It is Monday. We had been dribbled upon at the opening of the Coronation Arch, and had our appreciation of Churchill’s grand gardens at Chartwell somewhat dampened and abbreviated by drizzle. Still, it’s England, and only to be expected. Had I known on Sunday that Anne Boleyn’s home, Hever Castle, was a mere 5 miles from Chartwell I would have suggested a quick side trip to compensate. Ol’ P knew Henry VIII had stayed at Chartwell during one of his assignations with Anne; I wonder why he failed to mention it to me?
As much as I may have been tempted to learn more about Henry’s unique technique in handling women, we had to save ourselves on Sunday. Monday would be MY day, and we would see the Windsor Great Park MY way. Hmmm, maybe I did pick up something from Henry VIII. Now if only I had the power to chase the rain away.
But Monday dawned sunny, and the forecast was for the showers to be even more “occasional” than the weekend, so we set out for our grand exploration of the Great Park. My previous forays to the park had been limited to the Long Walk from the castle’s north gate to the Copper Horse, the statue of George III on a rise commanding a breathtaking view of the countryside, even as far as London,
and my abortive attempt at a ride through the park on horseback last year. Today we were to see a great deal more. Ol’ P, armed with guide book and maps, led the way towards the roads less traveled of Windsor’s crown jewel of a park.
Like Elizabeth R, my previous experience in the Great Park had been limited to the Long Walk. Stretching a straight 2.5 miles between double rows of chestnut trees (the elms from the 1600’s having lost their battle with Dutch Elm disease), the Long Walk was a perfect route for my morning jogs, but a little too long to encourage me to go farther into the park. So, for several years, I convinced myself that the Long Walk WAS the park, not the entrance to it. Then I bought the book “Windsor Great Park, A Visitor’s Guide” by Andrew Fielder, and my eyes were opened to the vast possibilities available in the park.
Once off the main drag, as it were, vast doesn’t begin to describe our surroundings. Not only were the gently rolling tree covered hills and open fields utterly devoid of people, always a plus for me, but the skies were teeming with what I have come to call “English clouds” – ever changing and generally spectacular.
I suppose they’re “just” clouds, but there’s something about them in England
Trees, of course, everywhere – just beginning to look the slightest bit autumnal, but every so often an extravagantly dead one would appear, usually all on it’s own and looking either sinister or majestic, depending on the cloud formations behind it.
Others were utterly unfamiliar to this lifelong eastern American, as if I needed reminding that this Great Park was in a different hemisphere.
Gee, I thought that England and America were both in the Northern Hemisphere. No wonder Elizabeth R gets lost so often.
That’s EASTERN hemisphere – even I know we’re both in the North.
(Ah, it was those Eastern Hemisphere trees that so mystified her.)
Our first stop and major photo op was the deer park, home to a tremendous herd of red deer. Not precisely tame, they seemed oblivious to human presence, and my inclination was to walk right into the midst of them to stroke a velvety nose or two. I was (not so) subtly reminded that this was probably not a great idea, and so contented myself (grudgingly) with admiring them from afar.
After reading Fielder’s visitor’s guide, I had to concede that we could never cover the whole Great Park in one day. The week before, we had spent an afternoon hiking through the Hyde Park – Kensington Gardens complex without seeing everything, and that greensward totals only about 630 acres. The Great Park includes close to 5,000 acres, though some of those are out-of-bounds. With the aid of the Map My Run program, I planned two separate walks, one to cover the north end of the park, and the other to cover the south. Then, on Monday, I threw those plans away and decided to zig zag across the length of the park to see as much as we could see.
We left the beaten path (the Long Walk, if you will) as soon as possible, and followed a grassy path known as Queen Anne’s Ride.
In addition to the aforementioned deer, equestrians frequently use this area, which added another element of sensory perception to our trek. Besides enjoying the pastoral vistas we passed, we also had to train our eyes occasionally downward to make sure we avoided stepping in recent deposits to the landscape made by our four-footed friends.
Upon leaving the deer park, we had to make a choice: turn east and shorten the path to our ultimate destination, or head west and detour through the Village. I probably should point out that walking is a form of exercise, and when it comes to exercise, I sometimes bite off more than I can chew. We turned west.
Ol’ P deftly guided us in the direction (in a roundabout sort of way) of Cumberland Lodge, a 17th century building which is now an educational charity and conference facility. We knew the grounds were restricted, but were hoping for a peek at the building by strolling down the access road which, according to Ol’ P’s guide book, was lined on both sides by stately lime trees. Neither of us was quite sure what lime trees looked like, but the trees around us along a drive affording just the barest glimpse of Cumberland Lodge were at least handy at protecting us from one of the more enthusiastic “occasional” showers of the day.
Then the sun reappeared and we moved on.
We walked through fields and on country roads, past the Village which possessed the only faintly commercial establishment inside the entire Great Park, a tiny Post Office cum café at which we stopped for our midmorning tea and scones. Except they didn’t have scones – “It’s not the season, you know,” apologized the proprietress. We settled for coffee and packaged coffee cakes; who knew scones had a season?
Having been refueled with coffee, we continued our trek, but not without one more detour. This time it was a southerly turn back onto Queen Anne’s Ride, and a brief walk to the HM Queen Elizabeth II Statue. Set inside an arc of lime trees (yes, we got to see lime trees!) (at least here we did) on a knoll bathed in dappled sunshine peeking through towering clouds, the site of the statue offered wonderful views toward the distant Windsor Castle to the north, and the private deer pen to the south.
After snapping our quota of pictures, we ambled toward the aforementioned Cumberland Lodge, cresting Mezel Hill and passing the Royal School in the process.
We (that is, Ol’ P – I merely followed) proceeded in a generally easterly, then southerly, direction, our ultimate goal being Savill Gardens. As we had visited Savill Gardens in previous years, having been deposited there after a 25 minute taxi ride, I thought that this was a pretty impressive goal.
Although I billed this as a walk from the north end of the park to the south end, I have to concede that this is not entirely accurate. Savill Gardens is located in the southeast section of the park, but it is not the most southerly of the Great Park’s attractions. That distinction probably belongs to the Valley Gardens – Virginia Water complex, areas we never reached. My thinking was that we could not arrive at Savill Gardens without also touring Savill Gardens, and I doubted whether either of us would have the endurance to go farther once our garden tour was completed. And that is why I have waited until this very moment to tell Elizabeth R that there are “ruins” at Virginia Water.
What! Ruins? What ruins? First Hever Castle, and now this!
By now my legs were just about at the point of giving out. We rounded a curved path and spied a large expanse of green.
“That must be Smith’s Lawn, ” cried Ol’ P, secure in his navigational skills, knowing that Smith’s Lawn was adjacent to Savill Gardens.
I hoped – really hoped – it was. We turned a corner and Ol’ P strode over to a large hedgerow and pointed triumphantly to a small sign affixed to it. I hobbled over and breathed a huge sigh of relief. It wasn’t large, but it clearly said, “Entrance to Savill Gardens.”
Actually, the sign also included an arrow that pointed in the direction of the “Entrance to Savill Gardens,” the actual entrance proving to be another ten minute hike. The flowers, shrubs, and trees in Savill Gardens deserve a post of their own, so I will simply say that it was worth the effort to get there. This was also the only place, other than at our refreshment stop, where we had to pay any money to enjoy the park. That could be why so many people do just that – enjoy the park. Throughout our travels, we passed runners, bikers, walkers, and horseback riders doing what we were doing – enjoying a healthy activity in a truly beautiful setting. It really makes me want to go back to the Great Park, get an earlier start, and this time SEE EVERYTHING!