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I live in the town of Bracknell in Berkshire or as I affectionately like to call it Crackhell. My local park, Mill Pond is a convenient 3 minute walk away from my house and breaks up the monotony of the regimental style buildings and council estates in my neighbourhood. It's the place to go to for some fresh air, peace and relaxation...if you don't mind stepping round discarded syringes and the big fat rats that found a new home when McDonalds was opened up...not to mention the lovely greasy, artery hardening smell that wafts your way. As strange as it sounds, despite how truly lovely Mill Pond really is, I've taken to going slightly further afield to find my own little haven to escape real life and this leads me onto...
Windsor Great Park
The boundaries of the park came into existence in the 1360s when it was used as a private hunting ground (with wild boars and deer as the victims) for the inhabitants of Windsor Castle beginning during the reign of Edward III right the way up until the 1950s when large parts were finally opened up to the public for free. Along the way there were some serious developments to the park to make it what it is today and there is plenty to see and plenty of stories to tell that would tempt any curious historians. The first notably titbit of historical merit is the fact the first documented planting of trees occurred at the park at Cranbourne Walk by a Lord Burleigh in 1580 supposedly to rebuild stocks of timber when there was strife with Spain.
In 1680 an avenue of elm trees was planted to be named the Long Walk which connected Windsor Castle to the rest of the park as the familiar scene today was starting to take place. Lodges were built in the 17th and 18th century for the park managers, most memorably the Duke of Cumberland who crafted the spectacular manmade lake at Virginia Water. Then came the Victorian times and things really sped along. Prince Albert himself became the Ranger of the Park and began developing the forestry side of things with many varied species of trees planted. Further development came with cottages being introduced for all the park workers as well as a school for the workers' children. By the 20th Century an entire village had been built including a local shop. During World War II the deer were all booted out of the park so the land could be put to arable use, but were reintroduced albeit at much lower numbers in 1979.
~~A Ghost Story~~
What heritage site would be complete without a good ghost story to add a little mystery and intrigue? Well Windsor Great Park has its own ghoulish tale in the form of Herne The Hunter. Legend has it that Herne stepped in front of the king to save him from being savaged by a stag and was himself mortally wounded. A wizard popped by with the great medical advice that Herne would be saved if they tied the antlers of the stag to his head which did the trick and Herne became the king's favourite. Sadly the other royal huntsmen became jealous and forced his dismissal and in his despair at being unable to find work Herne committed suicide by hanging on an ancient oak in the park that no longer exists today. Apparently, whenever a crisis looms or the Royal Family is in danger of some sort that ancient tree and Herne the antler-clad huntsman return in spectral form to freak people out by galloping towards them before disappearing into thin air. Cool.
When they say 'Great' they aren't kidding - spanning across approximately 5,000 hectares (which is the equivalent to about 5,000 Trafalgar Squares just to help you visualise and potentially blow your mind) Windsor Great Park stretches from Windsor Castle itself all the way to the Surrey/Berkshire border sweeping alongside such places as Frogmore, Old Windsor, Englefield Green, Virginia Water, Cheapside and Ascot. So travelling down from Windsor Castle is the Long Walk which is approximately a 2 mile straight path ending at the famous Copper Horse monument which depicts George III in a similar style to the one of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. I hear that the views are stunning along the way so well worth a go for walking enthusiasts.
Also about a mile and a half down this walk on the right is the Deer Park where you can walk through and get as close as you want to the deer if that's your thing - but of course keep safety in mind when it comes to approaching wild animals. Then to the right of the Copper Horse you may well stumble across the secret village that is home to the park workers. I've not been there myself but if you feel like exploring it seems like a good place to hunt out. If you veer to the left of the Copper Horse you will be on your way to Savill Garden (the only attraction you do have to pay for) and will pass by the two lodges built in the 17th and 18th Century. Unfortunately these are on private property so you can't actually visit them - only admire them from afar. Finally, if you carry on down for about half a mile you will hit Valley Gardens and the manmade Virginia Water lake with a few other interesting landmarks to see.
