and The Valley Gardens can be treated as destinations in their own right. With an artificial waterfall known as The Cascade and the imported ruins of the Roman city of Leptis Magna, the walk around this manmade water feature exemplifies the Georgian craze for follies. At 4.5 miles (7.2 km) circumference, however, it makes for a very long walk. Likewise, visitors can weave their way through 250 acres of paths in The Valley Gardens hour after hour, season after season. Camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons herald the arrival of spring while the hydrangeas of summer wash the landscape in blue and white. Autumn is a blaze of yellows, reds and oranges and when the sweet gum and maple leaves have fallen, the structure of the garden is revealed under spare holly berries and heathers.
The Valley Gardens and Virginia Water Lake mark the southernmost point of the Great Park. From here, you can follow signposts that will take you back towards the Copper Horse, traversing the famous Polo Grounds and nearby Smith’s Lawn. Free maps of the Great Park can be downloaded here or found at the Royal Windsor Information Centre in the Old Booking Hall near Windsor & Eton Central station. But if you’re after something more detailed, the East Berkshire Ramblers have published their ‘Windsor and the Great Park Footpath Map’, which can be picked up for £1.50 ($2.50) online, at the Windsor branch of Waterstone’s bookstore on Peascod Street or at The Savill Garden Visitor Centre .
There’s an endless permutation of walks throughout the Great Park and your itinerary can be as long or short as you wish. But whatever your chosen route – which ever way you go –there’s peace, quiet and a fresh perspective on Royal history century after century, season after season.
Getting into and around Windsor Great Park:
Windsor itself is served by two train stations: Windsor & Eton Riverside and Windsor & Eton Central (sometimes referred to as Windsor Royal Station). The former is on the South West Trains network (www.southwesttrains.co.uk) and services from here terminate at London Waterloo. The latter station is served by First Great Western (www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk) and services terminate at London Paddington via Slough. For more information, see National Rail (www.nationalrail.co.uk). While the directions above assume Windsor as your starting point, there are multiple entrances to the Great Park. Depending on your itinerary, one of these other gates may be more convenient. If, for example, you’d like to spend the afternoon circuiting Virginia Water Lake and taking in the ruins of Leptis Magna, it would make more sense to use Blacknest Gate rather than starting at the Long Walk.
Given its huge acreage, the Great Park borders the nearby towns of Ascot and Egham. Coming from their respective train stations on the South West Trains network, it’s easy to reach the park via public transport. The White Bus Company operates a service into and around the Great Park. Timetables can be accessed at White Bus Company. No services operate on Sundays.
If you have access to a car, there is parking available at Virginia Water, Blacknest Gate, The Savill Gardens and Wick Road (just on the other side of the Cow Pond). With the exception of the Long Walk, cycling is permitted in the Great Park. Dog walkers and cyclists should look at the Crown Estate site for more complete information.
While there are no pubs open to the general public in the Great Park, there are quite a few located just outside of the park’s boundary. Here are a few recommendations:
The Two Brewers
Tel: +44 (0)1753 855426
Great for traditional pub lunch (served Mon-Fri 12 noon – 2:30pm, Sat-Sun 12 noon – 4pm).
No children, booking recommended. Dogs welcome.
The Fox and Hounds
Tel: +44 (0)1784 433098
Children and pets welcome. Near Bishop’s Gate.
The Belvedere Arms
Tel: +44 (0)1344 870931
Huge menu – even includes pizza. Children welcome. Just outside of Blacknest Gate.
Photos courtesy of The Crown Estate
Written by Guest Contributor Jackie Reddy for EuropeUpClose.com
Freelance writer Jackie Reddy moved to England as a graduate student. Seven years, one husband, two cats and countless cups of tea later, she’s still here. Based in Windsor, she covers English travel, history and food and her work is regularly featured in Renaissance Magazine. When she’s not in England, she’s probably on a train somewhere in Eastern Europe. Check out her website or find her tweeting @JackieReddy.