Towns / Cities Visited: 87
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 14,001
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,752,876
After a much needed sleep in, we bid farewell to Tony and Lisa’s house, for now at least, and hopped in our car to head towards the days attraction; Windsor Castle. Although the sky was only scattered with clouds it was the first day we’d had since before summer in which we could begin to feel a chill in the air. The balmy hot summer that we had heard of, and would continue to hear of, from almost everyone we stayed with in the UK was well and truly over; winter was coming. Not that I was complaining of course, being a lover of the cold. So with our jackets wrapped tight around us, we headed towards the castle.
As we arrived, we were faced with a mind boggling queue stretching off into the distance. Thanks to the wonders of planning though, we had already purchased our tickets weeks ago, and happily walked past all of the disgruntled people waiting in line, and jumped into the 5 people deep, fast track line to pick up our tickets and audio guides. Another win for team planner.
As we wandered up towards the gate to this imposing castle, the guide gave us a brief history of the sight, sitting on its slightly elevated peak. The oldest part of the building, the round tower, was built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror. Over time, of course, the site has been extended greatly, but the residence has been occupied by the British royal family since William the Conqueror’s son, Henry I. That fact makes this beauty the longest continuously occupied palace in Europe, clocking in at almost 900 years. The base of the round tower is surrounded by a dry moat, which is now home to a garden, which we would be visiting later on. The Queen does not reside in this tower when she is in residence though (Windsor Castle is her favourite weekend residence), but instead in a wing which was added much later, and is, for obvious reasons, sectioned off and secured from the public.
As we entered the gate through the tall stone outer wall, we finally found ourselves within the castle complex. First order of business was to visit St. George’s Chapel. Now, for the most part, the idea of a chapel evokes the image of a small private place of prayer, but this is anything but. The massive 15th century gothic church is big enough to rival any cathedral, with its huge stained glass windows and hulking flying buttresses supporting its vaulted ceiling. Not only is this the location of many a royal wedding, baptism, and burial, it is also the spiritual home of the Knights of the Order of the Garter. For those of you who are unaware as to what the Order of the Garter is, it is the highest chivalric order in Britain, and was founded in 1348 by Edward III. It is dedicated to St George, Britain’s patron saint, and comprises of 24 members, including the Monarch and the Prince of Wales. The appointment to the order is granted for life, that is of course unless you are disgraced and stripped of the honour, meaning that the only time a new member can be appointed is if another member dies. There are other members of the order, made up of members of the royal family, and foreign royal family members, but they have slightly different titles and thus do not count towards the 24 person limit. The members are selected by the Monarch and are made up of a mixture of Earls and other nobles, as well as a number of knighted individuals.
By now it was time to go inside and actually explore the chapel itself. Like all interiors of the castle complex and other royal residences, you are unable to take photos, but I will add a few from the internet so you can see what the hell I’m talking about. The inside is everything you would want from a gothic church, with soaring fan vaulting making up its stunning roof, each intersection of which is capped with a knight’s crest, a symbol of the crown, or an English rose. The medieval stained glass windows shine a rainbow into this bright and airy space, and the symmetry of the place is soothing on the eye. Within the walls of the church are also held a number of noteworthy royal burials, including the one and only Henry VIII.
Behind the altar, in the choir, are positioned the seats of the members of the Knights of the Garter. Each seat covered by a wooden canopy topped with a carved figure to reflect the status of each member. For example; all royal members have a crown, whereas others have symbols of their coat of arms. Above each seat also hangs a flag displaying the coat of arms of each member, and on the board behind each chair sits a copy of the crest of each person who has been allocated to that seat since the introduction of the order. The dark, intricately carved wood; and individual lamps at each seat, give a true feeling of tradition and formality to the entire scene.
With the chapel explored, we headed back outside, and stopped at the Horseshoe Cloister, which is a semicircular area of conjoined houses, originally built to house the clergy of the chapel. From here we wandered past the obligatory Queen’s guards, copping their usual amount of tourists taking stupid photos with them while they try and concentrate on the very real job they actually have to do. Something about the fact that people treat them like entertainers really gets under my skin, especially given the fact that they are on duty military officers, and would be the very people to spring into action should some insane terrorist decide today was a good day to start something. If you want to stand next to them and take a photo, go for your life, but don’t distract them from protecting everyone else.
Walking back up towards the Round Tower, we headed around the back towards the state rooms. Naturally we passed an ice cream stall supplied by the royal creamery, and thus had to stop. No matter the weather, its never too cold for ice cream. Besides, who doesn’t want some royal icecream on royal grounds. With our sweet treat complete we headed on inside. Unfortunately the exhibit of Queen Mary’s doll’s house, an incredibly detailed doll’s house from the 1920’s commissioned for Queen Mary by her cousin Princess Marie Louise, was closed for restoration, thus we carried on. Now, the interiors of these state rooms are, unsurprisingly, just as lavish and ornate as those in Buckingham Palace, with as much gilding, art, and luxury furniture as you can bear. Part of the state rooms were severely damaged by a fire in 1992, resulting in quite a few of the rooms appearing relatively newly refurbished, although they have done so in keeping with the existing style, making it less noticeable than you would expect.
