Saturday, March 19, 2011

They’re changing guards at Buckingham Palace...

The Australian Coach: power windows.

Christopher Robin went down with Alice. And I’m sure you’ll remember the rest of the A A Milne poem, but if not, here ‘tis:

Alice is marrying one of the guard. 
"A soldier's life is terribly hard,"
Says Alice.
They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We saw a guard in a sentry-box.
"One of the sergeants looks after their socks,"
Says Alice.
They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace - 
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We looked for the King but he never came.
"Well, God take care of him, all the same,"
Says Alice.
They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace - 
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
They've great big parties inside the grounds.
"I wouldn't be King for a hundred pounds,"
Says Alice.
They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace - 
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
A face looked out, but it wasn't the King's.
"He's much too busy a-signing things,"
Says Alice.
The other day I decided to come over all tourist-like and went down to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. This occurs at 11.30 am every morning in the summer, but at this time of year Her Majesty’s Palace apparently requires less guarding, because the ceremony happens only every second day (on the odd-numbered dates), and, moreover, is “weather-permitting”, which seems a little wimpish. The guards do, after all have those enormous busbies to keep out the elements.

Buckingham Palace. I knocked, but they wouldn't let me in.

As it turned out, I enjoyed a nice walk from Hyde Park Corner through St James Park where the daffodils are gamely thrusting their heads up, looking for sunshine and finding it only occasionally. I arrived at the front gates of the Palace in good time, but found the forecourt area, and everywhere as far as the eye could see, just about, already swarming with tourists – and not a Britisher amongst  them, unless you count the bobbies in their distinctive helmets, working on crowd control. They were Eastern Europeans, in the main, clearly very enthusiastic to see some British Royal pomp and circumstance. My first lesson of the day: don’t even think about coming back in the summer holiday season.

Crowd-control bobbies.

A hold-the-camera-over-your-head shot.
I milled about in the crowd a bit, but could soon stand it no longer. After standing on tip-toes and attempting some of those rather pointless hold-the-camera-over-your-head shots, I decamped around the corner to The Royal Mews. I managed there to absorb a little Royal pomp and circumstances before the crowd at the front of the palace got tired of the busbies and joined me.

My second lesson of the day: the word “mews” comes from falconry. Apparently falcons are said to be “mewling” when they are moulting their feathers. Richard II built a “mews” for his “mewling” falcons – apparently he had many – on a site now occupied by the National Gallery near Charing Cross. Later that site was given over to horses, when the Royal Stables in Bloomsbury burnt down in 1537, but it still retained the name “mews”. When George IV (the Prince Regent who was) had John Nash do an overhaul of Buckingham Palace, the royal mews was moved to the present location behind the Palace (about 1822).

The view from afar.

And speaking of falcons - here's a somewhat relevant tidbit: I learnt the other day that someone in charge of keeping St Pancras pigeon-free brings in falcons every few weeks to chase them away. This came up in a discussion about the headless dead pigeon which is currently reclining outside my spare bedroom window, a possible falcon victim. I thought you'd want to know that. I wonder where the modern falcons are kept. In a mews?

I rather enjoyed my tour of the Royal Mews, for a few reasons. One, I saw some of the current real live horses that pull the royal coaches (the Mews is a working stable, and lots of people live there); secondly the display of carriages was interesting; and thirdly because everyone should see that garish and extraordinary Royal Coronation coach once in their life.

As to the horses, they each have their own stall with their name and date of birth signed on it. It is said that the present Queen is fond of her horses, and gets involved in naming them, which is rather sweet.

'Concorde' en su casa.
As to the coaches, there is the Glass Coach in which the royal brides ride to their weddings. I am not sure if ‘Miss Middleton’, as the respectful British press call Prince William’s fiancé, will get to ride in the Glass Coach on April 29th this year. It is frequently remarked that the wedding will not be ‘a state occasion’, because William is ‘only’ second in line to the throne. These matters of protocol are both beyond me and rather uninteresting; but nevertheless I think Miss Middleton should get to ride in one or other of the dozens of gilded coaches they have there in the Mews – after all, how often do they get to be used?  Grab the opportunity, I say.

For the brides.
I was also interested in the specimen called ‘The Australian Coach’, which was a gift to her Majesty on the occasion of Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988 (quite why that particular occasion merited such a gift, I can’t say. But now is not the time to speculate about colonial kow-towing, convicts sent half a world away, and other such fraught things.) This coach looks just like the other more venerable gilded and curlicued examples, but it has – get this – power windows. And heating. Apparently it boasts a ride as comfortable as the vintage Rolls Royce also looked after in The Mews with the other Royal Vehicles.

But the Coronation coach – words almost fail me. It is a massive, thoroughly-gilded thing, heavily endowed with writhing Tritons and lined with red plush. It was commissioned by George III in 1765 when he was 21 years old. It weighs four tonnes and needs eight horses to draw it. Its panels are painted by Florentine artists, its braces are of Morocco leather, and liveried postillions ride the horses. The coach is 7.3 metres long, 2.5 metres wide and 3.9 metres high. The framework is worked into eight palm trees whose branches support the roof of the coach, and lion’s heads emerge from the trees. The sea gods and so on are meant to celebrate British victory over the French in the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763).

The Coronation Coach. Slightly ridiculous?

The coach has been used for the coronation of every monarch since George IV (‘Prinny’) who complained that his Coronation procession was “one of the most uncomfortable rides I have ever had in my life”. His brother, William IV, tried to get out of riding in it, but everyone insisted. It has also been used for ferrying the monarch to openings of Parliament, although Queen Victoria wouldn’t use it after the death of Albert. During the Blitz, the coach was moved to the country seat of the Earl of Rosebery, carefully avoiding low bridges on the way there (3.9 metres high, remember). They have to dismantle the building it is in at The Mews in order to get the thing out.

A gilded Triton. Victory at sea.

It was used at the Coronation of the present Queen on 2 June 1953 (we skim lightly over the fact that the day was cold and rainy – what else?), after being re-gilded and new cushions put in. When it was taken out for street rehearsals, there was a huge traffic jam. It also made a couple of appearances for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977 and the Golden Jubilee in 2002.

A modern coach.

But the horses are the stars. The horses which the Royal family ride regularly aren’t kept here, but at a Mews at Windsor Castle. Here in London there are 34 horses. The most famous (apparently) are the ten Windsor Greys which draw the carriages. They are chosen, it seems, for their steady temperament and stamina. In preparation for pulling the huge State Coach, eight Greys are trained by pulling a carriage with rubber tyres, to which are gradually added sandbags until it weighs four tonnes.  They are trained at the Mews in the Riding School there; and have to learn to get used to London traffic too.  There are also some bays, which are used to draw the carriages that go to pick up ambassadors and High Commissioners and so on.

Yes, the horses were the stars. Thirty-four of ‘em, right in Central London. Strange place, England.

A A Milne fans may like this site.  A brief survey of the web leads to the slightly embarrassing conclusion that reference to A A Milne's poem when talking about Buckingham Palace is very far from original.

They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace - 
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
"Do you think the King knows all about me?"
"Sure to, dear, but it's time for tea,"
Says Alice

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