From top to bottom the park is about 4 and a half miles long and at its widest about 3 miles wide so realistically walking round the whole park is going to take a while...if you do come here with something particular in mind to see out of all the attractions then planning is key and picking the right entry gate and /or subsequent parking area is crucial to saving yourself time and effort.
Transport + Parking
By car is probably the best way to get to the park unless you travel by bus as there are no close train stations to the area to allow you quick access. Parking is plentiful but sometimes costly. If you get to the car park in Virginia Water early then you may be lucky to get free parking on the roadside just outside, but there are very limited spaces here and if you are not an early bird you won't be catching the worm and will have to pay.
* Virginia Water:
Every day including Bank Holidays
Up to 1hr - £1.50
1 - 2 hrs - £3
2 - 3 hrs - £4
3 - 4 hrs - £5
Over 4 hrs - £6
* If you are closer to Ascot then you can park at Blacknest for a fixed charge of £4 for unlimited time.
* If you want to get close to Valley Gardens there is a car park there as well likewise for a fixed charge of £6 for unlimited time.
* If you are going to Savill Garden then the car park is free for Friends of The Savill Garden, Members of the Royal Landscape or paying visitors to The Savill Garden. For those wishing to park there but not visiting the gardens:
Monday - Friday inclusive
First 90 min -FREE
Up to 1hr - £1.50
1 - 2 hrs - £3
2 - 3 hrs - £4
3 - 4 hrs - £5
Over 4 hrs - £6
There are three available sets of toilets at Windsor Great Park namely at the Wheatsheaf hotel located by the Virginia Water car park, at the Valley Gardens car park or in the Savill Garden centre.
At the weekends there are a few mobile refreshment stands strategically placed around Virginia Water Lake and near the Valley Gardens which sell hot and cold drinks and other light refreshments and during the summer stands that sell ice-creams otherwise your only options are to bring your own picnic or to go to the Savill Garden centre to eat at the Leith's Restaurant. Here you can get hot food like soup or roast dinners or light meals like sandwiches as well as cakes and hot / cold drinks all at very reasonable prices. In the summer you can even eat outside on a terrace overlooking the gardens. Daily opening times are:
10am - 5.30pm 1 March - 31 October
10am - 4pm 1 November - 29 February
* Dog walking is permitted (in fact judging by the number of dogs around it is a doggy haven)
* Horse riding is allowed round the park but you need to get an annual permit to allow access (there are no day permits).
* If you wish to fly a model aircraft you need to purchase a permit for £50.
* Fishing is allowed but for a permit of £67
* Cycling is allowed on tarmac roads but not off-road, on the Long Walk, within Valley Gardens, on any private roads and cyclists must give way to horses and pedestrians
* Rollerblading is permitted in the very select areas around Breakheart Hill.
My Days Out
Personally I have only ever visited the lower half of Windsor Great Park but in my opinion that's where all the good stuff is anyway. I just love popping along to Windsor Great Park for a nice walk and to get some fresh air if it's a gorgeous day (timing it within the 5 nice days a year we get in England is tricky though), or to have a sneaky peak at the wildlife such as birds, squirrels, rabbits and deer as well as a family of swans that reside near the totem pole. Also it's nice to find a quiet spot to do some reading, or when I was at university to do some studying (although having paper notes on a windy day is probably not the best revision technique) and even as a nice place to just sit and chill with my friends.
Despite the vast number of people that visit on nice days there is ample room for everyone and you'll never have a problem finding somewhere to sit as there are quite a few benches dotted about (although some are carved out of tree trunks so are not the most comfortable) and so many grassy areas in between the vast numbers of trees to plonk yourself down on and just bask. There's also enough space that you can even engage in sporting activities -my friends and I decided upon a jolly good fun game of French cricket one sunny afternoon which brought about much joyous laughter...until we discovered the pitfalls of playing so near the edge of Virginia Water Lake. Suffice it to say, the game ended rather abruptly.