The highlight of the rooms is, of course, St. George’s Hall, one of the rooms which was completely gutted in the fire but has been restored. This room is where the Knights of the Order of the Garter are sworn in, and it is also used for state banquets a few times a year. The ceiling, however, is the most fascinating feature, as it is studded with the coats of arms of ever single member of the order since it began in 1348. There are a number of plain white crests, which, although they may seem as though they are waiting to be painted, they were actually purposely painted white after a member of the order was stripped of their title for treason or severe misconduct. Instead of removing their crest, it was left there, blotted out, as a reminder of their betrayal to the crown and the other members of the order. To be honest I kind of like the idea; its like the medieval version of naming and shaming.
With the interiors all seen, we made our way into the moat garden at the foot of the Round Tower. Paying the small entrance fee, it was nice to step out of the crowds and wander through this beautiful little slice of tranquility for a short while. From a lion topped fountain, to the bright pops of colour gifted to us by the hundreds of flowers which decorate the space, it almost felt like the perfect place to hide from the responsibilities of royal life.
The castle may have been done with for the day, but after we left, we headed off across the river to Eton. The tours to visit the interior of the almost 600 year old, famous boys boarding school may have been sold out, but that didn’t stop us meandering through the historic village, and past the noteworthy building and its beautiful church. By then the sun was on its descent to the horizon, and we tumbled back in the car for the two hour drive to our home for the next couple of nights. We were to stay with Jenny, the widow of my late first cousin once removed (Tony’s brother), Alan. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet him before he passed away, but that didn’t stop Jenny giving us a warm welcome upon our arrival, and before long we were sitting in her lounge room eating fish and chips with her son and daughter, and their partners and kids, speaking of our travels, and anything and everything else that came to mind. Coming from a family who hardly ever gets together, or talks, it was strange but nice to all of a sudden feel like part a seamless part of a family I barely knew I had. It was with a warm sense of being at ease that we found ourselves tumbling into bed for another day of castle exploration on the cards for the next day.
As I reflected on our day, my mind drifted over the pointlessness of Royal appointed titles and the outdated idea of chivalric orders, and found itself strangely lingering on Eton College. Now for those who have ever discussed the idea of single gendered schools with me, you will know that I personally find them to be archaic and counterproductive. My thoughts are doubly as strong in regards to boarding schools, given that there is so many life skills left out of school curriculum which are expected to be taught at home, which obviously can’t be if their home is, in fact, at school.
I understand that studies have found that students who are separated by gender often score higher in academic testing, but I do have to wonder if that is due to the lack of distraction from the opposite sex (as is often asserted), or more due to the fact that single gender schools are usually private institutions with higher budgets available to attract more proficient teachers. These schools also usually have smaller class sizes and less financial pressure in regards to budgeting and facilities. So yes, kids may be likely to gain a higher quality of education delivery than those in the majority of public schools, but I stand by the fact that a kid who wants to learn, will do so wherever they find themselves; and likewise for those who don’t wish to. I for one, attended a public school, and yet I scored higher in my secondary education than any of my four privately schooled cousins. In fact I scored better than the majority of people in the country, and was in the top ten scorers in my school, regardless of the fact that the food based subjects I selected brought down my score due to scaling. In the end, no matter where you go to school in the country, the curriculum is the same; it legally has to be to ensure fair testing. Now I’m not saying having good teachers isn’t a huge advantage, because it most certainly is, I myself had a terrible mathematics teacher in the final two years of secondary school, and I, and everyone in my class, found that we scored much lower than we had expected in our final exams, causing all of our scores to suffer. As the saying goes; a student is only as good as their teacher.
This being said, I think sending your children to segregated secondary schools is stripping them of a very important skill, and one which will greatly affect their success in life; the ability to comfortably interact with the opposite sex. All girl schools are creating generations of women who are not only initially find it uncomfortable to speak to men when they first enter the workforce, but are often scared to stand up to male superiors, even in cases when they are being treated poorly, or are actually well within their means to request a pay rise or promotion. On top of this, they are often less in tune with male emotions and actions, and how to handle them, simply because they have not been exposed to it enough in social situations, or under pressure. People talk about female intuition all the time, and yet we don’t seem to address the fact that these schools, to some extent, stunt the growth of this intuition in regards to being in tune with the opposite sex.
Now, of course, the same goes for boys in similar situations. By keeping them separate you are creating pockets of the male community who often do not know how to interact with women appropriately or confidently. Where boys in co-ed schools usually have any uncouth or harassing comments towards their female counterparts picked up on and corrected over the course of their education, boys who do not regularly mingle with the female sex, especially those who also have fathers with sexist and misogynistic attitudes at home, are doomed to continue the culture of sexual abuse and gender inequality in their adult years. That’s not to say all boys from private schools end up this way; my partner is hugely respectful of women and attended all boys schools, but his respect for women came from his parents. People like to assert that its the parents job to teach them this, but when there are plenty of parents who do not know how to parent at all, it often falls on the schools to teach them that respect. In a classroom without both genders, how do you properly teach gender issues.
In the end, the number you earn at the end of your education is just that, a number. Its worth is limited both in transfer-ability and relevance; inter-gender relations and how to conduct them is a lifelong skill, and one that trumps any such number. You can be an technically incredible doctor, but if you have a terrible beside manner, you are missing a huge skill set required for your job. You can be an academic genius, but if you do not know how to interact with the person sitting next to you effectively and with respect, then the fight for equality between the sexes is doomed to continue for eternity.