Thames Valley

Rising from a source in Gloucestershire, the river Thames winds past Oxford to Windsor, 20 miles (35 km) from the capital. On a hill in the center of this small town is Windsor Castle, a commanding structure which for 900 years has served the kings and queens of England as their principal official residence outside the capital.

In 1992, a fire seriously damaged parts of the Royal Apartments and other areas, and repair and restoration will take many years to complete. Nonetheless, the bulk of the castle precincts remain open to visitors – except at times when the Royal Standard is flying over the Round Tower. This indicates that the sovereign is at Windsor, and the castle is then closed to visitors.

The present appearance of this Norman fortress, built by order of William II, owes much to rebuilding under George III and George IV. The burial place of the royal family and the personal chapel of Elizabeth I is St. George’s Chapel(1475- 1528) in Late Perpendicular style with fan vaulting. The entrance, the King Henry VIII Gate, was built during the Tudor period in the year 1571.

The State Apartments house a superb collection of paintings, with works by such Old Masters as Holbein, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt and Canaletto. Other treasures include tapestries, china, porcelain, silver and gold artifacts and, of course, the famous Queen’s Doll’s House, created in 1924 by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.

It was at Windsor Castle that Edward III founded the United Kingdom’s highest order, the Order of the Garter, in 1348, restricting the number of its members to 26. The story goes that a court lady lost her garter at a banquet, whereupon the king announced, to rescue her from sniggers, that it would be an honor for a knight to wear such a garter. With his order he created a select society of knights who were committed to upholding knightly honor, true to their motto: “Honi soft qui mad y pense” (Shame on him who thinks ill of it).

This imposing building is today the largest inhabited castle in the world and Queen Elizabeth’s favorite residence. Since Queen Victoria had the castle extended, there are always apartments available for members of the extensive royal family or visiting heads of state.

The castle dominates the landscape for miles around, but Windsor itself, with its half-timbered buildings and winding alleys has much to offer the visitor, from a Town Hall designed by Wren to a range of souvenir and antique shops.

Boat trips can be taken up or down the river Thames as it winds through enchanting parkland. If you prefer to travel on dry land, take a walk to Windsor Great Park, which is 2.5 miles (4 km) south of town.

North of town on the A308 is Runnymede, where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. Today, this is also the site of the John F. Kennedy Memorial.

A short walk across the bridge in Windsor takes you to the little town of Eton, famous for its public (i.e. private) school, Eton College, founded by King Henry VI in 1440, which claims to have more than twenty Prime Ministers among its past pupils. The boys wear uniform: a black hat and striped trousers. Parts of the college date to the 15th century, such as the late Gothic school chapel (1411) and the oldest schoolroom in England (1443).

Head west on the A308, which roughly follows the Thames, as far as Maidenhead, a thriving town with good shopping facilities and many attractive riverside pubs and restaurants.

From Marlow, the road continues to Henley-on-Thames, a charming old redbrick town that comes to pulsating life each year during its international regatta week in July. This great event in the social calendar was started by Prince Albert in 1839.

West of Henley is Wallingford, an ancient market town and key river crossing since the days of the Romans, and the lovely little town of Dorchester-onThames. Occupied since the Bronze Age, the latter is famous for its Norman abbey and the half-timbered houses lining High Street.

South of Henley and north of Reading is Mapledurham, a red brick manorhouse beside the Thames. Further upstream, at Whitchurch, a toll bridge crosses to the pretty town of Pangbourne, with riverside restaurants and boats for hire.

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