Title buckingham-palace-morning

Changing The Guard – The Wrong Way To Do It

Post Date: Saturday 16th November 2013

Author: Matt Gedge

My most popular walking tour of London is undoubtedly the Changing the Guard Tour. My groups get to witness a ceremony with universal appeal, and see an iconic display of ‘Britishness’ which draws crowds from across the globe.

Title buckingham-palace-morning

The two hours wizz by, and aside from my historical – and obviously incredibly entertaining – commentary, we are all enthralled by the dazzling display of colour and music as we march through Royal London.

Unfortunately, many tourists are not aware or indifferent to guided tours and so decide to experience the Guard Change by finding a place outside the gates of Buckingham Palace an hour before the ceremony (or two hours in the summer), and simply wait. If you happen to observe their expressions or overhear their comments you’ll realise that a large number of these people go away from the event disappointed.

sitting-at-palace

I hadn’t experienced the ceremony like this since I was a child, so to have empathy with what the ceremony is like outside of a guided tour, I decided to take a day off, wrap up warm and take my camera over to join the crowds at Buckingham Palace.

 

I arrived just after 10am, fortunately found a place by the railings, got my portable seat out and started chatting to the people nearby. One couple came from Calcutta and another had travelled from Argentina. On my other side someone had brought their suitcases to sit on. The early morning sun was shining, and combined with the lack of crowds (mid-November is one of the quietest times for tourism in London), I was pretty happy with my lot.

As time ticked by, the crowds swelled. The wind had started to whip up, feeling quite bitter. I put my scarf on. After an hour or so, the Old Guard assembled on far side of the courtyard of Buckingham Palace for an inspection. As the crowd pushed forward, I tried to squeeze my head through the bars to get a better view but couldn’t see much.

 

crushed-at-buck-palace
At around 11.15 I heard the faint noise of drums and pipes from the Mall. Stuck against the railings with a few hundred people and the giant Victoria Memorial between me and the band, I had a feeling of detachment from the action. As the guards got closer I saw absolutely nothing until they appeared on the Palace courtyard. There was a palpable sense of excitement around me. “What will happen next?” seemed to be the collective question. Well, nothing really happened. The members of the just arrived Old Guard and their accompanying Corp of Drums stood at ease while three soldiers – one carrying the regimental colour (flag)- marched from the gate to the Palace and back again. For 15 minutes. I heard grumbles of “This is boring!” and “It’s like watching animals in the zoo!”
view-of-guards

By this point I was really feeling the biting cold. Standing still for an hour and a half isn’t much fun. And any warmth created by the huddle of tourists was being countered by the discomfort in my back and legs as I was squashed against the railings. The Indian couple left. More people surged into their vacated position.

 

After quarter of an hour of clock watching we heard a band approaching. It was quite disorientating as the noise seemed to be coming from all directions, taken by the wind and perhaps bouncing off the Palace. Despite the fact the New Guard (who had come from Wellington Barracks) passed less than 15 feet from me, I could barely see the tops of their bearskins above the hundreds of heads and scores of outstretched hands holding cameras.

Once the New Guard entered the courtyard of Buckingham Palace finally I had a good view of proceedings. As the band ceased playing, we witnessed lots of shuffling of feet, indecipherable shouts to attention and marching around, most of which must have been utterly confusing for the casual spectator.

Ten minutes later some of the New Guard exited (the First Relief), and we were left observing the Old Guard facing the New Guard, motionless, for about twenty five minutes.

guard-change
In all honesty, this wasn’t a fantastic spectacle! As more cold and disappointed people left, finally I had space to shake my feet about and try to stop the numbness getting a grip. Fortunately the band of the Coldstream Guard were getting ready to play some music to entertain us. To their credit they played some great stuff, with the crowd’s spirits being lifted by a series of Abba tunes to dance along to (if there was space).
ceremonial-band
After around 15 minutes the Ceremonial Band had packed away their stands and joined the Old Guard as they left the courtyard, leaving the remaining members of the New Guard to take their position in the Palace. And that was it! After over two hours of standing still I was rather glad to extricate myself from the area and head to a local café for a cup of tea to thaw out. The whole experience of seeing the Changing the Guard from this perspective was worth doing as an experiment, yet absolutely something I will not do again. Considering this was November, where crowds are thin, I can only imagine how suffocating the experience would be over Christmas, Easter or throughout the summer.
The sense of grandeur which resonates through the ceremony is largely lost when in the ‘prime position’ at Buckingham Palace, and one is always too far from the action to really make sense of it. The key moments where the senior officer of the Old Guard shakes left hands with the senior officer of the New Guard, has a chat and proceeds into the Palace is so quick and distant that if you looked away for a minute you’d miss it, while the individual Guard Change requires a zoom lens to adequately photograph.
palace-railings

Through this experience I can understand why many Londoners give the ceremony a wide birth; it takes a lot of convincing to encourage someone who lives here to appreciate that the Guard Change is something which really can be fun and entertaining.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should come along on my Changing the Guard Tour!

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