But Windsor Great Park is also perfect for those days where you just want to relax with a nice walk. There's just so much to explore and the botanical life of the park changes so much with the seasons that every time you visit it is a whole new experience. In the summer it is just a dazzling sight with the sun reflecting off the water in a shimmering dance and so many people milling about with kids playing merrily and dogs running around causing havoc as they decide leaping on your leg is their only option and all the while you ponder the complexities of life whilst partaking in the consumption of an ice-cream. In the spring there is about a 2 week period that, if you time it right, some of the most colourful flowers come into bloom simultaneously and it is just stunning to walk around absorbing a myriad of colours. In the autumn you are treated to a completely different sight as the trees shed their leaves and the park becomes awash in brown and yellow. I've never been in the winter as dying of a chill doesn't appeal to me.
I just love exploring the park by walking up new paths and discovering little hidden alcoves you'd never seen before with colourful flowers or huge, ancient looking trees. There are so many options for exploring the park as well - sometimes I like to just do a full circuit of the lake which is about 4 and a half miles around the perimeter and from there you can veer off to a few interesting landmarks. For example, there is the 100ft high North American totem pole (a gift from Canada to the Queen in 1958 to mark the centenary of British Columbia) carved from Western Red Cedar in the style of the Kwakiutl tribal groups from Vancouver Island and is made up of some striking figures.
There is also a cascade made up of stones allegedly from an old ruined Saxon settlement and the stream from the cascade runs into the Thames at Chertsey. Alongside this cascade is an ominously named cavern 'The Robber's Cave'. You may well also stumble across some "Roman Ruins" - they are ruins of some Corinthian pillars but they were transported into England in 1816 as a gift from George IV and later moved from the British Museum to the park and arranged to represent a ruined temple.
If you want to be a bit more organised then for the horticulturalists out there are some absolutely outstanding floral displays to be had in both the Valley Gardens and The Savill Garden. The Valley Gardens take up about 100 hectares and can be reached by going west from the totem pole up Canadian Avenue. There is an amazing diversity of plants here with Camellias, Holly, Hydrangeas, Heather, Dwarf Conifers all given their own gardens and the famous Punch Bowl which is a natural amphitheatre style landscape that dips about 12ft below the rest of the Valley Gardens and is the perfect place to plant the rare evergreen Kurume azaleas which produce white, soft pink, rose pink and ruby colours to create a beautifully contrasting visage.
I would also recommend visiting the Savill Gardens if you don't mind paying for entry :
These gardens are open 10am-4:30pm from 1st November - 28th February (winter) and 10am-6pm from 1st March - 31st October (summer).
£6 / £8.50 - adults
£5.50 / £7.95 - seniors
£4.75 £6.95 - groups 10+
£2.25 / £3.75 - children aged 6-16 (children under 6 go free)
£15 / £21 - a family of 2 adults and 2 children
There is such an amazing array of different plants here that like the rest of the park these gardens change astonishingly with the seasons. Created by Eric Savill in the 1930s it started as a woodland garden before developing over the years with native and exotic plants adding a wonderful mix of floral gardens to contrast the woodland gardens. Here you get Rhododendrons, Camellias, Magnolias, Azaleas, Roses to go along with the trees such as Willows, Alpines and a mixture in the Arboretum in beautifully landscaped gardens. There is also the Temperate House to showcase some more exotic species or just to allow similar species from outside to fare better during the inclement weather conditions of winter and also a large Obelisk for your viewing enjoyment.
Windsor Great Park is perfect little oasis just outside of London. As a Royal Park you'd expect nothing less, but the expert maintenance of the park allows it to remain in a stunning condition and as the wildlife and plant life changes with the seasons every visit will bring you something new. It is the ideal place for families with plenty of space for kids to run around in the fresh air, for dog-walkers and for anyone that wants to partake in a relaxing, peaceful walk in a truly beautiful environment.