There is good news for Queen Elizabeth II and tourists alike: Five years after fire ravaged Windsor Castle, the landmark of British royalty 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 media viewing Monday of one of the century’s most challenging, complex works of restoration.
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.
Medieval vaulted St. George’s Hall, the royals’ private chapel, the crimson drawing room and the state dining room - where the fire did the most damage - are among the principal hand-hewn testaments to the skill of 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 percent 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 on Nov. 20, 1992, the queen’s 45th wedding anniversary. It quickly overwhelmed the castle’s own fire department.
Castle workers, aided by firefighters, local citizens, 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.
Rescue workers filled 7,000 trash bins with debris that would eventually be winnowed into 2,000 breadbaskets of salvaged pieces.
“I felt that there was going to be a hell of a business trying to put it together again,” said Prince Philip in a television documentary about reconstruction of the Windsor family palace. The program was produced by his son Prince Edward and is airing here this week.
Before the castle was back together, planners fought a prolonged war against the 1.5 million gallons of water pumped into the old site.
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