Changing the Guard, at Horse Guards Parade review (Oct 2012)
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I ended up going twice (once last week, and again today) because it's quite a difficult thing to watch from start to finish because the ceremony takes place in two different bits -- the parade ground, and the courtyard through the central arches. If you want to film the whole lot on one day then you've basically got no chance, because a succession of soldiers and horses will march back and forth between the two at intervals, and you'd be running around like a lemon. My advice is to pick a bit and stick with it, and just accept that you'll have to miss what's happening in the other section. Otherwise people will already have occupied the best spots in the other bit, and by the time you run back you will have lost your spot in the first bit too. If you take my advice, then you should pick a plum spot in the parade ground and stay there for the whole duration.
What you need to do is stand right up against that black iron chain which fences off a section of the parade ground (close to the central arch). Because the ceremony takes place inside that area. If you stand right up againt the chain then no one will be allowed to go in front of you. I recommend that you stand as close to the centre of the chain as possible, directly opposite the central arch (facing it). That will give you the best view.
Unlike the Changing the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace (which is packed like sardines), the one at Horse Guards doesn't get especially busy, so you can arrive there quite late and still get an okay view. It was still empty at half-past 10 when I got there, and the horses don't come trotting along until about 10:45.
At about 10:45 you will start to see a few mounted policeman trundle up, to keep the crowds in line. Shortly after that you will see the mounted cavalry arrive from their barracks in Hyde Park. They will ride all the way down Constitution Hill, passing through the middle of Wellington Arch, past the palace, and down The Mall. They will then turn right before Admiralty Arch and head towards the parade ground. This is when they will come into view. Some people suggest standing at Wellington Arch and following them all the way down The Mall, but I think you'd have to be completely nuts to do that. Have you ever tried keeping up with horses? You will have to fitter than Superman, because it's quite a long way, and by the time you get to Horse Guards all the best viewing spots will be taken. So just stand at Horse Guards and watch them arrive instead, which is much better (and less strenuous). They will ride straight past you and into the fenced-off area.
Unfortunately this is the boring bit -- because the action is now taking place inside the courtyard, which you can't see. All you can see are the two sets of horses standing opposite each other in the parade ground. Doing nothing. This goes on for 20 minutes. If you don't mind giving up your good spot in the parade ground then you can head through the central arches and see what's going on.
Luckily I had the luxury of going twice, so I saw both bits. So let me tell you what happens inside the courtyard... You don't see all that much, to be honest, (at least, not at the beginning). All that happens is the horses will ride out from the barracks and go through the central arch into the parade ground. A couple of foot soldiers will do the same, to replace the foot soldiers already standing in the courtyard. After a while some more horses will come out and replace the ones standing in the boxes on Whitehall (the ones where all the tourists gather to have their photos taken). This is actually quite interesting, because what they do is open up the back of the boxes so the new horses can ride in. The old horses then come out the front and through the gate, straight back into the barracks.
If you decided to take my advice and stand in the parade ground, then you won't be able to see any of this. You will be just standing there for 20 minutes waiting for the final part of the parade. This is when the actual ceremonial changeover occurs, and the old guard splits up -- half of them will ride out of the parade ground and back up The Mall, to their barracks in Hyde Park, and the rest will head back through the central arch to the courtyard. At this point, you should give up your spot and rush through the arch to follow them, because they will all assemble in the courtyard for a few minutes. Their head honcho will then bark a few orders at them, order them to dismount, and everyone will walk their horses into the barracks. And that's it -- show's over.
I apologise for the rather long and complicated explanation, but it's quite a tricky parade to follow when it takes place in two separate bits. But let me try and condense it down into two easy sentences for you: Arrive at 10.30 and stand in the parade ground. Don't move until the final set of horses marches through the arches, and then follow them into the courtyard. If you do that, then you should get a decent view of most of it.
So what about the Changing the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace? Is the one at Horse Guards any better? No way. If you have to choose between the two then you should definitely do the one at the Palace. Because that one has got more soldiers, more horses, and some marching bands too. And the backdrop is better, and the crowds are bigger. It's still worth doing, but you can probably skip the one at Horse Guards if you're pushed for time.
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