Take my advice. You don’t need to book a coach tour. You don’t need to deal with other people with fat cameras and guides toting umbrellas with sunflowers stuck to the top.
It’s only an hour on the train from Waterloo to Windsor and Eton Riverside. You can buy the tickets from the machine, or a real person. Don’t fret if you miss one, there will be another in half an hour.
Before you know it you’ll have snaked up the Thames from London to the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world (and the town home to one of the most exclusive boy’s schools too).
If you’re the kind of person who likes these sorts of things, you might be pleased to discover that Windsor is also home to a very solid pub lunch.
It was glorious sunny on Saturday when we went to see about a castle. It all began not long ago when we made a list of the things we should make an effort to go and see while we’re here in the UK. A different kind of list. Near the top of it was Windsor. Not too far below that was a commitment to doing a few more day trips and eating some quaint pub lunches. What follows is an effective way to kill a few birds with one stone.
There was the added lure of a current attraction on offer; a tour of the oldest working kitchen in the country- which has been in constant use for nearly 750 years. Booking the 45 minute Grand Kitchen tour (£22) also includes access to the castle and the grounds. Which means that at 2pm we glide past the 4oo metre queue of people trying to gain access to the castle. We walk straight past them, up to the entrance, hand over our booking number and saunter straight inside. We try not to feel too smug (though we may have high fived a little).
There’s lots to marvel at inside the Castle. There’s the discoveries of the gradual improvements of generations of monarchs, made clearer after the restorations done after the devastating fire in 1992 . There’s the novelty of Mary’s doll house; taking up an entire room- a royal toy if ever there was one. There’s armour and swords (for those who like those sorts of things). There are the state rooms and the extraordinary china collections (which are carefully washed in rubber lined sinks after official functions).
There’s a gorgeous view down towards the spire of Eton College. And other down the Long Walk.
There’s St George’s Chapel, with the burial sites of the King George VI, Queen Mother and Henry VIII and Jane Seymour.
And at the moment there’s a lovely exhibition to mark the Queen’s Jubilee, of sixty photographs- of which this one is my favourite.
Some tips for a visit: the crowds on coaches following umbrellas with flowers on them tend to visit early in the morning so they can see the changing of the guards before lunch. Arriving after lunch means a few less people (though it’s wise to book your tickets online ahead). There are also fewer going into Mary’s Doll House at the very end of the day.
The tour of the kitchen is around 45 minutes long . It takes you into rooms you wouldn’t normally access. You see where the royal grandchildren have hosted their 21st birthday parties (far across the quadrangle from where their grandmother sleeps). The kitchen itself is the size of a basketball court; with vintage braziers and copper pots lining the wall. The clocks down here are permanently set five minutes fast- one way of ensuring plenty of time to get the food upstairs in plenty of time for official functions.
But before you get to all of that, you’ll probably be in need of a decent lunch.
There are plenty of chain restaurants in the village of Windsor. There’s Zizzi and Cote, Carluccios and a host of others with their facsimile appearances. And then there’s the Two Brewers.
Tucked into Park Street near the rear of the castle, The Two Brewers dates back to the 17th Century when it began as a coffee house. These days it’s one of Windsor’s smallest pubs with only nine tables inside.
The roof is low and the walls are crowded with curios; from framed articles decrying the problem of women and pink wine (apparently we get hard to handle) to faded photographs of monarchs and other locals.
On the window sills are tall candles shrugging off tails of wax and hardcover books in the colours of private school uniforms.
There’s a wide range of ales and ciders both on draft and in bottles. The wine list is smart, with around 15 by the glass (including some cheerful pinks from the south of France).
A rustic mound of pate and a slightly anaemic spiral of caramellised onions comes on a wooden board with thick slices of granary toast for £6.50.
From there it’s pub standards; from fat sandwiches through to a burger of the week (this week a dense game burger, with a spicy relish).
But a country lunch is often best served by ham, eggs and chips. Here the ham is glazed and carved in house- the eggs softly fried and lolling on top. Next to it a stock of chips, perfect for chasing after rogue yolks with.
I’d be lying if I said The Hungry One wasn’t a little disappointed not to find an Eton Mess on the menu, being so close to the source and all. If like Queen Victoria (whose love for the sweet stuff was supposedly so great that by the end of her life she was sporting wooden teeth) you need something sticky to round out your meal, there’s always banoffee. Here it’s taken to extremes with a rice krispy/mars bar base and a fat cap of whipped cream (and ice cream).
There are no children allowed inside at The Two Brewers- a cause of consternation for a few on online message boards, but a bit of respite for those wanting a quiet escapist lunch. It gets crowded and it’s wise to book ahead.
But for a pub lunch with a bit of history attached, it’s hard to go wrong.
From there it’s a twenty minute walk over the bridge to sticky beak at Eton and then an easy stroll back to the train. If you’re lucky you’ll arrive on the day of their school fair. There’s nothing quite like seeing teenage boys selling popcorn in morning suits, with starched shirts and tails to make you realise that you’ve stumbled into another world. Before you know it you’ll have sipped a cider by the river, counted the ducks paddling beneath and boarded a train back to Waterloo, plum tuckered out, but happy as a lark that you’ve ticked yet another thing off your list.
Tour of the Windsor Castle Kitchen
Information and booking here
The Two Brewers
34 Park Street
Windsor SL4 1LB
01753 855 426