So for those who don’t know, I’m adventuring in London for a week, looking for story ideas, researching a few things I already know I’m going to write about, and generally enjoying being in my happy place. I would absolutely live in London—or anywhere in the UK, for that matter—if I could. But seeing as they don’t have a visa category that fits me, I’ll have to make due with visit.
And yesterday I visited Windsor Castle! For those who don’t know, Windsor Castle has been a continuous residence of the Royal Family for the past 900 years! It was actually started by William the Conqueror shortly after he took over. And when I say “started,” I mean that various parts of the complex have been built, destroyed, rebuilt, added to, refurbished, and expanded over hundreds of years. In fact, the latest edition to the castle was done in the 1990s. But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself.
Or maybe not. Because I could talk about the magnificence of the design and decoration of the State Apartments or the incredibly art collection (I always get excited when I see very famous paintings in person, and there were very famous paintings that I knew on practically every wall of the place). I could talk about the Royal Family or the fact that Victoria and Albert lived there most of the time in their lives. But what I found most fascinating and what I really want to talk about is the fire of 1992.
I remember vividly when the castle burnt down. November 20, 1992. I have vivid images of aerial shots of one whole section of the castle in flames. But walking around inside of it, I was both curious about where the fire had been and what potentially was destroyed and how it could be that I wouldn’t obviously see all the damage.
And that’s the cool story.
First of all, I learned how the fire started. It started in what was formerly a private chapel built for Queen Victoria. But the chapel was in an awkward location, and it got in the way of anyone trying to cross from the private apartments to the state apartments. What actually happened is that an ancient velvet curtain was standing too close to an old fashioned spotlight. It got too hot and WHOOMP! The whole thing went up. But not just that, because of the former structure of the roof, not only did the chapel ignite like kindling, it quickly spread all the way through the parts of the castle that were connected by the roof structure.
I think I remember stories of Prince Charles himself rushing to the scene and helping to rescue art and artifacts from the walls and rooms, but I can’t remember if that’s true. Anyhow, several of the larger rooms were massively damaged, including two large halls that adjoin what was the chapel. It’s a shame that I couldn’t take pictures of these rooms myself due to photography restrictions, because they would be really useful to illustrate the following stories…
So one of the rooms that sustained serious damage was the Grand Reception Hall. I took a picture of the picture of it in the Windsor Castle guide book that I bought. (Actually, all of these interior pics are from that guidebook). What you’re seeing is the restored room. The cool stories from this room are, first, the floor. That’s still the original floor, but with a twist. The floorboards were badly charred in the fire. So what did they do? Like a stain on a sofa, they flipped each board individually and put it back down in place. I thought that was awesome. The other story is that giant urn at the far end. It’s two tons and over six feet tall, so they couldn’t exactly haul it out of the room in the middle of the fire. The thing is, it’s made of malachite. And if you know anything about rocks (which I didn’t until the tour explained it), malachite doesn’t come in enormous slabs. So really, the urn is marble covered with a fine layer of malachite fit together like jigsaw pieces. Well, during the fire, the urn filled and doused with boiling water. So the adhesive holding the malachite to its base melted. All of the pieces flaked off in the days following the fire. They had to be reassembled piece by piece in the years of restoration that followed.
The other cool fire story is about St. George’s Hall, which is massive and beautiful. But for a historian, the story behind it is such an exciting insight into history that I was almost jumping up and down. See all that marvelous ceiling beamwork? Looks medieval, right? Nope. The entire ceiling was destroyed in the fire. There was a scary-sad picture of it looking like a burned out skeleton on the tour. So they reconstructed it. BUT, they did all the work in the medieval style with historical tools and erected it completely the way the original ceiling would have been made. And you may or may not be able to tell from this picture, but the texture and color of the wood is very, very different from the hundreds of years old ceilings you see in medieval buildings now. So for me, it totally informed on what these magnificent structures would have felt like when they were new…which is not the same as they feel now. I think places like Westminster Abbey (which I visited yesterday) and Winchester Cathedral (which I visited in 2010) would have felt much warmer and more vibrant than they do now.
But the coolest of the cool parts of the reconstructed castle is the brand new Lantern Lobby. This is where the fire started. Like I said, it was formerly Queen Victoria’s private chapel. But when it came time to rebuilt, they brought in architects to take a look and totally rethink what the space should be. This room is what they came up with. And the ceiling is incredible. But unlike St. George’s Hall, which was reconstructed in the medieval fashion, this ceiling and it’s vaulting was designed by computer! All of the angles and placement and calculations were designed specifically to draw the eye upward and to bring it together into an amazing, aesthetic harmony. And really, this pic doesn’t do justice to how perfectly that mission was accomplished. It’s so cool.
So those are just some of my observations about the castle. I have another really awesome story about St. George’s Chapel (which is bigger than the Cathedral in my hometown), where my man, Charles I, is buried. But I’ll tell that story in another blog post.