London is filled with museums that beg for a tourists attention, but few in my opinion are quite as immersed in living tradition and regimental finery as the Household Cavalry Museum. This little pocket of history, tucked away on the Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall, is an absolute must visit for anyone who is interested in the Military, the history of the United Kingdom, and most importantly – horses! For where else in this beautiful city can you stumble upon coal black Irish Draught Horses, groomed to a velvety sheen, and get to stroke them too? While I studied at university in London, I would head over here every time I felt severe pangs of horse-withdrawal syndrome and I would always leave feeling immensely happier. So it brings me great pleasure to finally write an article about the Household Cavalry Museum and urge anyone – tourist or Londoner to go and visit.
The best way to get those most of this experience is to show up around 1050h for the Changing of the Guard, spend an hour or two in the Museum (there’s a lot to see), then disappear off to find some lunch and wander around beautiful St James’ Park before finally coming back for the 1600h Garrison Inspection. Each experience is quite different so I strongly recommend trying to do them all.
11.00 – The Changing of the Guard
Every morning at 1100h, there is a changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at Horse Guards – the headquarters of the Household Division, which is the formal entrance to St James’ Palace. Only the Queen is allowed to drive through the central archway, or those who have been given a pass (which was once made of ivory). This daily ceremony has remained somewhat unchanged for over 350 years. Horse Guards is alternately manned by members of the Life Guards (scarlet tunics) and the Blues and Royals (navy tunics), and every morning, a new guard rides over from the Knightsbridge Barracks in Hyde Park and the old guard is relieved of their duty.
The Household Cavalry Museum
As I mentioned previously, this isn’t just your usual museum full of cabinets of artefacts, it’s a living museum, where you can see the troopers busy hard at work in the original 18th century stables, via video you can hear stories from the soldiers, first hand accounts of what the rigorous and demanding training is like, and you can even get dressed up in the uniform! However, the museum does have a number of artefacts and each of them seems to be more interesting than the last. You could spend all day hearing about the stories behind each item. I’ve decided to include a few of my favourite artefacts below with their back stories to give you a small taste of what you can get at the museum.
The first thing to catch your eye when you buy your tickets is a display of the different uniforms of the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals. While they may look very extravagant, it was fascinating to learn how each part of the uniform had a very important function. To start off with, in addition to the plated vest, the fish scale strap, the collar and the chin strap all worked to protect the wearer from a sword by either stopping it or deflecting it off. The gold braided rope could serve as a makeshift halter and lead for the horse should they need one in an emergency and the spike at the end was pushed into the top of any cannons discovered during reconnaissance and broken off. This prevented gunpowder from being added to the cannon and used against their troop by enemy forces.
You’ll notice when you see the troopers, that some of them wear their chin strap differently, with very few actually wearing it beneath the chin. Typically the Blues and Royals wear it just on the chin and the Life Guards wear it on the lip. The helmet is very heavy and precarious to balance without a chin strap, so the wearing of the chin strap on the chin (instead of under) or even on the lip, was a sign to the enemy of how skilled the riders were, that they didn’t even need the helmet strap when riding into battle. It is said that in one battle they even pushed the strap right up onto their foreheads!
A last piece of interesting info is regarding the plumes worn above the helmet. The Blues and Royals wear red plumes which originally were made from hairs from the belly of yaks, while the Life Guards wear white plumes, originally made from shredded whale bones, recycled from the bodices/corsets of Victorian ladies! These are all made of man made fibres nowadays though.
If you see a troop of cavalry riders and one is carrying an axe – then he is the farrier. The giant spike at the side of the axe was used to kill a horse swiftly if necessary, and on a slightly morbid note, the axe was used to chop off the horses hooves. It would appear that a long time ago, when the soldiers were given these very expensive, luxury horses, they tended to sell them for some extra money and then come back to the regiment and state that their horse had died. So it became practice that if a horse died, you had to chop off its hooves and bring them in as evidence. The reason this worked is that each horse of the Household Cavalry has a regimental number branded into its hooves which could not be duplicated. A special horses hooves were often used to make little keepsakes (such as a snuff box) out of respect for the horse.
The painting below is of Colonel Frederick Burnaby, a British army intelligence officer who was a legendary figure among Victorian society for his adventures, pioneering achievements and famed swashbuckling courage. He was 6ft 4 inches – a giant among men which surely added to his fame. He learned the art of ballooning, travelled around Central Asia and Europe, spoke a number of different languages fluently, stood for parliament twice, published a number of books (including A Ride to Khiva, pictured below) and was the object of affection of all the ladies!
He was a favourite of Queen Victoria, and it is said then when she went into mourning after Prince Albert died, he invited her over to inspect the troops at Windsor. When she arrived he was not waiting outside to receive her which would have been conceived a big slight, but moments later he walked out carrying a Shetland pony under each arm and presented them to the Queen as a gift. I’m sure she forgave him his absence! I think he’s my new hero in any case.
I particularly liked the story behind this next item, a trophy from the Earl of Zetland. It was traditional for Officers to give a gift to their troop when they left, but this particular man, the Earl of Zetland wasn’t much for acts of kindness and didn’t give anything. When questioned about it, he ordered them to buy themselves something from him and charge it to him. So they went out and had this beautiful trophy made of solid silver and charged him what would nowadays amount to about one million pounds!
I mentioned previously that special horses had their hooves preserved when they die, and Sefton was certainly a special horse.
On 20th July 1982, at 10.40am Sefton was one of the horses en route to the Changing of the Guard with 15 other horses when a nail bomb was detonated by the IRA, hitting the formation of riders from the Blues and Royals, killing 2 soldiers on the scene with 2 more dying later from wounds. A second explosion in Regent’s Park killed another 7 soldiers. 7 horses were injured so badly they had to be put down, and Sefton had the most serious injuries of the surviving horses, having been hit by 34 nails, which severed the jugular vein and wounded his left eye. He was taken to the forge where the emergency operation began by Major Carding who was ‘the first of the British Army’s veterinary officers to operate on war-like wounds to a cavalry horse in more than half a century’. They managed to save all the horses who were brought back. Sefton went through 8 hours of surgery and though he had a 50/50 chance of recovery he made good progress and returned to his regimental duties, often passing that exact same spot. He was subsequently awarded “Horse of the Year” and became one of the first horses to be placed in the British Horse Society’s equestrian Hall of Fame.
Before you leave the museum, I strongly recommend spending some time in the museums half of the stables where you can take a closer look at some of the tack used, including bridles and saddles and also indulge the inner child in all of us by dressing up in regimental uniform!
St James’ Park
All of this should take you to about 1 or 2pm, at which point I recommend you take a wander around St James Park and grab a bite to eat. One of the many Royal Parks of London, St James’ Park always feels a little different to me, perhaps because of its proximity to Buckingham Palace, it’s almost an in between park. However it’s filled with a wonderful array of wildlife, so I spent a few hours sitting on a bench watching all the varieties of geese, ducks and swans swim by.
The view back to Horse Guards across the lake is quite magical, especially with all the different chimneys and steeples – I love the skyline of London.
16.00 – Garrison Inspection
For me, the garrison inspection was probably the highlight of the day, despite the presence of only one horse. This tradition started during the reign of Queen Victoria, during the days of Empire when there were a lot of attempts on her life. When driving past in the carriage one day, she asked to stop off to see what her bodyguards were up to, and found the soldiers betting on cock fights in a pit in the basement. Not at all alert and watching out for her safety at all! As a result a daily garrison inspection was imposed for the next 100 years, and while this technically ended in 1994, the current Queen requested that it continue on. So at 4pm all the soldiers dutifully march outside and line up to be inspected by an officer who makes his way over from Knightsbridge for the occasion every day. There is something to be said about a man in uniform, and even more so when that uniform is comprised of such beautifully polished leather, shockingly red tunics and shimmering metal swords. The smartness and poise of the soldiers could only be overshadowed by the elegance of the Lieutenant in his navy dress coat with two subtle gold pips on his shoulders. It was certainly a lot of fun to watch him inspect the garrison and chat and laugh with his troopers.
The whole day at the Household Cavalry Museum and Horse Guards was a really wonderful, totally immersive experience, from seeing the guard in action, stroking the horses on duty, finding out all about the history of the regiment to dressing up in the uniform. A very special thanks must go to Alice Pearson, Museum Director, for showing me around and telling me so many interesting stories about the Cavalry. The Museum seems to be going from strength to strength with all sorts of interesting and unusual events planned in the future. Even if you take away my strong bias to love a museum with live in horses, this is without a doubt one of the best museums in London, and it really deserves more recognition.
To find out more about The Household Cavalry Museum, check out their website.