Changing the Guard, at Horse Guards Parade review
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Not a lot of tourists know about Changing the Guard at Horse Guards which is a shame, because in some respects it's better than the one at Buckingham Palace. But I don't mean better as in better better -- the one at Buckingham Palace is definitely better. The backdrop is better, the crowds are bigger, and you get some marching bands as well. But if you've got some little kids with you, or you're trying to cram as many attractions as you can into a very short stay, then it's worth thinking about Horse Guards because you don't have to turn up two hours early.
The only downside is that the action takes place in two different locations, so wherever you decide to stand you're going to miss half of it. If you take my advice then you'll stand in the parade ground. The alternative is to stand in the little courtyard through the arch (behind the horse boxes in Whitehall), but to be honest it's a bit boring in there -- so I'm definitely recommending that you stand in the parade ground. But seeing as I'm just a lazy layabout writer with nothing better to do with his life, I've decided to attend it two days in a row and write about them both.
The Household Cavalry will set off from Hyde Park Barracks at 10:28 AM (all of the timings are an hour earlier on Sunday). Some people suggest running alongside them all the way past Wellington Arch, down Constitution Hill, past Buckingham Palace, up The Mall and into Horse Guards parade ground, but if you do that then you are basically mad. The route they walk is nearly two miles long, so you really would have to be mad to try that. It's much better to wait for them in Horse Guards.
Standing in the parade ground: Those horses won't arrive until 10:55 AM, but you need to get here sooner than that to grab a decent vantage spot. I've turned up at 10:10 AM today and there are only ten tourists here. There are plenty of people walking around and taking photos, of course (usually of themselves), but we're the only ones waiting for the actual parade -- and the reason I know that is because we're the only ones waiting by the roped-off area in the middle. That's where the horses are going to be lining up later, inside that rope. If you stand right up against it then no one will be allowed to go in front of you and you'll have a great view. Try and position yourself near to the big gap in the middle (looking towards the clock) because they'll be trotting back and forth through the central arch.
By 10:25 AM all of the best spots have gone, so you'll either have to stand around the side (and end up staring at the horse's backsides) or stand in the back rows at the front (staring at the tourist's backsides). By 10:40 all of the sides are full as well.
Standing in the courtyard: You need to pay attention now, because this review is about to get extremely confusing... I'm standing in the courtyard now (and it's tomorrow!). I've arrived at 10:10 AM again and there's absolutely nobody here this time. There are lots of tourists taking photos of the horse boxes, but nobody's waiting to see the actual parade -- just me. It's just me and the Foot Guards by the wall. 10:15 comes and goes and it's still me. 10:25, still me. 10:35, still me... this is getting silly now. It's 10:45 before the first tourists turn up, and even then it's just a handful. Certainly not a courtyard full. Not even half a courtyard -- there are probably more police than people.
One of the machine-gun coppers has engaged me in friendly conversation by this time (probably just doing his job and finding out why I've been hanging around for so long) but he's a nice guy and I don't mind being surreptitiously interviewed. As soon as I let slip that I'm writing a guidebook the floodgates open and all his hints and tips come pouring out. He obviously loves London as much as I do and he's giving me lots of advice about the best places to visit. I disagree with you there, mate, I'm thinking, because I've tried those already, but seeing as he's holding a machine gun, a taser, truncheon, handcuffs and pepper spray I just nod along and agree with absolutely everything that he says because I don't want him to shoot me.
At 10:50 one of the Foot Guards leaves his spot by the wall and marches out to the front gate (he does this every ten minutes). Shortly after that the stable gates will open and seven very impressive horses will trot out and head through the central arch into the parade ground.
Parade ground: Back to the parade ground again... when those horses come trotting through the arch they'll line-up on the lefthand side of the square. At 10:55 AM those other horses will finally arrive from Hyde Park Barracks (remember them?) and line up on the righthand side. The two lines will then face-off and shout at each other for a little bit. At 11 AM some of the Hyde Park horses will be sent through the arch. (Don't follow them through the arch because it's not worth it, and you'll lose your good vantage point.)
Courtyard: The horses that come through the arch will walk straight into the stables. That's basically all that happens. Inside the stables they are now busy getting the new horses dressed and ready for the next bit, but you can't see any of this because it's all going on behind closed doors.
At 11:15 a couple of Foot Guards will march out of the stables and replace the ones that have been standing in the courtyard. A couple of horses will then trot out and replace the ones that are standing in the horse boxes on Whitehall. This is all quite interesting, and worth watching. When the next line of horses trot out at 11:25 I recommend following them through the arch, because there will be hardly anything left to see in the courtyard now. (Some of the parade ground horses will trot back into the stables again, but you can watch that from the other side.)
Parade ground: Let's wind back time a little bit... back to 11 AM again. After those Hyde Park horses go through the arch you will be standing there twiddling your thumbs for twenty-five minutes, because the remaining cavalry just stand there like statues, staring at their opposite line. That is literally all they do for the next twenty-five minutes (and that is not an exaggeration). If you don't mind hanging around then you can wile away some time watching the horses. One of them is currently dragging up a cloud of dust with his giant hoof and sending it blowing over the crowd. The mums are all spluttering and muttering and waving their hands in front of their faces like it's a cloud of cigarette smoke. The horse doesn't care. Have some of that, he's saying. The soldier doesn't care either, he's just sitting on top and trying not to think of that annoying itch on his nose (he's not allowed to move).
At 11:15 you might be able to hear those Foot Guards changing in the courtyard (because the big boss guy shouts very loudly), and ten minutes later you'll see those horses come trotting through the arch to join up with the ones in the square. The entire lefthand line will then wheel around and march out of the parade ground back to Hyde Park Barracks again, and the righthand line will disappear through the arch. As soon as this happens you should give up your plum spot in the parade ground and rush through the arch to follow them, because they are assembling in the courtyard for the final flourish. The big boss man will bark a few orders at them, order them to dismount, and everyone will walk their horses into the stables. And that's it... the show's over. All that remains is a buzzing crowd and the strong smell of horses.
I know it's been a confusing review, so let me give you a quick summary (I should have given you this at the beginning, and then you wouldn't have had to sit through my review!): arrive at 10:20 AM and stand in the parade ground. Don't enter the courtyard until the final horses walk through the arch at 11:30. And remember that all of the timings are an hour earlier on a Sunday.
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