Although we are trying to see as much of Europe as possible during our 2 years living in the UK, we are also trying to have some uniquely British experiences. That’s why this weekend we headed to the Royal Ascot and Windsor Castle.
The Ascot is a famous racecourse (for horses) that is about an hour west of London. It is home to the Royal Ascot, a week of racing in which Her Majesty The Queen attends every day. The races start on Tuesday and go until Saturday, which is when we went.
Windsor castle is the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, and has been a Royal residence of the British monarch for the past 900 years. HM The Queen still resides there quite often. More on that later; first, the Royal Ascot.
We wanted to go to the Royal Ascot so that we could experience one of the most famous horse races in the world. Back in the States, we regularly attended the Kentucky Derby, so we felt like we needed to compare the two. Both of them are really fun, with plenty of drinking, gambling, and dreary weather. However, the Kentucky Derby is the first weekend in May, not the middle of June, so there is more of an excuse to have bad weather.
Having lived in the UK for about 16 months now, we have gotten used to traffic, crowds, and queues. These are trademarks of British events, so we figured the Royal Ascot would be the same. Therefore, we gave ourselves plenty of time to get to the Ascot on our drive down there Saturday morning. The parking lots opened at 9am, with the gates opening at 10:30am, and the Google drive estimate said it would take 2.5 hours. I had called the racecourse to get an idea of what the crowds would be like, and to figure out the ticket situation. We determined we needed to leave Derby at 6:30am.
There are 4 different types of “enclosures” at the Ascot, which basically means 4 different types of tickets and corresponding areas where those tickets allow you to go. The four types are the Royal Enclosure, the Grandstand, the Silver Ring, and finally the Heath Enclosure. Both the Royal Enclosure and the Grandstand have really strict dress codes; basically women must wear huge hats, and guys need to wear something called a morning suit. The Silver Ring has a less strict dress code, and finally the Heath Enclosure doesn’t really have a dress code at all, except that you can’t wear “novelty” clothing or wear stuff too scandalous. However, most people in the Heath Enclosure get dressed up anyway, as it’s all part of the experience! I know I like any excuse to wear a big hat!
On the day of the event, they reserve 1000 tickets for the Heath Enclosure, at £12/person, on a first-come, first-served basis. When I spoke to the Ascot representative on the phone, he gave the impression that these tickets go really quickly and that you had to queue up quite early in order to get one. Last summer, we sat in a 2-hr traffic queue on our way to the RIAT air show, and I also stood in a 4 hour queue while waiting to go into Wimbledon. Based on these experiences, we knew we had to leave early. Giving ourselves extra margin, we decided we had to leave Derby at 6:30am in order to get a spot in line so that we could get one of the coveted spots in the Heath enclosure.
Well guess what?! We beat the queues. Literally, we had no traffic on the way in, and were one of the first in the car park. We got to the gates and there was hardly anyone there. I guess in the end, we had overestimated the crowds, or at least we had beat them! We met up with some of our friends of the Spanish Royalty, Eduardo and Daniel, who had arrived even before us because of my advise that the queues were going to be awful. Oh well, at least for once we beat the crowds. We still had to wait until 10:30am before they opened the gates, but at least we were the first ones in and we could claim our spots. And we did get some of the best spots on some stands so that we could see the races over the future crowds of people.
The stands gradually got more and more crowded, and I was glad we had our ideal spot. By the time the Royal Procession took place, the place was packed. But still, we got to see Her Majesty The Queen! This is the only time I’ve gotten to see the Queen in real life, so I’m very happy I had the chance while living over here. With the last year being the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (60 years as Queen), and this year being the 60th anniversary of her Coronation (she became Queen an entire year before the official coronation ceremony), she has gotten a lot of extra attention in the press. Because of this, I was looking up some information about her and I found out that her husband, Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh, is actually her 2nd cousin once removed. Yeah, that kinda weirds me out a bit. I know that it’s probably far enough away in the gene pool that it doesn’t cause problems, but still sort of makes me think of in-breeding. I also had to look up what 2nd cousin once removed means, and it basically means that one person’s great-grandparent is the other’s great-great-grandparent. Too close for comfort in my opinion. I’m also wondering why I’ve never heard that relationship mentioned before, but it’s probably because the press over here is not allowed to say anything that could be deemed as negative toward the royal family. I’m probably going to get kicked out of the country for saying that now.
Soon after the Royal Procession, the races started. There were 6 races that day, with about 30 minutes or so in between each one. Doug and I made small £2 or £4 on each race, and we came up successful in races 2, 4, and 5. In race 2 (The Hardwicke Stakes), Doug picked an Each Way (meaning your horse can get first or second) for the winner, Thomas Chippendale. Doug won an nice £24, but the mood was dampened when we found out that Chippendale actually died of a heart attack shortly after winning the race. So sad.
Anyway, race 3 (The Diamond Jubilee Stakes – the biggest race of the day) we almost won some money as I actually picked the winning horse, Lethal Force, but unfortunately I had made a Swinger bet, which requires you to pick 2 of the top 3 horses. My other pick, Mince (I thought the name was funny given this years horse meat scandal), did not make it in the top 3. I have to apologize to my mother and grandmother for that, as they always told me to bet on the grey horse, which Lethal Force was. If I had just stuck with a winner bet on Lethal Force I could have made some good winnings.
