Saturday Special for May 21 – Horseguards

London calling. London Walks here with the Saturday Special. Yes, that’s right, just like that the Friday Special’s morphed into the Saturday Special. For this week at any rate. 

And this Saturday Special means today’s the day we put out two podcasts: the daily Today in London History podcast. And a special, a wild card. What you’re listening to now. 

And why today? Why a Saturday rather than the usual Friday? What happened? This offered up on that good old Chinese bit of wisdom: to understand all is to forgive all. What happened was I was going to interview Londoner Marc, the Belgian-born violinist and proprietor of the the most interesting and attractive shop in West Hampstead. Interview him for this week’s Friday Special. In fact I did interview Marc. But – stuff happens – there were technical problems with the recording. I’ll be re-doing the interview and putting it out in a week or two. Yes, on a Friday. But said “stuff happens” episode scuppered this week’s Friday Special scheduling.  

So here we are, specialiing away on a Saturday.

And what I thought I’d do for this one – yes, it’s a substitute, an understudy – what I thought I’d do is a bit of guiding. How about if i show you round Horse Guards? Give you a free sample, a taster of some of what you get when I guide that bit of London. 

In other words, let’s see it with my eyes for a few minutes. Which, after all, is what happens on a London Walk. It’s why people go on London Walks. It’s what they want, what they’re seeking, what they’re paying for. 

Let’s start up top and work down. Start with the clock. Three points here. 1. Until Big Ben came along in May of 1859 this was London’s public clock. 2. Closer look now – notice the black marking at 2 o’clock. That’s there because that’s the hour when Charles I was beheaded just over the way, on the scaffold they’d put up outside the Banqueting House. It was a black mark in royal history. That black square at 2 o’clock on the clock high up on the Horse Guards gatehouse is a permanent reminder of what happened at that moment on that January day in 1649. 3. Ok, let’s look some more at the clock. Can you see it? Look at the hours first and then the minutes. The hours are in Roman numerals, the minutes in Arabic numerals. Clock it. You won’t see another clockface like it. At least not in this country. 

Ok, move the eye down from the clock, past the pediment, down to the grand window just over the archway. Through that window you’re looking into the Duke of Wellington’s office when he was Commander in Chief of the British armed forces.

Yes, the Duke of Wellington, the greatest British military leader of them all, he of Waterloo victory fame. 

When you see the duty officer ride through that arch after the 4 pm inspection think of Wellington – a man of precision and habit if there ever was one – mounting his horse there at 4 pm every day and riding off toward Buckingham Palace and up Constitution Hill to Apsley House, his grand residence at Hyde Park Corner.

Actually, 2 pm isn’t the only hour of note at Horse Guards. There’s a great story behind that daily 4 pm inspection. It was 4 pm one day in 1894 that Queen Victoria found the entire guard gambling and drinking. Her response: she ordered a daily inspection at 4 pm for the next 100 years. The guards call it the “punishment parade.” And yes, it’s become a tradition. It still takes place at 4 pm every day.

A word about the sentries. There are four of them, two mounted, two on foot. There’s a subtle hierarchy there. The guards on foot earned the lowest marks at the morning, in-house inspection at the Knightsbridge Barracks. Standing guard on foot is their punishment for their poor showing. The mounted guards came first in the class. Being one of the two mounted guards is highly desirable. You get to sit. And there’s the 4 pm quit. That in itself is a reward. And a perk for the male guards. Attractive young female tourists have been known to write their name and telephone number on a little piece of paper, fold it up, and drop it into their boots.

Finally, let’s have a look at the horses. A close look. See something none of the tourists ever notice.

And by the way, please do heed the prominently displayed notice. Every word in capital letters. BEWARE – HORSES MAY KICK OR BITE! 

In the words of a Life Guard, these horses aren’t like any civilian horse – some of them are real tyrants.

Now look closely at the front hooves of the horses. On the left front hoof the ferrier has engraved a number. That’s the horse’s registration number. On the right front hoof  there are some initials. Those are the initials of the regiment the horse belongs to. LG, for example, is for Life Guards.

There’s a story of course. A long time ago there was some reprehensible behaviour going on. Some of the guards were selling their horse, pocketing the cash and then claiming a new horse from the army.

To put a stop to it the army began the practice of having the ferrier put the identifying marks on the horse’s hooves.

Now what’s next doesn’t make pretty listening to. The ferrier’s axe is a two-part affair: it’s an axe with a spike. The spike was for putting down a badly wounded horse. The axe was for chopping off the front hooves of the horse. Those hooves had to be presented to the horse registration department of the army for the guard to get a replacement horse. They were the proof that the horse really was dead and there was nothing underhanded going on. I.E., the horse hadn’t gone AWOL thanks to some shady salesmanship on the part of a guard with an eye on the main chance.

And there’s a further step taken in aid of the army’s keeping track of its horseflesh.

It’s broadly similar to car registration numbers. You can tell how old a car is from its car registration number.

Well, similarly, the horses in the household cavalry will each have a name the first letter of which corresponds to the year it joined. So the horse of one of the Duty Commanding Officers is named Octave. In the Registration book Octave will have the initial O in front of his unique registration number. So they know at glance which year Octave joined up. And know his age, within a year. The horses are normally four to five years old when they join the army.

Well, there’s much much more. That’s just five or six point outs – and a couple of minutes of guiding – on that particular walk. I trust it goes some way toward making the case that you see a lot more – and understand a lot more – if you see London through the eyes of a London Walks.

See you next Friday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *