WHILE lacking the pomp of the ceremonial carriage tour of the town recently afforded the French President and his headline-grabbing wife, a new heritage trail of Windsor and neighbouring Eton is a great way to sample the area’s historic charms, says Annabelle Thorpe.
Last week I travelled back in time. Sadly there was no Gene Hunt and no dramatic police chase that left me wondering if I was in a coma or really was stranded in the past – but I had the strongest sense of leaving the 21st century simply by walking along a street.
It was Eton High Street, to be more specific, a road that begins at the river Thames – firmly in 2008 – and ends at the school itself, probably some time around 1937.
At the beginning of the street lie antiques shops and quirky boutiques selling beautiful period furniture and art deco “objets”, but gradually the influence of the school takes over and by the time the first glimpse of the elegant red-brick buildings come into view, any vestiges of the 21st century seem to have disappeared.
The street lies at the end of a new heritage trail, beginning in the neighbouring town of Windsor.
Leading through 1,000 years of history, the walk starts, conveniently, right outside the door of my hotel – the Mercure Castle.
Across the road lies a clutch of fairytale-esque houses, edged with thin cobbled streets through which Nicolas Sarkozy and his elegant wife Carla Bruni were drawn in ceremonial carriages.
It was these streets that William Shakespeare allegedly walked, chatting to locals, to give him the plot and dialogue for The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Legend has it that Charles II housed his mistress, Nell Gwynne, at Guildhall Island – and the Old Kings Head pub has a plaque on its wall recording it as the site where the warrant was issued for the execution of Charles I in 1648.
History defines and dominates Windsor and Eton – not least because the castle itself is in the very centre of the town.
It’s a rather surreal sight – WH Smiths and Woolworths on one side of the street, the battlements and fortifications of a 1,000-year-old castle on the other.
If Windsor was a French town – say, Carcassonne, British tourists would flock to it, eulogising about its dramatic beauty and history.
Instead, we tend to overlook it – leaving the atmospheric streets to the Japanese, Americans and, most recently, French.
I left visiting the castle until later and continued down the High Street, past Windsor Royal Station – built specifically so that Queen Victoria could pop down for weekends, and now an upmarket shopping mall – and stopped to peer up at Curfew Tower.
It just looks like an unassuming part of the castle, but hundreds of years ago corpses would be hung from a gibbet at the top of the tower to serve as a warning against committing crime.
As I walked on down to the river, a crisp spring breeze nibbled at my fingers and I had a wistful moment imagining a warm summer evening when to sit by the river with a cold glass of chardonnay would be idyllic.
Much of the land around the river is owned by Eton College, although it is open to the public. The Brocas, a wide, lush meadow overlooking the water, would be the perfect place for a picnic.
The Thames in summer can be as busy as a motorway, with pleasureboats, canoes, and skiffs from Eton ploughing up and down. On my afternoon, a few swans glided past, making the most of the peace.
Across the bridge – there has been one here since the 13th century, although the pedestrian bridge was originally built in 1823 – and Windsor morphed into other-worldly Eton, where the half mile-long high street has none of the chainstores found on the precinct of its neighbour.
Instead, I peered through slightly dusty windows at striped cricket caps and swatches of pin-striped material. Gentlemen’s outfitters Tom Brown Tailors has occupied No 1 Eton High Street since 1784.
This is a high street where the only bank is Coutts (the Royal bank), where the chemist has an insignia signifying that the proprietor is the official warrant holder to the Queen Mother.
As I walked further down, small boys appeared, in pristine black tailcoats and pinstriped trousers.
I joined one of the guided tours of the school and its tranquil grounds. I found myself thinking about what a different life it must be, beautiful and yet cocooned.
I headed slowly back past King Stable Street, which once housed royal carriages and horses, and St Christopher Wren’s house, and spent a couple of hours walking around the castle itself.
It’s a suitably impressive royal residence, with gilded staterooms and glorious grounds. Yet for all its pomp and heritage, it is Eton that remains in my memory – the last corner of an England that has all but disappeared.GETTING THEREParkmore Holiday Cottages
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£1. School pack includes; Tin pencil case Pen, pencil ruler and rubberThe Mercure Castle Hotel (01753 851577/mercure-uk.com) has doubles from £100 per night, B&B. Eton College (01753 671177/etoncollege.com) has two daily tours (2.15pm/3.15pm, March to September); adults £5.50, under-15s £4.50. Windsor Tourism: 01753 743900/windsor.gov.uk