We venture just to the west of London this week for a quick look at the five day horseracing event known as Royal Ascot which concludes tomorrow with the Diamond Jubilee Stakes, renamed to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.

While Royal Ascot is now a highlight of the horse-racing calendar around the world (and all eyes this year on Frankel and Black Caviar), the origins of horse-racing at the 179 acre Ascot Racecourse, located at Ascot, adjacent to Windsor Great Park, go back some 300 years.

The first race meeting was held here on 11th August, 1711 – it was apparently Queen Anne who first spotted the potential of the site, then known as East Cote, as a suitable location for a racecourse when out riding from Windsor Castle earlier that year, hence she is celebrated as the founder of the event (today, the Queen Anne Stakes is run in memory of Queen Anne’s vital contribution).

The inaugural event was Her Majesty’s Plate, which carried a prize packet of 100 guineas. Seven horses, each carrying 12 stone of weight, took part in what were three separate heats, each four miles long, but there is apparently no record of who won.

While the racecourse was laid out by William Lowen and his team on the orders of Queen Anne, the first permanent building, constructed by a Windsor builder, wasn’t erected until 1794 – capable of holding 1,650 people, it remained in use until 1838. Meanwhile, the future of the course, which stands on Crown property, was pretty much guaranteed in 1813 when an Act of Parliament ensured the area on which the course stands would remain in use as a public racecourse.

It was the introduction of the Gold Cup in 1807 which is believed to have ushered in the race meet we now know. It remains the feature race of the third day of Royal Ascot which, known as Ladies Day, became the dominant day of the race meeting.

In 1825, King George IV established the first Royal Procession, which still occurs on each day of the meeting and makes its way from the Golden Gates and along the racecourse and into the Parade Ring.

Up until 1901, the racecourse was run on behalf of the Sovereign by the Master of the Royal Buckhounds – an officer in the Royal Household. In that year the situation changed when Lord Churchill was appointed as His Majesty’s Representative and made responsible for running the course and entrance to the Royal Enclosure.

In 1913, the Ascot Authority was established to handle the running of the racecourse and His Majesty’s Representative become the chairman of the new organisation. The chairman, who is currently Johnny Weatherby, remains at the head of Ascot Authority (Holdings) Limited today and is still referred to by the title Her Majesty’s Representative.

In 2002, Ascot Racecourse Ltd was incorporated and is now the organisation responsible for running the racecourse – this underwent a £200 million redevelopment in the mid 2000s which included construction of the spectator stand, reopening in 2006 (pictured in the last picture is the Queen arriving at the reopening).

Among the traditions associated with Royal Ascot is that the jockeys who ride the Queen’s horses wear purple with gold braid, scarlet sleeves and a black velvet cap with gold fringe – the same colors used by King Edward VII and King George IV when Prince Regent. It’s also the role of the Queen, who first attended Royal Ascot in 1945 and who, prior to this year’s race meeting has owned some 63 Ascot winners including 20 at Royal Ascot, to make a number of presentations to race winners, including the Gold Cup, the Royal Hunt Cup and The Queen’s Vase.

Royal Ascot today is Britain’s most popular race meeting attracting 300,000 spectators and holding the position of the most valuable horserace meeting in Europe with £4.5 million in prize money on offer over 30 races.

A key event on Britain’s social calendar, for many Royal Ascot has also become as much about fashion and people-watching as it has the horseracing. For those who can gain entry – including meeting strict dress code requirements – the Royal Enclosure, which traces its history back to King George IV who first commissioned a two-storey building to be constructed with surrounding lawn for the pleasure of his invited guests, remains the most exclusive of the spectator enclosures at the race meeting.

As well as the running of the Diamond Jubilee Stakes (previously known as the Golden Jubilee Stakes), Royal Ascot is also marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a photographic exhibition, 60 years of Royal Ascot during the reign of Her Majesty The Queen, located beside the pre-Parade Ring.

For more, see www.ascot.co.uk.

PICTURES: Courtesy of Ascot Racecourse – top and middle: (c) RPM; bottom: (c) Action Images/Scott Heavey.

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Given we’re marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a look at sites of significance to her story located in London, it’s perhaps only fitting that we take a look at the nearest royal residence outside the city.

Windsor, located as close as half an hour by train from London’s Paddington station (or around 50 minutes to an hour from Waterloo), boasts plenty to see including the historic town centre, nearby Eton, great river and country walks and, of course, Legoland. But today our attention will remain on Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world.

There has been a fortress on this site since shortly after the Norman invasion when in about 1080 King William the Conqueror ordered it constructed on a ridge above the river bank as part of a series of defensive fortifications around London. The earth and timber Norman castle was gradually added to over the years – King Henry I (reigned 1100-1135), the first king to live here, added domestic quarters while King Henry II (reigned 1154-1189) built substantial royal apartments transforming the castle into a palace and began replacing the outer timber walls with stone fortifications as well as rebuilding the Norman Keep as the Round Tower (parts of which still date from this period). King Henry III (reigned 1216-1272) built upon and expanded his work.

