When I visited Windsor Great Park I was lucky enough to have a master guide. Graham Sanderson has worked in the park for 30 years and is fiercely protective of Her Majesty’s reputation, her oaks and her flower beds.
Set in the Surrey and Berkshire countryside stretching from Windsor Castle to the north and Ascot to the south, the grounds are tended with real pride.
Windsor is the largest and oldest inhabited castle in the world and still has over 150 people in residence today. It’s Her Majesty’s favourite weekend retreat and with 5,000 acres to wander around she can never get bored of the sweeping deer lawns, the fine selection of oaks (some up to 1,200 years old) lakes, gardens and ponds. This is one of our grandest parks, and 3,000 acres of it is open to us.
The Punchbowl in the Valley Gardens was introduced here after the Second World War, and contain thousands of plants sourced from all over the world. They hold a number of National Collections including one for rhododendrons.
It’s said that the collection was planted in the 1950s so that Lord Aberconway, the chairman of the Royal Horticultural Society, could have a different flower on his dining table every day of the year. The Rhododendron Walk is still enticing visitors today and there are over 500 varieties here.
One hybrid in particular has made itself too comfortable since it was introduced as a border plant. The Rhododendron ponticum is the biggest invasive species in the park, and a big problem on estates nationwide.
To keep it under control, there’s a big clear up operation underway at Cow Pond. Taking its name from when cattle drank there, back when the park was just moorland, Cow Pond was landscaped in the 1740s to create a perambulation for residents and visitors to nearby Cumberland Lodge (then known as the Great Lodge).
Left relatively unattended, the tranquil oasis has become hugely overgrown and is now undergoing a five-year restoration to return it to its 18th-century heyday.
Clearing the invader requires a huge amount of elbow grease. Graham set me to work with some rather dangerous bow saws, but diggers, chainsaws and a wealth of manpower are also needed for this massive operation. This is one rhododendron not to be laughed at.
After helping (sort of) the rhododendron hit squad, I met Harvey Stephens in the glass houses of Savill Garden, where they are working hard to cultivate rare plants and trees through the intricate method of grafting.
This is where the root of a tree is split and fused with the same size stalk of a rarer species in order to provide hearty roots and a greater chance of survival. After binding the two trees together, they are fused over a hot water pipe to encourage growth.
This unique method has been a fantastic success in the Great Park and examples can be seen thriving all over the grounds.
After Harvey had shown me his incredible grafting hands, we planted a rather small but promising Albizia tree, which made me feel better after murdering all those rhododendrons.
Also in the Saville Garden is the recently opened Rose Garden, which has some beautifully situated benches to sit and enjoy a flask of tea, read a book or gaze at the bobbing Rosa ‘Ballerinas’ on a sunlit afternoon.
Looking at all the colour and splendour of this majestic estate, it’s plain to see why Wills and Kate chose Windsor Great Park as the provider of their wedding flowers in April.
How to get there
Windsor Park is easily accessible on the M4 out of London. If walking or cycling from Windsor, follow the A332 road south for two miles. The nearest rail stations are Egham and Windsor.
Find out more
WINDSOR GREAT PARK
There are clearly marked paths, ramps and routes around the gardens that are wheelchair accessible, as are the toilet facilities.
BEL AND THE DRAGON
Thames Street, 1 Datchet Road
Windsor, SL4 1QB
Once an 11th-century alehouse, now an intimate restaurant serving delicious, locally sourced food in a relaxed setting.
ROYAL ADELAIDE HOTEL
46 Kings Road, Windsor
A hotel for over 100 years, this powder-blue town house has modern bedrooms and a fantastic in-house brasserie.
The centre piece of the park, this 11th-century Royal residence contains priceless works of art, as well as Queen Mary’s over-the-top dollshouse.