Many of us think of Windsor Castle when we think of Windsor. It represents over a thousand years of royal history. But when I think of Windsor, I also think of log flumes.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think of the Windsor Castle bit of Windsor, it’s a stunner of a building. And the events of Prince Philip being laid to rest yesterday brought the place freshly back to mind (I am unashamed to say I did weep while watching). But when I think of a childhood of day trips to Windsor, it is mainly the log flume and the panning for gold – not forgetting the dragon rollercoaster – that spring to mind.
I’m talking (as some of you may have guessed) about Legoland Windsor. Greatest theme park in the world, no question. At this point, you might think that there couldn’t possibly be a royal connection to the above photograph of my mum and I surviving the Pirate Falls log flume. You’d be wrong.
I’ll give you a clue: this photo was taken on the afternoon of Saturday 6th September 1997. That was the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, watched by over 31 million people in the UK, including us.
It also happened to be my 10th birthday.
I definitely remember that birthday and all the events of the previous week more vividly than I otherwise would have. I didn’t really have the biggest concept of grief and loss then, but it was the kind of time in history that you never forget. Like right now and this past year, for instance.
I opened my presents over breakfast and then on the TV went. There was no way we would miss the funeral. Perhaps my parents might even have considered going into central London had it not been for the birthday.
Of that morning, I mostly remember my brother and I horsing around with my new presents (chief among them a giant stuffed toy reindeer with puppet arms you could put your own hands into. You had to see him to believe him, but I chose the name Smartie on account of giant eyes and a nose and that looked like chocolate Smarties or Galaxy Minstrels).
Anyway… although I was naive to the real tragedy of it all, the funeral being on left a massive impression. I can still see the scene in our living room in my mind’s eye on repeat often as the BBC coverage showed the cortège going from Kensington Palace to St James Palace and into Westminster Abbey. The floral wallpaper on our living room walls, the sofa against the wall facing the window, the pine IKEA TV unit rolled closer in than normal. My dad, mum and uncle sat together on the sofa, still as marble, my dad silently sobbing throughout.
My brother and I had all the space of the rest of the living room in which to play, but we were drawn like magnets to those three adults. I sensed vulnerability. Here was a small window into what grief looked like. If this is how much it hurt when mourning someone we’d never met, what would it be like when someone in our actual family died?
I probably hoped that maybe it didn’t happen to every family. Funerals seemed like a distant experience, and indeed it was to be 22 years before my brother and I would organise and attend our first (and so far only) family funeral. Nonetheless, I suppose we grew up just a little bit faster that week. Certainly other young siblings a little more in the public eye than us were forced to grow up too soon.
It would be years though before I watched the ceremony in full and understood just how painful a time it was. The stoicism of William and Harry walking behind the cortége*, the caustic, raw nature of Earl Spencer’s eulogy, the staggering pain etched into every syllable of Libera Me sung by the BBC Orchestra and soprano Lynne Dawson (it still gives me unbelievable goosebumps listening now). And of course, the simple, sheer tragedy of how young Diana was when she died, and how it happened.
The whole service happened miles away from Windsor, but I still can’t disentangle the connection in my mind.
(* Something I read during recent Duke of Edinburgh coverage is that the government wanted the young princes to join the procession, as they were worried that the public would be angry at (or even attack) Prince Charles as he walked behind. Prince Philip persuaded them the boys to take part, by offering to walk with them too).
Morning turning to late morning, and my just-reached-10 self shrugged off all that I could only faintly grasp at that age and wondered instead, would we be allowed to have lunch ACTUALLY INSIDE Legoland?!
The public coverage of the funeral had came to an end and life had to go on. For us as a family that meant celebrating my birthday with a half day at Legoland Windsor. The whole country had shut down during the morning out of respect, but by 2pm, the car park was busy enough with people who had also ventured out.
I definitely sensed the atmosphere as different from any previous time we’d visited, and we’d been a lot. In every queue, either adults talked about the morning’s events, or there was a frisson of understanding that just pulsed through everyone. The fun was more measured, the crowds definitely fewer — though this had the added benefit of allowing us on more rides in a shorter space of time, so my brother and I were in our element!
Pirate Falls was my favourite ride at Legoland. I still feel a complete thrill at the idea of jumping into one of the log boats, passing the Lego pirate brothers, the treasure, the laughing parrot just before you plunged over the top and tumbled down the flume, in complete soggy ecstasy. It didn’t change for years, it remained a perfect time capsule of birthdays gone by, whenever we visited in later years. It was the ride we headed over to first in fact that afternoon. We felt like queue jumpers, the wait time was so abnormally short.
Of course Windsor isn’t just the castle or Legoland and nothing in-between.
It is home to over 30,000 people. Windsor Bridge connects it to Eton, location of the famous public school but more vivid to me as seemingly endless lush, green fields and ponds and rivers of ducks, drifting under draping willows. So many willows, I recall.
The whole area around Windsor is special and we spent many fond family outings exploring the town and its surrounds, not always duck spotting but gawping at the castle architecture, finding new walking routes, gazing through shop windows along polished streets at fancy candles and posh knitwear. It’s more than simply a quaint royal town. It is incredibly pretty as well as historic.
Windsor’s seen a lot in the thousand years it’s been around. Just as the log flume should keep on falling and the parrot ought to keep on laughing, so we’ll keep moving on with our lives. But if we can, we should try keeping the happy memories tucked somewhere a bit easier to find than the unhappy ones.