But it was in the reign of King Edward III (1307-1327) that the castle was expanded enormously. This included the reconstruction of the lower ward including the rebuilding of the chapel, naming it St George’s (although the current chapel dates from the reign of King Edward IV – 1461-1470), and the reconstruction of the upper ward complete with apartments for him and his wife, Queen Phillipa, arranged around courtyards (although some of the work wasn’t completed until the reign of his successor, King Richard II – 1377-1399). It was also during King Edward III’s reign that the castle became the base for the Order of the Garter (which he created in 1348), a role it still fulfills.

Other works were ordered by successive Tudor monarchs including King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, and Queen Mary I. Parliamentary forces seized the castle during the Civil War (Oliver Cromwell did use it as his headquarters for a time) and Royalists were imprisoned here (King Charles I was in fact buried in a vault beneath St George’s Chapel after his execution having been previously imprisoned here).

The next major additions came in the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685) when the Upper Ward and State Apartments were reconstructed in baroque splendor, the latter complete with splendid murals ceiling paintings by Italian artist Antonio Verro (the murals were later destroyed but some of the ceiling paintings survive).

From the time of King William III (1689-1702), monarchs began spending more time at Hampton Court Palace but the focus returned to Windsor with King George III. He ordered a range of improvements and updates including modernising Frogmore House in the Home Park for his wife Queen Caroline (the property was subsequently used by various royals but no-one currently lives there), but many of these were stopped prematurely due to his illness. His son, King George IV, picked up where his father left off.

In the reign of Queen Victoria, Windsor became the royal family’s principal residence and was visited by heads of state including King Louis Philippe in 1844 and Emperor Napoleon III in 1855. The Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, died here on 14th December, 1861.

King Edward VII (1901-1910) and King George V (1910-1936) both had a hand in redecorating the palace and the Queen’s father, King George VI (1936-1952), was living in the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park when he succeeded to the throne.

In more recent times, the castle was the home to the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret, for much of World War II. The castle suffered its greatest setback in recent times in 1992 when a serious fire broke out in the Queen’s Private Chapel which destroyed several rooms including the ceiling of St George’s Hall which dated from the reign of King George IV. Restoration works took five years to complete.

Today the Queen spends many private weekends at the castle while the court is officially in residence here for a month over the Easter period and during Ascot Week in June – it’s at this time that the Garter Day celebrations take place with the installation of new knights.

The Queen also hosts State Visits here with banquets held in St George’s Hall as well as what are known as a ‘sleep and dine’ in which high profile figures are invited to dinner with the Queen before being shown a special display of items from the Royal Library and then spending the night. The Royal Standard flies from the Round Tower when the Queen is in residence.

As well as touring the State Apartments, the Gallery, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House (completed in the 1920s for Queen Mary, wife of King George V), and St George’s Chapel, visitors to the castle can experience the Changing of the Guard at 11am every day but Sundays between May and early August (and every second day after that).

WHERE: Windsor (a short walk from either Windsor Central Station or Windsor & Eton Riverside Station); WHEN: 9.45am to 5.15pm until 27th July (times vary after this date – check the website); COST: £17 an adult/£10.20 a child (under 17s – under fives free)/£15.50 concession/£44.75 family (price includes an audio tour); WEBSITE: www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/windsorcastle.

Having spent the first few months of her life at 17 Bruton Street, the future Queen Elizabeth II moved into her parents’ new property at 145 Piccadilly.

The property, located close to Hyde Park Corner, was previously the townhouse of the Marquesses of Northampton (interestingly, it was while living here that her father the Duke of York first started visiting the Harley Street-based Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, as depicted in The King’s Speech). The 25 bedroom house was later destroyed by a bomb during the war, long after the Yorks had moved out.

As well as the house at 145 Piccadilly, the young Princess Elizabeth (and from 1930 her younger sister and only sibling Princess Margaret) also lived at White Lodge in the centre of Richmond Park in the city’s south-west. The Lodge, a Georgian property built as a hunting lodge for King George II, now houses part of the Royal Ballet School.

She also considerable time outside the city, staying in places including Scotland with her grandparents at either Balmoral Castle (owned by the Royal Family) or at Glamis Castle (owned by the parents of her mother, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore) as well as, from the age of six, at Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park, the country home of the Yorks. The princess apparently had her own small house, known as Y Bwthyn Bach (the Little Cottage), in the grounds  – a gift from the people of Wales in 1932.

Following the death of King George V and subsequent abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936, new King George VI and his family moved from 145 Piccadilly to Buckingham Palace. Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the princesses lived in Balmoral, Scotland, and Sandringham but spent most of the war at Windsor Castle.

Princess Elizabeth, meanwhile, had met Prince Philip of Greece during the 1930s and in 1947, he asked for permission to marry her.