Windsor Castle is on a direct flight path to Heathrow airport.  Boeing 767s, Airbuses and the like fly low overhead on final approach.  A chaplain at the castle told me how he was once on duty in St George’s chapel, dressed in his distinctive red cassock, when an American tourist jabbed him in the ribs.  ‘You work here?’ she enquired.  ‘Yes, I do’, he replied.  ‘Why did the Queen build her castle so close to the airport?’ she asked.

The lady might have enjoyed doing a bit of reading before her visit to Windsor.  Without being heavy, just doing a little research about holiday destinations – some of them anyway – can bring them vividly alive and help us to get a lot more out of them.  I’ll show you what I mean.

A trip back in time

Recently, a colleague took a friend on a day trip to Paris.  The friend had seemed interested in the French Revolution so they decided to look at the city from that angle.  There was still plenty of sitting outside brasseries lazily watching the world go by but on Eurostar my colleague also spent an hour reading about the chosen theme.

On arrival, she showed her friend some old wooden gates outside an imposing building.  This was the place where the playwright, Beaumarchais, wrote the Marriage of Figaro.  Mocking the aristocracy as it did, the play had its part in triggering the revolution.  It had been written in 1778, six years before Mozart’s opera appeared with the controversial bits stripped out.

Then it was on to the Hôtel de Ville, one of three main locations for the guillotine.  Prisoners awaiting execution were kept nearby in the monumentally atmospheric Conciergerie which was the next stop.  Still there was the stone trough where the prisoners did their washing and also the bell which announced the arrival of the carts which would transport them to their fate.

From invisible ink to the scaffold

Walking down the Rue St-Honoré, the two tourists saw the oldest pharmacy in Paris where Axel de Fersen, a Swedish diplomat who possibly was in love with and certainly tried to save Queen Marie Antoinette, bought invisible ink to write to her.  Not far away was the former milliner’s shop where the Queen used to go twice a week to spend a fortune on hats.

After that, there was a pause outside the church of St Roch where royalist rebels took up positions in October 1795.  They were dealt with in the space of two hours by a young general, loyal to the revolution.  The holes from his cannons’ grapeshot are still visible on the church’s façade.  The general was called Napoleon Bonaparte.

Walking past Robespierre’s house (where the architect of the Reign of Terror didn’t even bother to twitch the curtains to see the procession of carts trundling past), the tour ended in the Place de la Concorde where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette died in front of a long-gone giant wood and plaster statue of Liberty, seated, holding a spear and a shield and wearing the red bonnet of the revolution.

Paris transformed

The point about the reading behind this little jaunt was that it made the day extra interesting.  I’m well aware that over-planning a holiday can torpedo it.  Spontaneity can sometimes make for wonderful breaks.  Many of us have had the experience on holiday of one impromptu idea leading to a cascade of others until we reallze at the end that we’ve had terrific fun.

But on other occasions, doing a spot of reading – in this case only an hour – can make us see things in a wholly different and very rewarding light.  It transformed this trip and made it exciting.

I wonder whether that might have helped two (American again, I’m afraid, but that’s the way it happened) tourists in Westminster Abbey.  The original grave of Oliver Cromwell is situated just at the entrance to the Battle of Britain chapel.  Standing there, one of the tourists was overheard saying to his friend, ‘I didn’t know Oliver Cromwell was in the RAF’.

Whatever type of holiday appeals to you and whenever you take it, have a great time.