15 June 2008

Trooping the Colour

Guardsmen line The Mall before the ceremony

Today the British Army performed Trooping the Colour, its annual demonstration of ceremonial fealty to commemorate the Queen's official birthday. The custom dates back to the 17th century, and since 1748 in King George II's reign the ceremony has been held to commemorate the sovereign's birthday.

Hundreds of starched red-blazered Guardsmen wearing their towering bearskin hats paraded in tightly-choreographed ranks past the Queen to receive her salute and that of the Duke of Edinburgh. Many of the Guardsmen marching have seen active service, and some will be deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. Jingling cavalry squadrons decked out in the mirror-polished breastplates of the Life Guards or the gold-corded tunics of the Royal Horse Artillery also took their turn, displaying the precision riding skills that they still practice.

As the ceremony in Horse Guards Parade is best viewed from the highly sought-after seats in the temporary grandstands, I waited up The Mall near Buckingham Palace instead. After the ceremony the Army units marched and trotted down to the Palace, with military bands including the mounted musicians of the Band of the Household Cavalry playing lively marching tunes.

See below for some of the videos I took. I suggest you select 'watch in high quality' for a better picture if you have the option.

Interspersed with the Army units were open horse-drawn landaus carrying the members of the Royal Family back to the Palace, apart from Princess Anne, whose equestrian skills enabled her to ride with the cavalrymen. First came Princes William and Harry escorting Camilla Parker-Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall. They were followed closely by Prince Edward and other minor royals. After a decent interval came the landau bearing the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, the latter in regimental colours, bearing a sheathed sabre and still wearing his bearskin hat. Must've been hot under there.

The Duchess of Cornwall and Princes William and Harry

The Life Guards

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh

An Army general rides in the procession to the Palace

After the Royal Family entered the Palace gates and retired inside, the crowd gathered close to Buckingham Palace to watch the royal appearance on the balcony, and to observe the Royal Air Force fly-past scheduled for precisely 1.06pm. As a 42-gun artillery salute rang out from the adjacent Green Park the Queen waved to the crowd and spectators' necks craned to look for oncoming aircraft.

As we waited I heard an American tourist marvel that the British monarch travelled in an open carriage and stand in plain view on the Palace balcony, and that civilian airliners were routinely allowed to fly almost directly over the Palace. One genteel English gent nearby assured her that such openness was a mark of British civility, and remarked that tourists often expressed amazement when they viewed Windsor Castle on the approach into Heathrow: 'why did they build the Castle so close to the airport?' they supposedly asked.

The aerial display turned out to be the largest seen in many years, in part to celebrate the RAF's 90th anniversary. The huge convoy of military aircraft that flew over Trafalgar Square and Admiralty Arch, down The Mall and over the Palace stretched 20 miles across London's skies.

In pride of place at the head of the fly-past was the historic flight: the world's only remaining Lancaster bomber still flying, escorted by two Spitfires and two Hurricanes. Then came a long succession of more contemporary RAF aircraft:

- A Hercules transport with two Kingair 200s
- Nine Eurofighter Typhoons
- An E-3 Sentry AWACS craft with a VC10 airtanker
- Nine Tornado fighter-bombers
- A C-17 Globemaster transport
- A Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft from 201 Squadron at RAF Kinloss
- A Tristar transport jet and two HS125 liaison jets
- And finally, 16 Tornado GR4s in a precise diamond formation.

After the spectacular fly-past the royals returned inside the Palace for their lunch and the crowd outside dispersed with the same intention. I overheard a superbly British moment of conversation as the crowd milled in the aftermath of the fly-past: a wife said to her husband, 'ooh, that was spectacular, wasn't it?', to which her husband replied, 'well yes, but my taxes paid for it so it should've been!'

BBC: Queen watches Trooping the Colour
BBC: In pictures
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