Dismounting Ceremony review
If you want to watch some pomp and pageantry but don't like big crowds, or you've got a little kid who can't stand around for an hour without needing a wee, then how about this one -- this is the parade for people with no patience. You only need to give this one thirty minutes from start to finish so you can squeeze it in between some other attractions.
It takes place behind those horse boxes at Horse Guards. (I don't mean the parade ground -- I mean that tiny little courtyard on the Whitehall side.) This is the official entrance into the whole St. James's Palace/Buckingham Palace quarter and soldiers have been standing guard outside here since the days of Charles II.
The actual barracks are long gone but the building is still the official headquarters of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, and those horses you can see are from the Queen's Life Guard, drawn from one squadron of the Life Guards (red tunics and white plumed helmets) and one squadron of the Blues and Royals (blue tunics and red plumed helmets). We don't send horses off to war anymore so most of their time is spent doing ceremonial stuff, and I'm guessing whoever draws the short straw has to stand outside here posing for photos with the tourists.
Do you remember when your mum caught you being naughty and threatened you with no TV for a week? Or no food for a month? (I had a very tough mum.) Well the Dismounting Ceremony is the military equivalent of that. 125 years ago Queen Victoria caught the entire Guard drinking and gambling on duty and lumbered them with a daily inspection to make sure they were behaving themselves. This was back in 1894 when every dress she had was black, every hat she had was black, and all of her moods were black as well -- nobody messed with her in those days. The 100-year punishment was supposed to have expired in 1994 but our current queen kindly decided that they'd have to carry on with it forever. So let that be a lesson to you: no drinking on duty!
Hardly any tourists know about it so you can turn up quite late and still get a spot at the front (that's why it's so handy if you've got kids). I've arrived at 3.35 PM today and it's literally just a few pigeons a few policemen and me. There's still a huge crowd of tourists gathered around the horse boxes, of course (they'll be there all day), but they don't really bother with the courtyard.
What you need to do is find that white line on the lefthand side of the courtyard and plonk yourself on top of it (ideally at the end furthest from the horse boxes). That will be the front line of the crowd, and all of the action will take place in front of that wooden gate opposite. There's always a Foot Guard stationed outside that gate so you'll be standing there staring at him for thirty minutes which is a bit awkward. I probably look a right old mess and he looks like he's been polished from top to toe. I can see my face in his shoes from thirty feet away. Every now and then he stamps his feet like he's trying to shake some snow off and marches a few paces back and forth. That's when I decide to bend my knees to stop them seizing up. It's almost like we're on parade together.
It's 3.45 PM now and the white line is starting to fill up so you don't want to arrive any later than this. Five minutes later it's four or five people deep all the way along, so if turn up after 3.50 PM then you've definitely messed up. The machine gun coppers have started marshalling everyone away from the centre and pushing them back behind the white line when all of a sudden the Foot Guard behind us lets out an almighty roar, "MAKE WAY FOR THE QUEEN'S GUARD!" To say we jumped would be an understatement. We jumped out of the way like a bus was coming up behind us. He took his position in front of the line and then the horses trot around from the boxes and line up to the right. At 3.55 PM they're joined by a line of seven Foot Guards who march out of the gate.
When the turret clock strikes 4 PM a smart officer comes boot slapping out of the gate and starts inspecting his troops in a very thorough manner from the front and back. He's looking for creases, picking off stray hairs and wiping away thumb smudges from their gleaming helmets. He reminds me of those playground mums who spit on a tissue to wipe away spots of chocolate from their little kid's cheeks. Once he's satisfied he orders them to sheathe their two-foot swords and disappear back inside.
Then he turns his attention to the horses and walks around them as well, looking them up and down like he's inspecting a secondhand car he's thinking about buying. Then he orders the riders to dismount and horror of horrors -- turn away snowflakes! -- they slap the horses so hard it draws an audible gasp from the crowd. I'm guessing the horses hardly felt a thing because their necks are thicker than tree trunks, but it certainly pained the animal lovers in the crowd. Apparently the slap is to prepare the horses to take all the rider's weight on one side of the stirrups.
Once the horses have disappeared back inside the ceremony is over. The business bit of it only lasts from 3.50 PM to 4.05 PM so it's very quick. Including the waiting time you only have to set aside thirty minutes for the whole thing.
Lots of tourists walk past afterwards and wonder where the horses have gone because they were hoping to take a photo on their phones -- well now you know. They're all tucked up in bed. You just get two Foot Guards from 4.05 PM to 8 PM, after which they shut the gate and reduce it down to one. The gate reopens again at 7 AM.
Here are some more parades…
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