How exciting!! I can't wait to be a tourist in London! Excellent article.
Changing the Guard, at Buckingham Palace review
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Changing the Guard is #1 in my London Bucket List
Important note: The timings have changed since I wrote this review. Everything now takes place 30 minutes earlier than I say below
This is what the final five minutes of Armageddon is going to be like, with everyone crushed up against the Pearly Gates with their heads wedged between the metal bars trying to get a look inside. To say this place gets packed would be a massive understatement. This is the first thing that everybody wants to do when they come to London.
I must have walked past the Changing the Guard ceremony a million billion times in my life, and seen bits and pieces of it every month, but I've only stopped to watch the entire thing twice. This is my third time today. The reason I don't do it more often is because I'm a Londoner, so luckily I don't have to. We leave this one to the tourists. You'd think that the Queen was about to make a balcony appearance, or something, judging by the number of them, but she's not -- it's just a lot of soldiers tooting on their trumpets.
The main ceremony begins at 11:30 AM on the Buckingham Palace forecourt (with a few preliminary bits from 11:15) but I've decided to play it super-safe today and arrive at 9:35 -- two hours early. And believe it or not there are even some people waiting now. Half of the front railing has been taken already. And there's not a lot to see this early on, just a couple of soldiers in their sentry boxes and a machine gun copper eyeing up the crowd. You can have a good look at the windows and see if anyone's visible in the palace, but I can't see any movement this morning. I was hoping the Queen might poke her nose through the net curtains, but nope. The Royal Standard is flying on the flagpole so she's definitely home. Maybe she's still in bed.
If you want a perfect spot then try and stand on the lefthand side of the central gate (they always seem to dump their music stands on the righthand side, which will mess up your photos). But don't stand directly in front of the gates because the soldiers are going to be marching through those later, and the police will move you on.
By 9:50 AM all of the railing spaces have gone, and by 10:10 it's already three or four people deep. By 10:30 you may as well forget it because it's like a football crowd packed in behind the goal. We're packed in tighter than a packet of straws. If you're under a delusion of being able to waltz up thirty minutes before it starts and still get a good spot by the gate, then trust me: you've got no chance. If you want to stand right at the front then you need to get there before 10 AM. If you don't mind standing around the Queen Victoria Memorial, or on the spur road linking the Palace with Birdcage Walk, then you can arrive a little bit later, but the front of the palace will be jam-packed by 10:15.
The next hour isn't much fun because everybody is trying to pinch an inch of space with their elbows, big feet, umbrellas and bags. You have to be super tough now. Don't let anyone in because you'll never get them out again. I once had somebody enquire whether they could nip in to take a photo and then forgetfully remember to move. Little kids squeeze in between you and then tug their parents in behind. You'll have a whole hour of these games and it will really test your mettle. You'll have to count to ten at least a hundred times. You'll have to smile when you really mean to swear. I don't mean to put you off, because I appreciate that this is probably something that you really want to do, but if you've got little kids and you can't arrive early enough for a space at the front then it's basically a waste of time, because they won't see a thing. They'll just be staring at people's backs and bags for an hour. And if you hoist them up onto your shoulders you'll have everybody tut-tutting at you from behind.
I've just worked out why those sentry soldiers keep stamping on the spot every five minutes -- it's so their legs don't fall asleep. I've been standing here for sixty minutes now and my knees are seizing up. The crowd is really huge now and everyone is chatting excitedly. Every few minutes a photo flash goes off as they snap a shot of the sentry box. Every time a soldier moves a bank of cameras comes out like we're the paparazzi.
At 11:15 I can hear some distant music coming from the direction of The Mall. It quickly turns into deep drums and they must be getting closer. It's a rolling, pounding sound that's getting louder and louder. The soldiers are coming. The army is advancing! They are marching into battle with their trumpets and drums. I must admit that this is quite exciting... all that waiting around suddenly seems worthwhile.
Wherever you decide to stand you won't be able to see the entire parade, because the soldiers start their march from two different places. Some of them will come down The Mall from St. James's Palace (at 11:13), whilst a second set will march along Birdcage Walk from Wellington Barracks (at 11:27). They will then skirt the Queen Victoria Memorial and enter the palace forecourt through one of the three front gates (that's why you shouldn't stand in front of a gate -- because you'll get moved on). Once they're inside the forecourt they'll shuffle into tidy lines and get shouted at by the sergeant.
The main ceremony begins at 11:30 once all the soldiers have assembled on the forecourt. If you're standing away from the railings then you won't be able to see any of this, but don't disappear because you'll be able to watch them march back out again from 11:40 onwards.
It's very hard to make out what the sergeant is saying because he's shouting (almost screaming!) at the soldiers through his chinstrap, but he has them do some acrobatics with their guns and slow marches them into position. Then the actual changeover will take place, and for the next twenty minutes you can enjoy some brass band music whilst small groups of soldiers march around in the background.
By 12:10 PM all of the soldiers will have marched out of the central gate and headed back towards Wellington Barracks or St. James's Palace. You'll then have to stand there for another five minutes listening to the military bands disappearing down The Mall as you wait for the crowd to dissipate.
So here's the million dollar question... is it worth watching?
It depends on how much time you've got. You really need to devote a couple of hours to it, and be prepared to stand around doing nothing for an hour and a half. A lot of tourists will plan to do something in the morning and believe they can quickly nip down to the palace at 11:30, but trust me: that's a total waste of time. You might see them marching down The Mall, but you won't see any of the actual ceremony on the forecourt. You've got to remember that most attractions don't even open until 10 o'clock, so if you give that attraction an hour and then run down to Buckingham Palace you'll still be sixty minutes too late for a decent spot. But I'm a Londoner, of course, and I've seen this thing before, whereas this might your one and only opportunity, so let me just say this: it's busy. Very busy. A lot busier than you'd expect. And then even busier than that.
What do you think?Please leave a comment
Here are some other parades and ceremonies I’ve been to…
GotoLondon 30 Oct 16, 01:11
How exciting!! I can't wait to be a tourist in London! Excellent article.
Guest 29 Jan 17, 20:32
I have been to London 20 times, next visit already is booked. Yes of course, must see the changing of the guards. I am at the gates 2 hours before the ceremony, hang tight, the crowds will try to get in front of you as it has happened, very nice Bobby stopped people pushing and said, this lady, me, has been here already 2 hours, it's her spot.
Admin 30 Jan 17, 14:50
What I do is get right behind the railings and put my arms through them. But even then you still have people trying to squeeze you out on either side. You have to tough it out for an hour if you want a good view.
Guest 7 Feb 17, 13:19
When will the guards change from the winter grey uniform to the red tunic in spring/summer 2017 ?
Admin 7 Feb 17, 15:21
I've tried to find an exact date for you but all I could get was 'winter'. And winter officially ends on 20th march.
... but I'm pretty sure they started wearing them on the last week of October, and winter didn't officially begin until December, so i guess they must just go by the weather -- when it's cold they put them on. (they sometimes wear them during the summer as well, if it's a wet and miserable day.)