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Photograph copyright ©1999 Denis Waugh.

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From the surrounding area it is clear that Windsor Castle is one of the great sights of England and so it has been for nearly a thousand years.

The prime reason for its selection by the Conqueror was that it was the most defensible site in the area, and the fact that the locality abounded in wild game for hunting probably came a very close second. Today's Windsor Great Park has been carved from William's hunting ground.

The on-duty policeman suggests that I leave my bike at the railway station. He cannot be serious. But I turn back from the car park and as his attention is deflected, tether it to the railings outside the Earl's Sandwich Bar. The Earl's Sandwich Bar is not run by an earl. It is run by Earl from Los Angeles. He has a royal line in patter: `Just get your coffee from my granny over there...' gesturing to the young woman at the far counter. `Where you from? London? You mean you came all the way from London for one of our sandwiches?'

You cannot visit all of the castle - it covers over 13 acres - just St George's Chapel and the State Apartments, and it is more than a little frustrating to be turned back from Henry III's thirteenth-century tower and the glimpse of an appealing jumble of medieval houses through a stone archway. But it is understandable when you consider that within the castle precincts lives an entire town-within-a-town: the Constable and Governor of the castle, the Military Knights of Windsor, the Dean, canons and choristers of St George's Chapel and the Household Regiments - all with families who have a right to privacy easily overlooked in a national monument.

But it is still worth the entrance fee. The state apartments are fabulous. Amongst all the gilt and the carvings by Grinling Gibbons, the fireplaces by Adam and the beautiful antique furniture and armour you just wander past paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Rubens, Reynolds, Lely, Holbein, Van der Velde, del Sarto, Zoffany, Hogarth... the whole thing is unbelievable. Ridiculous. And there is St George's Chapel. For a mere pittance you may even get a guide to yourself, and just soak it all up. It is beautiful and your guide will love it to bits, which makes all the difference. The chapel was first built by Henry VI as a place of pilgrimage, but after his deposition his cousin, as Edward IV, began it anew. Very sound PR, considering he had usurped the throne of a perceived saint.

The castle has been refined and improved by pretty well every monarch since William I and loved by most: King John `loved Windsor above all others' and when in 1216 the town and castle were besieged by the barons intent on their Great Charter it was back here that he licked the royal wounds and shrugged the royal shoulders.

John's son, Henry III, built a wooden bridge over the Thames to Eton and in his time the town developed between the castle and the bridge. Henry's son, Edward I, spent much of his childhood here and here in 1254 he married his beloved queen, Eleanor of Castile. Their grandson, Edward of Windsor (later Edward III), was born here and it was he who on St George's Day 1350 established a chantry of twelve priests and set up a hostel for impoverished knights no longer able to support themselves: the Knights of the Garter.

Windsor was Queen Victoria's preferred residence in the early years of her reign and she entertained much of European royalty here, including Louis Philippe, Tsar Nicholas I and Napoleon III. These were Victoria's happiest years, when she had her adored husband Albert at her side and her nine children were dispersing in marriage about the royal houses of Europe.

Windsor as a family name has been in use only since 1917, when George V dispensed with Saxe-Coburg (Albert's name) as a proclamation of his Britishness and independence from his German relatives. Which would have been sad for Queen Victoria.

I unshackle my bike as Earl is slapping together another sandwich for a punter: `You mean you came all the way from Wallington for one of our sandwiches?' I don't think so.

Text copyright ©1999 Priscilla Waugh.

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