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Changing of the Guard: Your Guide to Getting the Best Experience

In the heart of the rampant metropolis of London, a city that artfully blends the ultramodern with the historical, millions of tourists and locals gather annually to witness an age-old ceremony. It’s the Changing of the Guard at the venerable Buckingham Palace, a spectacle steeped in tradition that is indelibly etched into the city’s cultural fabric. A veritable feast for the senses, this event should be an essential item on everyone’s bucket list. So, sit back, relax, and let me guide you through this fascinating experience in the must-do London itinerary. This guide promises to be as enlightening as it is intriguing!

London, the city where you are never too far from a double-decker bus or a quaint English pub, never ceases to fascinate you. It’s a city that is as cosmopolitan as they come, boasting glittering skyscrapers that pierce the sky, vibrant bars abounding with life, and many offbeat and unusual things to keep you entertained. But don’t let the modern exterior fool you, for beneath the bustling cityscape, the city still clings tenaciously to its storied past.

Through centuries-old ceremonies and historic landmarks peppered across the city, tradition remains alive and well, flowing like the timeless Thames that weaves its way through London. One of these quintessential traditions is the Changing of the Guard*, a royal ceremony at Buckingham Palace* that attracts droves of onlookers, curious tourists, and passionate history buffs.

A little confession here – despite our love for all things London, it had been an age since we last witnessed this spectacle. Somehow, this grand display, resplendent with its pomp and pageantry, has unfolded several times a week. Still, we needed to catch up with our hectic schedules to immerse ourselves in this cultural treat. A regrettable oversight indeed, we say with a sheepish grin and a light smack of our forehead. So take our advice; whether you’re a dewy-eyed visitor experiencing the magic of London for the first time, or a seasoned Londoner with the city’s map etched into your memory, make it a point to revel in this ceremonial spectacle at least once.

Thinking of stepping foot into this timeless tradition? We insist, and to help you do it right, here’s everything you need to know.

What to expect at the Changing of the Guard

Simply put, the Changing of the Guard is a ritualistic handover where the Foot Guards, currently tasked with safeguarding the monarchy (also known as the Old Guard), relinquish their duties to be replaced by a fresh batch of soldiers (aptly named the New Guard).

Sounds intricate? Well, it is. But that’s part of the fun!

Kings have always been protected by a host of men. Still, it was in the reign of Henry VII that the Royal Body Guard became a permanent institution. This makes these committed soldiers, over 520-year veterans, at their job of keeping the monarchy safe. 

In a ceremonious spectacle known as Guards Mounting, the Old Guard transfers the mantle of palace protection and a symbolic set of palace keys to the New Guard. This changing of the guard is executed by the Foot Guards, easily identifiable by their imposing black bearskin hats and vivid red tunics (although they sport grey in winter, let’s not quibble over details).

What could have been a straightforward shift change has been transformed into a theatrical military procession, a spectacle marked by a series of intricate marches. Though visually stunning, the ceremony is further elevated by the accompanying harmonies played by the skilled Guards Bands.

You might presume that the band strictly adheres to traditional tunes, but that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. The musical repertoire ranges from old military marches to contemporary pop songs. Be ready to spot popular numbers like the James Bond theme tune or Game of Thrones theme – they’ve been known to appear. It’s a guessing game that adds a layer of fun to the event. So next time you’re there, keep your ears pricked – you never know which familiar tune you might catch.

Best time to see Changing of the Guard

Interestingly, the Changing of the Guard* isn’t just a single event; there are three ceremonies, each with charm and allure. The most famous occurs at Buckingham Palace, which rings a bell with most people. However, two additional ceremonies are held at Horse Guards and further afield in Windsor, where the Queen owns yet another of her majestic castles.

Though each ceremony is magnificent in its own right, the Buckingham Palace event is the grandest. Thus, we’ll be focusing on that ceremony in this article. However, I couldn’t resist sharing a little about the Horse Guards ceremony, in case you’re intrigued and wish to explore that.

You might now wonder where are the best…

Changing of the Guard viewing spots

Well, you have a wealth of options. There are five prime spots to enjoy the ceremony: Friary Court in St James’s Palace, The Mall, The Victoria Memorial, Buckingham Palace Gate, and Wellington Barracks. 

