St. James's Palace review
Everybody's heard of Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court and Windsor, but hardly any tourists know about the most senior Royal palace in the country: St. James's. Maybe they've seen it without realising when they walked up The Mall, but if they did then they've only seen it from the boring back side, and not realised there's a big Tudor gatehouse round the front.
Back in the 1530s, when Henry VIII was living a short walk across the park in Whitehall Palace, he also had Richmond Palace and Greenwich Palace on the go, stole Hampton Court from Cardinal Wolsey, and built this place and Nonsuch from scratch, so he was putting up palaces like we put up sheds. Hampton Court is the only one that's still intact and St. James's is the second-best preserved with a four-story gatehouse, two Tudor rooms and a Chapel Royal in the State apartments.
Unfortunately they don't let the likes of you and me inside to see the rooms so we'll have to content ourselves with the gatehouse. If you start at Trafalgar Square and have a walk down Pall Mall you'll see it when you get to the end. If you've never seen the palace from this angle before then it will probably come as a nice surprise.
When Whitehall burnt down to the ground in 1698 St. James's got promoted to the monarch's chief residence. That's when the Georgians added that big clock with Henry and Anne Boleyn's initials on it. Unfortunately another huge fire in 1809 took out the king's apartments and George III couldn't be bothered to replace them. He'd already been working on Buckingham House (Buckingham Palace) for forty years and when Queen Victoria came to the throne she officially shifted all of the monarch's stuff in there. Nowadays St. James's is just home to some minor Royals like Princess Anne and the Queen's cousin Princess Alexandra. Prince Charles and Camilla live nextdoor in the cream-coloured Clarence House.
Okay... now that I've got all of the history out of the way I can finally get to the good stuff. How about seeing some soldiers?
I should probably just mention that I'd never recommend this next bit to a tourist. If you want to see a proper parade then definitely go for Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace. This is just for the people who've already seen it ten thousand times and are looking for something new to do. We're just going to watch the St. James's Palace detachment form up before they head towards the Mall. (Remember to check whether Changing the Guard is actually happening first, because it doesn't run every day.) All you have to do is walk down Marlborough Road until you see a big open square by the side of the palace. That's called Friary Court. You're not allowed to stand next to the railing once the ceremony gets going (not even by the corners), so make sure you cross over the road and stand on the pavement otherwise the police will move you on at the last minute.
The pavement doesn't start filling up until about 10.10 AM so it's just me and a top-hatted tour guide at the moment who's trying to teach a bit of Tudor history to the tourists. Whenever you buy a ticket for one of those sightseeing buses they invariably chuck in a load of freebies which usually includes a walking tour of Changing the Guard -- that's what he's doing. Personally I think they're a complete waste of time because you need to be at the palace by 9.30 AM if you want a proper view of it, but they don't even get there until 10.45. What they do is just bring you round to the side of St. James's and watch the soldiers forming up before following them up the Mall. By the time they finally arrive at Buckingham Palace the crowd has already swelled into thousands.
The first bit of action at Friary Court takes place at 10.30 AM when some serious looking policemen come out of the building and move everybody away from the railings. Five minutes later some Foot Guards troop out of the back arch and form up in the square. They're followed by some pipes and drums who arrange themselves in front. Then they all just stand there doing nothing for five minutes. Hopefully you'll be within earshot of that tour guide so you can earwig on his speech.
At 10.40 AM the Captain of the Queen's Guard starts inspecting the soldiers, walking around the front and back of them making sure their hats are on straight and their shoelaces are done up tight, etc.
At 10.43 AM the drums start rolling and the pipes start playing and they march out of Friary Court towards Buckingham Palace. Sixty seconds later they'll all be gone and the pavement crowd will rush away like they're in a running race, trying to follow them up the Mall. If you fancy a bit of exercise then go for it -- see if you can beat them to the palace. This is when that tour guide turns into Billy Crystal in City Slickers and has to corral his cattle up the Mall as quick as he can without losing any of them.
If you want to watch the soldiers returning after the ceremony is over then you need to walk round to the other entrance at Stable Yard by 11.10 AM.
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