And they’re off...

Venue: The Royal Borough of Windsor
Date: 09 May 2014 - 11 May 2014

Parade ring at Ascot Racecourse.

Pictured: Choosing our horses in the Parade Ring at Ascot Racecourse.

Carrie Martindale joined GTOs on our Reader Club trip to Windsor, incorporating Ascot races, a boat trip and The Savill Garden.

The last time I went to the races I was about 15 and I managed to bag around £75 in (possibly illegal) winnings. Back then, the bookmakers still wrote their odds up on chalk boards and I still had an 18-inch waist.

This time I managed to lose a few quid while at Ascot Racecourse during our Reader Club trip to Windsor - and the bookies no longer use chalk nor communicate via nods and gestures (they have electronic boards).

Etiquette, however, remains the same; you still have to shop around to place a bet, as one of my companions found out to her horror when we spotted her horse’s odds differing by some 200 per cent. Needless to say she had bet on the poorer.

The annual May race night that we attended is reportedly one of the best value-for-money events - even for Premium access, which means you can mingle with the hoi polloi, sip a Prosecco, and pretend that you’re loaded. Well that’s what I did anyway.

Stylishly plush is how I would describe the venue. From champagne bars as far as the eye can see, marble dance floors and a glass-built, shiny-surfaced, chrome-faceted interior that wouldn’t look out of place if it were slap bang in the middle of the King’s Road.

Anyway, aside from placing too many losing bets if you follow my lead, it’s a great day/afternoon/evening out. The racecourse has a party atmosphere that makes you smile, even if you’re losing, and the people-watching is second to none. I can’t wait to go back.

A corner of Windsor Great Park

From one royal venue to another, the following morning we arrived at the nearby Savill Garden. Amongst the Group Leisure team I’m perhaps the most likely to know the difference between a rhododendron and an azalea (trick question, they’re both the same genus - thanks Harvey), so I of course, loved this visit. And I wasn’t alone; there were ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ at every horticultural turn.

Enjoying our tour with the head gardener at the Savill Garden.

Pictured: Enjoying our tour with the head gardener at the Savill Garden.

It was a special treat to have head gardener Harvey as our guide, and little could match the enthusiasm and passion that he has for this tiny portion of Windsor Great Park.

It’s a top destination, whether you are interested in plants or if you just enjoy a walk within pleasant surroundings. If you’re a nature lover then keep your eyes peeled, as I spotted a red kite swooping above, just one of the many species of wildlife that this piece of greenery is home to.

Did I mention Harvey? Harvey was lovely, and he was full of insider knowledge and anecdotes to boot. We learnt how the ‘mystery of the missing metal plant labels’ - something which the garden staff had blamed on the little-to-be-trusted general public - was in fact down to a number of roguish resident rooks.

This only came to light (like the beginning of many good stories) on a dark and stormy night when lightning struck an oak tree in the garden and a cavernous space was revealed to contain hundreds of the missing pieces of metal.

Highlights of this very English country garden include a 500-year-old oak tree, majestic wisteria canopies - its winding roots reminding me of something out of Lord of the Rings, the New Zealand garden and the recently built visitor centre - but of course, I didn’t see it all.

A relaxing river cruise and a trip to the castle

A meandering trip down the river, accompanied by a ploughman’s lunch courtesy of French Bros., was next on the agenda. It’s a relaxing way to see some of the local sights and to gawp at the vessels going in and out of the various yacht clubs, as well as some of the many rowers. I was extra excited to drift past the Oakley Court hotel, which due to its proximity to Bray film studios, was used in several Hammer Horror films as well as being used as Frank N Furter’s castle in the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show.

A boat trip with French Bros.

Pictured: A relaxing boat trip with French Brothers.

The French Bros. staff are extremely accommodating, readily accepting my numerous requests for tea and being very helpful to a less abled member of our party. I discovered that the company can accommodate numerous requests from groups, and have a ‘no deposit necessary’ policy as well as flexibility when it comes to any change in your party’s numbers.

Where else to finish up but in Windsor itself; and a trip to one of the royal residences, Windsor Castle. Asides from a minor ‘incident’ involving the castle security and a miniature bottle of wine, we were ushered smoothly through the fast-track group entrance and into the grounds of the fortress.

Despite some inclement weather, it was a good day to visit the castle - we actually managed to see the fabulous Queen Mary Doll’s House without queuing, alongside sheltering from the rain within the opulence of the State Rooms. Groups visiting the castle from now until January can also see its brand-new exhibition Treasures from the Royal Archive incorporating official and private papers of the Sovereign and other members of the British Royal Family, together with records of the royal household and the private royal estates.

Castles, gardens, horses, the river Thames and more; Windsor is a truly British setting with a truly British ethos, and a perfect destination for a glorious group break.

Where we stayed

The Holiday Inn Slough/Windsor is situated just two minutes from the M4 and is three miles outside of the centre of Windsor. With 115 rooms and large communal dining facilities, the hotel is well-equipped for groups, as we discovered when we experienced both a drinks reception and a hot buffet-style evening meal.

Useful contacts:

French Brothers:

Holiday Inn Slough/Windsor:

The Royal Borough of Windsor

Royal Collection (Windsor Castle):
020-7766 7321

The Savill Garden:
0845-603 6228

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