I’d recommend setting up camp at The Victoria Memorial or around Buckingham Palace Gate. Both these locations place you right in the heart of the action – you can see the New Guards making their grand entrance, witness the ceremonial handover, and bid adieu to the departing Old Guards.

Perched on the Victoria Memorial, you are treated to an elevated perspective of the event from its raised steps. And the best part? You won’t need to stake out your spot at the crack of dawn, as you might need to do if you’re vying for a front-row view at the palace gates.

The remaining locations – The Mall, St James’s Palace, and Wellington Barracks – are typically less crowded, giving you more breathing room. However, as per my experience, they offer a different immersive perspective than standing directly in front of Buckingham Palace’s grand, towering gates.

My advice? Experience the Changing of the Guard* at Buckingham Palace* once, soaking in every detail. Then, if you have time on a different day, explore the ceremony from a new vantage point. This way, you get a holistic experience of this grand tradition.

For those interested in diving deeper, consider booking a spot on the Changing of the Guard* Guided Tour. It offers an enriching, in-depth exploration of the ceremony, promising to add even more depth to your experience.

Changing of the Guard schedule

Here’s everything you need to know to plan your visit accordingly. 

This grand spectacle generally occurs on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from January through May and from August to December. If you find yourself in London during the summer months of June and July, you’re in luck! The Changing of the Guard unfolds daily, making fitting into your travel plans even more effortless.

Now, let’s talk timing. The ceremony starts at 10:45 am, with the handover happening at 11 am sharp. However, you should beat the clock and arrive earlier for a fantastic viewing spot. Remember, it’s a popular event, and the best places fill up fast! If you take a Guided Tour of the Changing of the Guard* your guide will make sure you always have the best view.

How long does it last? The main ceremony outside Buckingham Palace runs for around 40 minutes, offering a substantial chunk of pageantry. Now, let’s delve into the step-by-step breakdown of the ceremony schedule.

At 10:40 am, the New Guard gather for inspection at Wellington Barracks. Once the Regimental Colour (flag) arrives, they set off for Buckingham Palace. Meanwhile, at 10:30 am, an Old Guard battalion leaves Friary Court at St James’s Palace, marching in formation towards Buckingham Palace, often accompanied by the rhythmic beats of a marching band or drum corps.

By 10:45 am, these Old Guards from St James’s Palace reach Buckingham Palace and line up alongside the Buckingham Palace Old Guard detachment in the palace’s forecourt. Ten minutes later, at 10:55 am, the New Guards make their grand entrance at Buckingham Palace.

At the stroke of 11 am, in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, the Old Guard, and New Guard present their arms (a salute with their rifles) to each other and exchange the keys to Buckingham Palace. This ceremonious exchange of arms and keys marks the transfer of responsibility from the Old Guard to the New Guard.

Between 11 am and 11:30 am, expect to hear the melodious play of music as the Guards parade their regimental colors. The soldiers are inspected, Officers report to the Senior Captain, and new sentries from the New Guard are posted. A duty Drummer notifies the Director of Music that the handover has been completed and the band reformed at the Centre Gates.

Finally, at 11:35 am, the New Guards march into their positions at Buckingham and St James’s Palace. At the same time, the Old Guards march back to Wellington Barracks.

The best moments to catch the action are when the New Guard arrives at the beginning of the ceremony and when the Old Guard departs at the end. While there’s a lot of marching and music in between, it can be challenging to get a clear view if you’re positioned right outside the palace or on the Victoria Memorial. Much of the action unfolds within the palace forecourt.

Now, let’s briefly touch on the Changing of the Horse Guards. This ceremony occurs at Horse Guards Parade at 11 am on weekdays and 10 am on Sundays. The parade ground is just off Whitehall and is the formal gateway to St James’s and Buckingham Palace. It’s known for the smaller Guards Mounting ceremony in the courtyard and the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony.

The Queen’s Life Guard, which dates back to 1660 when King Charles II was restored to the throne, performs this ceremony. They have been safeguarding the reigning monarch ever since. Unlike the ceremony at Buckingham Palace, the Guards Mounting ceremony at the Horse Guards takes place daily (unless inclement weather causes a cancellation). The Queen’s Life Guard departs the Barracks at Hyde Park at 10:28 am sharp (or 9:28 am on Sundays), marching through Hyde Park Corner, Constitution Hill, and The Mall. The Changing of the Guard ceremony follows shortly after.

