5 Years After Fire, Windsor Castle Is Restored


There is good news for Queen Elizabeth II and Joe Tourist alike this morning: Five years after fire ravaged Windsor Castle, the landmark of British royal history has risen from the ashes, fully restored and welcoming again to resident royals and awe-struck visitors.

“The queen thinks it is marvelous and says she was absolutely delighted,” said project head Michael Peat at a press viewing Monday of one of the century’s most challenging, complex restoration projects.

Elizabeth, who will celebrate her golden wedding anniversary at the castle Thursday, mingled for more than two hours over the weekend at a reception for 1,500 contractors, artisans and firefighters. “This is the best wedding present Prince Philip and I could have had,” the queen told her guests, according to the royal household’s Dickie Arbiter.


Beginning Dec. 27, tourists will get their chance to see restored areas of Europe’s largest occupied castle, a 13-acre weekend refuge of battlements, turrets and spectacular royal art collections not far from London’s Heathrow Airport. About 1.2 million visitors each year tour the castle, which was built starting about 1070.

Medieval, vaulted St. George’s Hall, the royals’ private chapel, the crimson drawing room and the state dining room--where the fire burned worst--are among the principal hand-hewn testaments to the skill of the craftsmen.

Their work was completed six months ahead of schedule, under budget and against all odds.

“If we had known at the start that it would become so daunting, we might have given up,” said Simon Jones, a project manager. Total cost: about $60 million, of which 70% comes from entrance fees from Windsor and from Buckingham Palace in London. The rest is public money.

Apparently ignited when a spotlight was left too close to a curtain during repair work, fire broke out before noon Nov. 20, 1992, the queen’s 45th wedding anniversary. It quickly overwhelmed the castle’s own fire department.

The commander of the first five Berkshire County units to arrive needed only one glance. “Make pumps 10,” he radioed, an urgent call for reinforcements signaling an out-of-control blaze of disastrous proportions. David Harper--now chief, then deputy, of the Berkshire Fire Brigade--recalled Monday: “When they told me, ‘Make pumps 10’ at Windsor Castle, I thought it was a joke. Within a couple of hours, I would be the one saying, ‘Make pumps 35.’ It was the biggest fire in my 32 years.”


That day five years ago, castle workers, aided by firefighters and troops from a nearby army barracks, got all but a handful of the art treasures out safely as fire consumed the roof. But it would take 250 firefighters from as far away as London more than 15 hours to control the blaze. It destroyed 115 rooms in all, including nine great state halls.

“It made the blood run cold,” recalled Prince Charles, heir to the throne. Rescue workers filled 7,000 trash bins with debris that would eventually be winnowed into 2,000 breadbaskets of salvaged pieces.

Architect John Dangerfield observed Monday in the elegant state dining room: “I think we have shown that craftsmanship is alive and well. For all of us, this has been the job of a lifetime.”

At the restoration’s peak, more than 5,000 workers laboring for about 200 specialist contractors hand-fitted green-oak roof timbers, replastered the ornate gilt ceilings, rebuilt the leaden windows. There were 75 miles of scaffolding, enough to walk from Windsor to London and back again.

“It is the biggest restoration this century,” said manager Chris Watson. “We drew the best people in the country at good prices because everybody wanted to do his bit at Windsor. It’s the pinnacle of professional life, something for your grandchildren.”