Thursday, June 19, 2014

London: Day 4, Wednesday

June, watching the guards watch us

The girls and mom (half-hidden in the back) in the flying car

So this time we didn't sleep in too late to see the Buckingham Palace changing of the guards: alarms set, up, coffee, dressed, out the door. The day was again gray, but the rain had eased. The bus again, this time to Buckingham Palace (Or close enough. There was a bit of walk, again with a straying blue map dot, but we followed the crowds and got there well enough.)

Word was, get there early if you want to see much — the crowds pile up towards guard-changing time. And we had indeed followed this advice: plenty early. So we got the girls stationed in an A-1 spot, right at the fence, straight line of sight to where all the shenanigans would be taking place. We spent a while watching the two guys out front (in their archetypal red uniforms with giant bear fur hats), marveling at how still they were, how tired they must get of just standing there all that time, gawking at their periodic perfectly synced struts back and forth. And we got tired of standing there all that time. The adults took turns wondering around, checking out the adjacent sites (as the girls vigilantly stood their watch).

We'd wound up next to a couple from Australia. He was originally from England and had served in the British navy. They wore matching race jackets with lots of patches. If they were American, I would have pegged them as NASCAR buffs, but in the Anglo-Australian context, I wasn't sure what the jackets signified. The man turned out to be a font of information, a total Brit-military buff, giving perfect narration as the guard-changing finally got underway: the bit of green worn by the one guard indicated he was Welsh; the guy in charge wore a red sash so if he got shot, his troops wouldn't see his blood and be demoralized; when the guys in red weren't being the guys in red, they drove tanks; the bear fur hats were maintained for generations (ooh, funky); today was a special once-a-decade changing of the colors;1 and much more. (It's possible I've mangled some of these factoids in my memory. And I can't independently vouch for the verity of his statements.)

The actual changing of the guard was far more complex and lengthy than I'd anticipated and has become something of a blur in my brain. Early on, some little band of red-jacketed guys showed up. Literally a band, banging and tooting. They were, surprisingly, out of tune (maybe tank drivers don't make the best musicians), but they were impressive nonetheless. Eventually a bunch of red guys wound up in formation, with the main guy (with the red sash) barking incomprehensible orders at them to fine-tune their positions. The red guys would shuffle slightly one way or another until their alignment was perfectly peachy keen. More stuff happened, the guy in the sash barking more incomprehensible orders, red guys marching back and forth in precise patterns. And then they all stood really still. At some point during all of this, a big real band (also of guys in red) had shown up, and they started playing: proper marches, and then, surreally, a Michael Jackson medley. More pop songs. More marches.

The girls were riveted. After a while, my attention started to wane. I eventually yielded my spot (for which I imagine the non-six-foot-three people behind me were grateful) and meandered about, watching the tourists watch the ceremonies. And finally it all ended. We hoofed back the way we came, stopping at a gift shop so the girls could blow some of their disposable vacation cash. June bought a stuffed Corgi ('cause y'know, the queen has corgis). And then our little group split up. Sarah went on her way for a little solo shopping and museum time. The rest of us headed on our way, in preparation for the day's other main event, a visit to Universal Studios, outside London, where they'd filmed Harry Potter! (The girls were very excited.)

The bus to the studios departed mid-afternoon from Victoria Station. We had time to kill. I found another little Indian restaurant. While we ate, older couples, the men in suits, the ladies in fancy itty little hats, kept walking buy. (I'd learned from watching Sarah watch the royal wedding a while back that these hats were called "fascinators".) But there was a slightly puzzling aspect: subtle little details of attire indicated that these couples weren't necessarily particularly "posh" — suits not quite expensive enough and so forth. Finally (happily), one of these couples came in and ate at the restaurant, and my mother, while standing in line for the bathroom (I mean "loo"), learned from the wife that the men were all former red-jacketed guards,2 and all the couples would later be attending some garden party in honor of the once-a-decade changing of the colors. Ah! Mystery solved.

At last, the bus to the studios. I took a nap (until June woke me up to ask me what time it was, even though my wide-awake mother was right there and could just as easily have informed her3). And at last, the tour commenced. The whole thing was a photo bonanza, everyone with cell phones out, snapping at everything in site. I leant June my camera, and during the tour, she took about a thousand (mostly blurry) shots. We wondered through the Great Hall and past many other sets, down Diagon Alley, and onward. It was indeed all very cool. My personal favorite part was actually the displays of the original artists' conceptions: the drawings (which were lovely, both technically and in the richness of their imaginings) and the models, fascinating to see the first steps from the written word to the visual representation. And of course the tour ended by shuttling us directly into the gift shop, where June spent about half-an-hour trying to figure out what to get, and eventually wound up with about fifteen pounds (money pounds) worth of Harry Potter candy. And then the bus home. The tube. More bus.


1 We weren't exactly sure what the "changing of the colors" meant. Apparently somewhere some significant flag was being swapped out. It didn't actually impact the actual ceremony we were watching, but at one point, a whole bunch of guys on horses, wearing shiny gold helmets (some of them playing instruments), rode by, headed off to wherever the color changing was actually occurring (and where supposedly, some important royal personage — the asserted personage varied — would be in attendance). Dunno. The guys on horses looked cool.

2 I keep talking about "red-jacketed guards". What are they really called? I wanted to call them "Beefeaters," but I think those are the red-jacketed guys at the Tower of London, not the palace. Hmm...

3 June always really likes to know what time it is.