If visiting the Castle draws you out to Windsor, stay a while to explore a great Royal park that's almost a secret.
Most visitors to Windsor Castle stay within the fortified walls of this 1,000-year-old Royal enclave and never venture into Windsor Great Park. Even when they see the park from some of the higher ramparts of the castle that are open to the public, most people don't connect the forests and rolling lawns with their Royal day out of London. Thus, this wonderful, 9,000-acre open space, dotted with lakes, cascades, ceremonial walks, Roman ruins and lovely gardens, is one of England's best kept - even though highly visible - local secrets.
Long - or short - walks with beautiful views of Windsor Castle and several herds of the Queen's deer are free for the taking. There are meadows, woodlands, lakeshores and open grassland. Only the Savill Garden (see below) has an admission charge. And, if you're clever and like to walk, you might even find free parking on nearby roads.
A Brief History
Windsor Forest, southwest of Windsor Castle, was reserved for the Monarch's hunting and to supply the castle with wood, game and fish when the castle was first little more than a fortified encampment, nearly 1,000 years ago. In 1129, the reserved area was defined and a keeper known as a "parker" was appointed. (I wonder if the British phrase "nosey parker", meaning a busybody, comes from this).
Over time, the park has become considerably smaller - bit it will still take you at least an hour to walk through the park from Virginia Water, the man-made lake, to the gates of Windsor Castle. A 1,000-acre area in the southern corner of Windsor Great Park, now known as the Royal Landscape, reflects the gardening fancies, theories and project of Royals, their architects and gardeners for more than 400 years. And most of it can be visited for free.
The lake was created, by damming and flooding, in 1753. Until the creation of reservoirs, it was the largest man-made body of water in Britain. Planting of native and exotic woodlands around the banks of the lake has continued steadily since the 18th century. Among the sites around this tranquil lake are a Roman temple, a fabulous ornamental waterfall and a 100-foot Totem Pole given by British Columbia to celebrate its centennial. Fishing, with a permit from the Royal Parks, is permitted in parts of Virginia Water as well as other ponds in Windsor Great Park.
The Leptis Magna Ruins
The ruins of a Roman temple, artfully arranged near Virginia Water, were originally part of the Roman city of Leptis Magna, on the Mediterranean near Tripoli, in Libya. How they happened to end up in a park in Surrey is a story in itself.
In the 17th century, the local authorities allowed more than 600 columns from the ruins to be presented to Louis XIV for use at Versailles and Paris. In the early 19th century, the political balance of the region had changed and this time it was the British Consul General who persuaded the local Governor that the Prince Regent (destined to be King George IV), should be allowed to decorate his backyard with a few choice pieces. The locals were none too pleased - not, as you might expect, because of the desecration of their heritage but because they wanted the stones for building materials themselves.
The granite and marble columns, capitals, pedestals, slabs, pieces of cornice and pieces of sculptures eventually made it to Windsor Great Park after a short stay at the British Museum. Recently restored and made safe, the Leptis Magna Ruins are now an important lakeside feature.
The Landscape Gardens
The park has several blooming gardens. The Valley Garden is a flowering woodland garden, with open grassland areas and plantings of exotic shrubs in the center of what is known as the Royal Landscape. Native trees, including sweet chestnut and Scots Pine, thrive beside cherries, azaleas, magnolias, sweet gums, tupelos, Asiatic rowans, maples and exotic oaks. The Valley Garden is free to visit, though nearby parking is now limited to those who have become members of the park (see below).
The Savill Garden
The Saville Garden is a 35-acre ornamental garden that has no purpose other than sheer pleasure. Originally developed in the 1930s by gardener Eric Savill, it combines contemporary and classical garden designs with exotic woodlands. A series of interlinked and hidden gardens, the Savill Garden is full of surprising discoveries, year-round. In summer, visitors can enjoy the scents of the Rose Garden from a "floating" walkway. In winter, the Temperate House has seasonal displays. Daffodils, azaleas and rhododendrons put on a show in the spring and in the Bog Garden, one of several hidden gardens, primula, Siberian iris and other moisture-loving plants light up the scene.
Another outstanding feature of the Savill Garden is its collection of Champion Trees. A Champion Tree is a UK accreditation for the tree that is the tallest or has the widest girth for its type in the country. The Savill Garden has more than twenty, ancient Champion Trees. Admission is charged for the Savill Garden.
The Savill Building
The Savill Building, opened in 2006, is the entrance to the Savill Garden but can be visited freely without entering the garden. Its unusual and eco-friendly design includes an undulating "grid-shell" roof, made of native woods from the Crown Estates, that seems to float, unsupported. A restaurant, for lunches and teas, overlooks the garden through floor to ceiling glass windows. And a gift shop offers gifts and souvenirs as well as plants from the Royal Gardens.
- Getting there: The Savill Garden parking area is 4 miles from Windsor Castle via the A308. SatNav's set for the postcode TW20 0XD will bring drivers close to the parking entrance on Wick Road. For Virginia Water, the car park is 6 miles from Windsor town center on the A30 near Junction 13 of the M25. The nearest rail stations are Egham, Windsor and Virginia Water.
- Opening hours: The park is open year-round and the Savill Garden only closes on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (restaurant to 5:30 p.m.) from March 1 to October 31, and to 4:30 p.m. (restaurant to 4 p.m.) in from November 1 to February 28.
- Dogs: Dogs are welcome everywhere in the park except the Savill Garden, the restaurant, and Gallery Cafe. But dogs are permitted in the rest of the Savill Building, including the shop and the terrace restaurant.
- Admission: Admission is only charged for the Savill Garden. Tickets are priced for adults, seniors, children (6-16), families and groups. Children under 6 are free.
- Memberships: Although admission is free to most of the park, there are fees for parking and for special events. Memberships to for the park include free parking and guest visits to the Savill Gardens. In 2019, a standard membership for a year cost £85