October 11, 2010
WEEKENDER’S $90M FIRE DAMAGE BILL
WHEN the renovators were called in to repair some fire damage to a weekender on England's River Thames in 1992, the owner wanted the work to match the original as faithfully as possible.
This may have been a simple request had the place in question been a 1960s brick bungalow, or even a rustic riverside farmhouse.
But this was neither: the building was Windsor Castle, and the owner was the Queen.
Yet after the renovation job that cost an astonishing AU$90m, visitors to Windsor Castle today are often little aware that they are walking amid furnishings, murals, drapes and carpets that are largely painstaking replicas of the originals destroyed in that disastrous 1992 fire.
Windsor Castle's origins date back over 900 years to when William the Conqueror built a little timber and earth fortress on a 30m high hill overlooking the Thames, as protection for London against invaders from the west (London being a solid day's march away.)
Over the centuries the solid stone castle as we know it today evolved, with its role changing from that of a fortification to a royal palace – in fact the rambling 1,200-room bastion is the largest inhabited castle/palace in the world, the oldest in continuous occupation, and the world's only working royal residence that is open to the public.
Both Edward III and Henry VI were born here.
And the Queen who, with the help of hundreds of thousands of paying tourists a year, pays for the upkeep of this sprawling collection of rooms and galleries, halls, chambers, ballrooms, chapels and drawing rooms – not to mention the hectares of surrounding manicured gardens – considers it her favourite retreat, spending most of her weekends here.
In November 1992 the fire that broke out in the north-east corner of the Castle ravaged over 100 rooms and nine State Rooms, but fortuitously most of their priceless arts works had been removed just days earlier for display elsewhere.
Hundreds of specialists were brought in to restore the least damaged areas, and create new rooms and chambers in those areas that had been totally destroyed – their brief being to make them fit as harmoniously as possible with the remainder of the castle.
Hundreds more artisans and craftsmen were recruited from private companies, government departments and voluntarily came out of retirement to recreate furnishings, art works, murals, drapes and tapestries, ornate candelabras and chandeliers, carved staircases, carpets and polished timber wall panellings.
Many visitors today don't distinguish where the original ends and the renovated begins. A clue is the floors: while these intricately patterned new areas have been hand-crafted to resemble the original parquet designs, it will take years of tourists' feet for them to assume that well-trodden look.
Allow at least two hours at Windsor Castle. Areas of particular interest include the China Museum, the Ante Throne Room, King's Drawing Room and King's Bed Chamber, the Queen's Drawing Room, Queen's Ballroom, the Queen's Guard Chamber, Presence Chamber and Audience Chamber, St George's Hall and Private Chapel (resting place of ten British sovereigns,) the State Dining Room and the Grand Reception Room... and the remarkable gardens.
The castle abounds with treasures dating back centuries, including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Holbein and van Dyck, and priceless English furniture and porcelain.
And don't miss the extraordinary Queen Mary's Dolls' House, a Lilliputian masterpiece that was created in 1923 on a scale of 1 to 12. It took 1,500 tradesmen three years to complete, with every room of the 7-storey mansion-in-miniature built and furnished to exactly as it would have been at the time – including working lifts that stop at every floor, electric lights, and even running water in all five bathrooms.
Windsor Castle is 50kms from London. Travel agents can book you onto organised tours from London as part of UK holiday programs, or simply take the train to either Windsor or Eton Stations that are each about 5-minutes walk from the Castle.
You can do a self-guided tour using a guide book or audio unit, and there are conducted tours of parts of the castle grounds.
Windsor Castle is 15km from Heathrow Airport, causing one American tourist to famously ask a guide as planes flew over every few minutes: "Why would they build a famous castle so close to an airport?"
 WINDSOR Castle, the favourite weekend getaway of England's Queen Elizabeth.
 THE magnificent chapel within Windsor Castle.
 READY to have a few mates around for dinner: the King's Dining Room is fit, well, for a king.
 QUEEN Mary's Dolls House at Windsor Castle: 1500 tradesmen took three years in the early 1920s to create its extraordinary detail.