Exploring Windsor and the Changing of the Guards Ceremony

A trip to Windsor* can effortlessly include the Changing of the Guards ceremony. However, remember that the ceremony dates vary monthly, so check the official website for the exact schedule. Typically, it occurs on Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays throughout the year, with exceptions on Sundays.

To watch the procession in Windsor without entering the castle, position yourself on Windsor High Street or Corn Exchange – the guards march from these points onto Windsor Castle. If you wish to witness the actual ceremony, purchase a Windsor Castle ticket and arrive there by 11am (a bit earlier is preferable) as it tends to attract large crowds.

Changing of the Guard history

So, why all this pageantry? As many know, England is steeped in tradition, mainly when it involves the monarchy. This particular ceremony harks back to the time of King Henry VII.

The Guard Regiments at the parade were formed in 1656 to safeguard the exiled King Charles II. Composed of the most loyal and skilled soldiers and officers, these regiments are some of the oldest in the British Army.

In fact, a guard regiment has participated in every significant conflict the UK has engaged in since the 1600s, often earning numerous medals for valor and bravery. This historical context adds a new perspective to the “men in funny hats,” right?

How Has the Ceremony Changed?

Interestingly, the ceremony has remained broadly consistent over the years, except for introducing some new music. What has shifted, however, is its location.

Buckingham Palace has only sometimes been the residence of British royalty. It has only served as such since 1837. When the Changing of the Guard ceremony was first initiated, the royals resided at the Palace of Whitehall, their home, until it burnt down in 1698.

Following that unfortunate event, the royals relocated to St James’s Palace, where a changing of the guard still occurs today. Despite the royal family residing at Buckingham Palace, St James’s remains an operational royal building, hosting foreign dignitaries and families visiting London. 

Changing of the Guard facts

1. While commonly called the Changing of the Guard, the ceremony’s formal name is Guard Mounting.

2. The guards’ hats are 18 inches tall and weigh 1.5 pounds each.

3. If you obstruct the guards’ path, they won’t divert their march around you; instead, you will be asked to “make way for the Queen’s Guards.”

4. The guards are trained to tolerate and disregard public nuisances. However, they can point their weapons at a person and restrain them in severe cases.

5. When the King is in residence and relaxing at home, four sentries guard Buckingham Palace. The King is likely away if there are only two guards, perhaps at Windsor Castle or Scotland.

6. The Household Guard is divided into five regiments. At first glance, they might appear the same, but differences lie in the color and placement of the plume on their hats, as well as their button spacing. See if you can spot these subtle distinctions.

7. The guards switch their uniforms between the winter and summer months. While the iconic bright red tunics are worn in summer, a heavier, muted-grey tunic replaces it in the colder months. Regardless of the season, the bearskin hat remains a constant part of their uniform.

How to prepare for the Changing of the Guard

1. Be vigilant about your belongings, as pickpockets often target the crowds gathered for the ceremony.

2. Arriving at Buckingham Palace exceptionally early (around 45 minutes prior) secures a good vantage point. Still, it also involves a considerable wait before the ceremony begins. We suggest arriving 10 minutes earlier. You might not get the perfect spot, but it will suffice – almost all viewpoints provide a clear view of the New Guard marching to the palace and the Old Guard leaving after their relief.

3. Remember that the ceremony might be canceled last minute due to poor weather. This is a classic case of British weather dictating events. If the forecast predicts heavy rain, check ahead, but brace for potential cancellation close to the start time.

4. Pay attention to the flag flying above Buckingham Palace. If it’s the Royal Standard instead of the Union Jack, it signifies that the King resides in the palace. He might even be observing the crowd from a window.

5. Victoria, St James’s, and Green Park are the closest underground stations to Buckingham Palace. Alternatively, a comfortable walk from Hyde Park Corner station can also lead you there.

6. Although the information provided should suffice for your visit, if you wish to participate in a guided tour, consider booking this one for an insightful and enjoyable experience.

Get your Tickets for Changing of the Guard – Guided Walk

The Changing of the Guard is a spectacle rooted in tradition and a symbol of British heritage that is sure to leave you with lasting memories of your trip to the UK.

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