Where: Windsor, UK
When: 12-14th January 2017
It’s a cold Friday evening in January, and we’re sat in London pub complaining. Our gripe? We needed to get outdoors. We need fresh air, and to swap the depressing city skyline for some greenery. Mostly we need exercise. Unfortunately, I’m no die-hard all-season outdoor adventurer. I hate being cold for a start, so it’s a struggle to motivate myself to pile on layers and forgo the comforts of central heating to get muddy and wet. But what I try focusing on over a G&T is the fact that when I do force myself outside for a hearty walk, I almost always feel much better for it.
We agreed to wake up early the next morning and formulate a plan. Over cereal and Google Maps a destination is randomly decided – Windsor. Home to the World’s largest inhabited castle (The Queen’s weekend pad), the famous Eton College (where Princes William and Harry went), and a historical royal parkland. Just south of the quaint Old Windsor town, Windsor Great Park provides over 4,800 acres of open space. With easy access to London, you might recognise areas of the park for the backdrops it has lent to dozens of films, including Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Wearing copious amounts of warm winter layers, we pull together two hikes to explore a large proportion of the park.
Day 1: Long Park Loop (11.6 miles)
Setting from our hotel 0.6 miles outside the south-east Blacknest Gate, our route would take us north along Duke’s Lane, up to Queen Anne’s Ride, until looping back down The Long Walk just before reaching the castle.
Given the wide open spaces, my cheeks burned in the wind, so we marched away to keep warm as if taking part in SAS training. Aside from horses and cyclists, most of our walk along the western side of the park seemed pretty quiet. The outlook was largely grazing fields full of sheep, with some enclosed ‘private’ land, and a few seemingly random pockets of housing. Who is lucky enough to live within the walls of Windsor Great Park (aside from Prince Andrew) I wonder?
Around 4 miles in, after a brief detour to The Village – a square of houses with a Post Office – we come across the only statue of our current Queen on horse-back. The monument was commissioned to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. She gazes on towards Windsor castle, keeping a watchful eye on Prince Philip. A keen equestrian, apparently she still rides today in her 90s!
From the statue, our walk took us down the long, mowed Queen Anne’s ride, which we tred trying to avoid the odd pesky mole hill. Due to the neighbouring deer park, the ride is enclosed by a wire fence, meaning once you are on it there is no way to cut across eastwards. We found ourselves mostly taking established paths all day, which meant a lot of the time we had to dodge bikes and horses. At the end of the ride, we opted to forgo visiting the town (and castle), and turned back south-east, crossing through a tall gate into the deer park. Once inside, the resident heard of red deer could be spotted grazing in the distance.
Upon joining The Long Walk, the number of people grew. The 2.65-mile tree-lined avenue was originally planted in 1680 by Charles II. I like to think the view of Windsor Castle hasn’t changed much in that time, although since Charles’ time the castle has found itself right under the Heathrow airport flight path. If I had a pound for every low-flying plane roaring across the sky during our walk, it would have been a lucrative day!
The best view of Windsor Castle came once atop the hill at the foot of George III’s Copper Horse. If you haven’t seen the castle, it’s worth a visit. Home to a large amount of the British Crown’s art collection, these days it opens part of it’s enormous campus to tourists – for an entrance fee. The statue itself is very imposing. Much grander in size than the Queen’s one seen earlier. Years ago a rumour circulated that the statue’s sculptor killed himself because he was so ashamed that he forgot to include stirrups on the horse. This myth has since been disproven!
Our remaining route followed mostly straight paths towards Virginia Water. We past Guard’s Polo Club, which was all shut up for the season. By then, feeling tired, and in need of a hot drink we headed back towards Blacknest Gate, forgoing the lake for the next day. Given the number of visitors to the park, one thing that had surprised me was the serious lack of refreshment and toilet facilities. We didn’t pass a single public toilet all day! I would suggest packing your own snacks if you plan on spending a lot of time in the park.
Day 2: Virginia Water & Valley Gardens Loop (7.2 miles)
The air was even cooler on Sunday morning, and with just a few hours to kill before a customary English roast, we returned to the southern end of the park. Unfortunately we were not alone. It seems that Windsor Great Park, and Virginia Water in particular, is THE place to go on a Sunday morning! Whether walking the dog, pushing a pram, cycling, or taking part in the organised race going on, the new year exercise resolutions were in full swing.
Despite the crowds, I really enjoyed exploring this area of the park. It has far more landscaping than the northern section, and greater areas of interest to peruse, plus a visitor centre (toilets, food etc.) With further time we would have taken the small diversion north to Savill Garden (free entry in Jan-Feb), to see the horticultural designs.
Joining the ultra-busy 4.5-mile footpath that circles Virginia Water, we headed counter-clockwise under a white-out, sad sky. The lake dates back to 1763, when it became the largest man-made water pool in Britain. Conscious of our limited time, we set a decent marching pace, but still found ourselves side-stepping for the runners and cyclists. Staring at the calm body of water was not as peaceful as it could have been. I had to remain mindful of the crowds. There were a couple of near-misses with passing cyclists, and one total wet-dog face-plant into my legs that left me covered in mud. Thanks for that.
Almost hidden away from the lake’s southern shore something caught my eye. What looked like the ruins of a Roman city, inside Windsor Park? The tall, crumbling columns and archs look like they belong in ancient Greece – and that’s almost exactly where they came from too! Some information panels dotted around revealed that the stones were shipped to England from the Mediterranean, and re-constructed during the Georgian era. They once made up the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna on the shores of Tripoli. It seems that Georgian England, (just like the Victorians who followed), had a fascination with ancient architecture, and this ‘folly’, was erected for no purpose other than decoration.
Similar in intent to the ruins, we next came across the ornamental waterfall. The cascades were constructed by George III in 1780, and originally included a grotto, which has long since washed away. There is something whimsical about casting eyes on such man-made sites after witnessing incredible natural waterfalls all over the world! But then again, hundreds of years ago, how many people got to travel like we do today to see such wonders?
Passing the Pavilion guest centre, (and a giant carpark), we next reached the very distinctive Canadian totem pole. The 100-foot high pole, erected in 1958 to mark the centenary of British Columbia as a Crown Colony, was carved by Kwakiutl tribesmen out of a single trunk of red cedar. I should have taken a picture from further away, because I couldn’t do the monument justice. OK, so the paintwork could do with a touch-up, but the colossal mast sits so proudly looking out over the water, that it serves as a magnificent tribute to the UK’s relationship with Canada.
At this point in the hike we decided to divert from the main lake trail. As soon as we did, heading up into the Valley Gardens, the crowds slipped away. The undulating woodland, contains a maze of small trails, and an assortment of plants and trees, some of which are labelled. Whilst getting a bit lost, we spotted a dog, who after trotting past us twice in two different directions, we noticed was travelling solo. The little lost tike got away from us, (we tried to get a look at his collar), so we reported his location to the park warden, who dispatched a search team. I hope he managed to get reunited with his owner in time for lunch!
Additional Park Info
- Most of the space open to public is free of charge from dawn the dusk (except car parking and the Savill Garden). Our walking routes were completely free!
- The Park is accessible from London by car, or by trains from London Waterloo in around an hour
- Cyclists and horse-riders are particularly well-catered for in Windsor, with dedicated routes and plenty of long, easy-grade track. There are many local stables and bike shops nearby