Guards' Museum review
While I'm standing here waiting for the Guards' Museum to open a little old lady has walked up with a load of tatty plastic bags and piled them on a bench, chatting quite happily to herself, with all the associated arm actions and animated facial expressions that go with being mad. I haven't got the faintest idea what she's talking about because it's all in French, but she seems happy enough. She actually seems happier than me. I'm just going to do what British people do best and pretend that she doesn't exist. I will stare at the buses. I will stare at the clouds. I will live in my imaginary world, and she can live in hers.
The reason I arrived so early was because I wanted to see if there were any soldiers on the parade ground. The Guards' Museum is inside the grounds of Wellington Barracks itself and you can sometimes see them marching up and down behind the iron railings, practising their brass band tunes for Changing the Guard. I can't see any soldiers today, though -- just a couple of sentry pigeons.
I quite like this little museum. I call it a 'homemade museum' because it looks like it's been put together by people who actually care about the exhibits. There's always a proud old bloke sitting behind the desk (probably an old soldier, I'm guessing), and usually a couple of dads taking their sons around the rooms, clearing hoping that they'll grow up and join the army. I'm guessing they're Foot Guards on a day off, showing their kids what they do for a living.
The museum tells the story of the Foot Guards' five regiments: the Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh, which together have a history stretching all the way back to the English Civil War. General Monck marched the first lot down from Scotland (the Coldstream Guards) and helped to put Charles II back on the throne. Then the Grenadiers came in, and somehow managed to supersede the Coldstream Guards in seniority (which sounds a bit unfair to me, but there you go). Then they added the Scots, Irish and Welsh. You'll learn all of this in the little sit-down movie at the start, which also reveals how you can tell them apart by looking at their plumes and tunic buttons. This is easily the most interesting movie about buttons that you will ever see. If you pay attention to it then you'll be checking out the buttons every time you see a soldier outside the palace (I'm still doing this years after I first saw the movie -- I can't help myself).
After that you can walk through 360 years of military history. They give you a little biography of all the kings and queens and generals, and waxwork models stand there wearing all the old uniforms, carrying the colours, and waving the weapons, from wooden pikes, pistols and rifles, to smokey musket guns and swords.
They've got quite a nice collection of paintings as well (mainly head and shoulder portraits of the generals), plus a few battle scenes, and some intricate little models of the battlefields with tin soldiers tearing across them. And this repeats all through the centuries, from the Battle of Blenheim and World War II, to the Boer War and Battle of Waterloo.
When you get to the Crimea you start to see some of the soldiers gear (all the gumph they had to lug around with them): pots, pans, cups and mugs, cleaning kits and playing cards, surgeon's saws, scissors, needles and knives.
After that comes Hitler and the Nazis. You get lots of recruiting posters and black-and-white photos of the troops before they went to war, and lots of incidental mementos like captured flags and bullet-dented helmets. The guns all get bigger and better from here on in. It's all automatic guns, grenades, mortars and pipe bombs. After that you're into the Falklands and Kuwait.
When you're finished remember to pop into the toy soldier shop outside. It's more for collectors and hobbyists than kids (you can't really call them toys). They're not plastic soldiers -- they're all tiny tin troops delicately painted with their historical uniforms, carrying the correct weapons, and marching behind their regiment's flag. They're the kind of thing that you paint underneath a magnifying glass.
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