Dismounting Ceremony review (Oct 2016)
This is an old review Read my most recent review here
You've done Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace... posed for a photo outside Horse Guards... seen the Ceremony of the Keys and Remembrance Day Parade... tried Trooping the Colour and the State Opening of Parliament... so what have got left? Well, you've forgotten this one (everybody forgets this one). This is the Dismounting Ceremony, or 4 O'Clock Parade.
Compared with the other daily ceremonies this one is just a sideshow. It's extremely short and not a lot happens, but it's quite handy if you've done all your sightseeing for the day and just need to fill up a quick thirty minutes before dinner. You can slip it in between your sightseeing and a show.
It takes place behind those horse boxes on Whitehall. If you walk into the courtyard then you'll see a big black gate on the righthand side with a Foot Guard out the front. Some people think he's just there for the tourists, but he's not. He's actually guarding the barracks of the Household Cavalry. That's where all the horses live, through that gate, and 4 PM is their knock off time. That's what the Dismounting Ceremony is all about.
If you're anything like me then you'll hate waiting. I'm useless at waiting. I'd rather turn up late than wait. But luckily not a lot of tourists know about this ceremony so it's hardly ever packed, and you can turn up quite late and still find a decent spot. A 3:30 arrival is fine (you'll probably be the only person waiting), and you might even get away with 3:45 (but that is pushing your luck if you want a spot at the front). When you get inside the courtyard look around for a thick painted white line on the pavement. Go and plonk yourself on top of that. That will mark the front line of the crowd. If you stand on that then you'll be standing at the front. The action will be taking place on the other side of the courtyard in front of the gate.
I've still got ten minutes to go and I'm standing here watching the soldier watch us. We are watching him, and he is watching us... I wonder what he's thinking about? He's probably trying to work out whether any of us are nuts enough to storm the gate. I don't think we'll stand much chance against him, though, because his sword is twice as tall as me. The only arms we've got are our actual arms, whereas he has got his arms, plus some military arms. So he out-arms us three to two.
At 3:45 the Foot Guard will leave his post and march out to the main road and have a chat with the horses. Then he'll march back in to his original spot. Don't get in his way for chrissakes, because he'll bellow at you to move (seriously!). At 3:50 another soldier will come out of the gate and order the horses to line up in the courtyard. Five minutes later a line of seven Foot Guards will come out of the barracks and line up alongside them. More waiting. We're all waiting for the clock to chime 4 o'clock now. The horses will be braying and shaking their manes whilst the soldiers daren't even blink. Silence. Total silence. It's surprising how quiet it can be when you're only fifty feet from Whitehall. I think there are several levels of silence. When people stop talking it's silent. But when they stop moving as well it's silence. That's the level we're at right now. The planes have halted overhead. The clouds are frozen. The crowd has closed in. You just have to wait for the clock to tick off the final five minutes.
At 4 o'clock the soldiers will suddenly stand to attention as the chief storms out with his big boots making a metallic slapping sound on the concrete. Then he'll go down the line of Foot Guards inspecting their hats and haircuts and the shine of their shoes, and whether they've all blown their noses this morning, etc., and basically making sure that they look respectable. Once he's happy with the soldiers they will sheath their swords and march inside the gate. Then he'll inspect the horses and send them inside as well. And that's it. There are no marching bands. No changeovers, and at 4:05 PM the show is over. It's a very quick ceremony.
If you like military displays and you've got a soft spot for the Changing the Guard, then it makes sense to see this one too -- because it will complete your set. I was certainly glad that I did it. But it's easily the least interesting parade in London. It's the kind of thing that tourists can skip and not miss much. But it might be worth thinking about if you've got little kids. Every mum and dad wants to take their kids to see Changing the Guard, but standing around in a thousand crowd for an hour or more is not much fun when your toddlers are hot and bored. The big advantage with this one is that you can do it in twenty minutes from start to finish and the crowd-size is tiny. So maybe it's a better way of showing your little ones some pageantry.
Guest – I have a question regarding the Dismounting Ceremony. When the guards are dismounting, they lean forward and slap the horses on the neck, and then as they slide off to dismount they slap the horses again on the side. What is the purpose of this?
Admin – Apparently that's nothing more than a pat on the head, to tell the horse he's done a good job. But it's certainly a very firm slap! It looks more like a slap of anger than a slap of approbation, but I suppose horses are made out of muscle so they can probably take it.
Guest – The slap on the neck is to let the horses know they are dismounting and all their weight will be on one stirruo. It is a signal to let the horse know that all the weight will be on side and the other slap is to let them know that the manouver is over and dismount. So in other words they are a command. Looks harder than it is but the horses have to be trained for battle conditionscand the slap is a heads up for when there could be a battle going on and a lot of noise and distactions happening.
Guest – The Horseguards building Whitehall is not the current barracks nor stables for the Horseguards. That is in Knightsbridge Hyde Park Barracks. The Whitehall barracks is the Horseguards Museum. Visitors to the museum are welcome to watch the afternoon inspection of the guards and horses that happens daily at 4pm. This routine began in 1894 when Queen Victoria found the guards drinking and gambling in the afternoon instead of tending to their duty. She proclaimed that they would be punished by a Four 'O' Clock inspection daily for the next 100 years. This proclamation and punishment officially expired in 1994, but Queen Elizabeth II chose to continue the inspection out of respect for tradition. I would suggest interested parties watch The Queen's Cavalry on youtube for a better understanding of everything.
Admin – My understanding is that there is definitely a working stable in there for the Household Cavalry. I just double-checked on their website and it says it houses 17 horses from the Life Guards — you can view it through a window if you go inside. But you're right about the barracks bit... this place is still officially called their headquarters, but the 'barracks' itself is in Hyde Park.
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