On to race 4, I did come out good by betting on the grey horse, York Glory, who ended up winning it! Woohoo, even though it was an Each Way bet, I still won £37. Very happy to see the grey horses winning!
Race 5 we won a small bit when Doug bet on Ustura to place, and he came in 3rd!
Overall, it was a really great day of seeing the Queen and betting! Looking back, I actually think it’s better than the Kentucky Derby. You are allowed to bring in alcohol and umbrellas, both of which are banned at the Kentucky Derby. Additionally, the horses race on grass instead of dirt, which must translate to the infield also being made of grass instead of dirt. The Kentucky Derby infield is like a huge mud pit, whereas this was nice grass where you could have a picnic. The Kentucky Derby lets in something like 80,000 people and there is no limit to how many can go in, whereas the limit on this infield was a total of 2500 (and only 1000 tickets sold on the actual day). Furthermore, they had really posh porta-potties, whereas the Kentucky Derby has the typical disgusting ones. Finally, it even costs less to get into the Heath enclosure than it does to get into the Kentucky Derby infield. £12 (about $18), versus $45 at the Kentucky Derby. Overall, I’m thinking that the Royal Ascot wins. Did I really just admit that something in the UK is better than the US? Maybe they won’t throw me out after all. Wait, I remember one thing that makes the Kentucky Derby better. You are allowed to grill in the parking lot! The Royal Ascot, nope.
That evening we stayed in a nearby town called Maidenhead because it was where we could find cheap accommodation. We hadn’t decided to spend the night until the Friday before, so our choices were limited based on lack of planning. Maidenhead didn’t have much to offer. We were about a mile from the city center, so we walked into town for dinner that evening. Our choices were pubs, kebab shops, Subway, and a Thai restaurant. We went for the Thai food and it was surprisingly tasty.
We were looking for some local entertainment, but Maidenhead was pretty dead, so we went to see Man of Steel in 3D. I thought it was an okay movie, but a little too much action for me. I got kind of bored of the action actually. I preferred the beginning of the movie where Superman doesn’t have his outfit yet, so tends to go shirtless.
On Sunday we headed over to Windsor Castle, which is an official Royal Residence. The Queen resides there for a month each year over Easter, and also for the week in which she attends the Royal Ascot. She also spends many of her personal weekends there. Because this castle is still occupied, it is very well-kept, unlike many of the ruined castles we have visited. Also, you can’t tour the whole place since it is still occupied.
We arrived on Sunday morning to find a huge queue stretching down the street. I guess this was payback for missing all the queues at the Ascot on Saturday. We ended up waiting 45 minutes before making it in, but at least it wasn’t raining!
First we toured much of the exterior. I was really impressed by the moat which doesn’t have water, but instead a beautiful garden full of roses. We didn’t get to go in the garden, but just admired from above.
We toured the State Apartments, which are basically a bunch of huge, lavishly furnished rooms used for various things from banquets to bedchambers. No pictures were allowed, but the style reminded me a lot of the exquisite furnishings we saw at the Palace of Versailles in Paris and the Summer palace in St. Petersburg. St. George’s Hall was the biggest room that we saw, and it was really cool with wooden arches across the ceiling and knights crests covering the wall. The free audio guide said that a single table can be set up for banquets with seating for 160 people. Here is an image I
stole borrowed off the internet.
You can see Queen Mary’s Doll House, but the line to see that exhibit was just as long as the queue to get in the castle, so we didn’t want to wait another 45 minutes. Plus, Doug couldn’t see the appeal of a doll house. Apparently it is the largest and most beautiful doll house in the world, but I couldn’t tell you based on personal experience. The audio guide described that it has gold plates, electricity, running water, and working elevators! We did convert our tickets into 1-year passes before we left (just have to get it signed and stamped), so maybe we’ll get the chance to go back and check out the doll house (although I doubt it).
We also couldn’t go inside St. George’s Chapel because it was Sunday, so only open for worship. This chapel is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, the oldest order of chivalry (knighthood) in the world. It looked nice enough from the outside. On our way there we were almost run over by these guards that were marching through the grounds. I barely had time to snap a picture before they marched away.
Overall we probably spent about 1.5 hours in the castle. Of course, we would have spent more if we waited to see the Doll House and if we could have gone inside St. George’s Chapel. However, at £17.50/person, I did not feel like this was good value for the money (Steve, you’ll break my heart if you tell me there was some deal we could have gotten). The changing of the guards ceremony doesn’t happen on Sunday, so that’s another thing that we couldn’t see. Overall, I feel like Windsor castle was mostly a let down. We explored a little in the town of Windsor, and it was quite nice, and much more happening than Maidenhead.
Overall, it was a nice weekend experiencing the Royal Ascot and the Windsor castle. The Royal Ascot was the highlight, especially since we got to go with some Spanish royalty and we won money on our bets! We’ve got some more Britishness coming up soon: Wimbledon!