For many Londoners, an opportunity to see the Queen means heading to Buckingham Palace to watch her wave from the balcony – or standing in the Mall to watch as her carriage goes by.

Given that, we thought we’d take the time to have a quick look at the history of The Mall, an important player in events like the annual Trooping the Colour.

This one kilometre long grand processional route which links Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace, was originally cut through St James’s Park in 1660 when King Charles II was looking for a new paille-maille pitch (see our earlier entry on Pall Mall for more on this). Two long avenues of trees were planted on either side, giving it a leafy feel that’s still in evidence today.

The Mall had become notorious by the 18th century and was spruced up in 1911 under the eye of Sir Aston Webb (who also designed other elements in the area including a new facade for Buckingham Palace, the Queen Victoria Memorial in front of the palace, and Admiralty Arch at the western end of the route) to become the grand avenue, complete with red-carpet like surface (this was done later), that it is today.

It is bordered by St James’s Park on the south side and on the north side is overlooked by various grand buildings – including Clarence House and the Institute of Contemporary Arts – as well as, toward the western end, Green Park.

These days the Queen publicly processes down The Mall for a number of events throughout the year – among them are the State Opening of Parliament (held earlier this month) as well as military ceremonies like Trooping the Colour and events like last year’s Royal Wedding when is it said that more than a million people were said to have filled the broad street.

The Mall is also the route along which Heads of State process in a horse drawn carriage during official visits (the road is then decorated with Union Jacks and flags of the visitor’s country). During the Olympics, it will be the start and end location of the marathons and cycling road races.

Apart from the Queen Victoria Memorial at the eastern end of The Mall, statues and monuments lining the road include the Queen Mother Memorial, a statue of explorer Captain James Cook, and a recently installed statue of cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin.

There are apparently a series of tunnels underneath with link Buckingham Palace with Whitehall.

We should also briefly mention Horseguards, which is at The Mall’s eastern end and where Trooping the Colour and Beating Retreat takes place. This was formerly the site of a tiltyard of the Palace of Whitehall and jousting tournaments were held here during the time of King Henry VIII. It has been used for parades and ceremonies since the 17th century. While cars were parked here for much of the 20th century, this practice was stopped in the mid-1990s.

The fourth in a line of parks stretching from Kensington Palace to Westminster, St James’s Park largely owes its foundation to King James I. 

Given its early history is covered in our earlier post, we’ll skip forward to the time of King Charles II when, under to instruction of Frenchman Andre Mollet, the park was redesigned with new landscaping including wide lawns, avenues of trees and a wide, centrally positioned canal. It was King Charles II who also opened the park up to the public (he even mingled with them there along with his mistress Nell Gwynn). Interestingly the first pelicans were also introduced to the park around this time when the Russian ambassador presented a pair of pelicans to the king.

In the 18th century, Horse Guards Parade was added to the park by filling in one end of the park’s canal and was later used for parades. The ceremonies of Beating Retreat and Trooping the Colour are still held there today.

The next major changes came in the 19th century when in 1827-28, architect John Nash oversaw a more romantically inspired renovation, including the transformation of the canal into a natural looking lake and the addition of winding paths, as part of his grand scheme which still shapes much of London today.

It was also at this time that The Mall (which like Pall Mall takes it name from the game of Pelle Melle – see our earlier post) was transformed into a grand processional route (it was opened to traffic later, in 1887). The park, bounded to the west by Buckingham Palace, also takes in the Queen Victoria Memorial – completed in 1914 to replace the Marble Arch which was moved to its current location at the corner of Oxford Street and Park Lane in 1851 – and flower beds which are planted annually with 12,000 geraniums, the color of which is chosen to match the guardsmen’s tunics.

Meanwhile, in 1837, the Ornothological Society of London erected a cottage for the birdkeeper (the thatched cottage can still be seen there today and the post of birdkeeper still exists). The first bridge was placed across the lake in 1851 (and replaced in 1951 with the one that now stands there).

Little has changed in the 23 hectare (58 acre) park since Nash’s day. Newer facilities include a restaurant and a playground at the western end.

WHERE: St James’s Park (nearest tube station is St James’s Park); WHEN: 5am to midnight daily; COST: Free entry; WEBSITE: www.royalparks.gov.uk/St-Jamess-Park.aspx 

PICTURE: © Anne Marie Briscombe  (courtesy Royal Parks)

This week Horse Guards in London hosts the annual ceremony of Beating Retreat with massed bands playing and marching in formation. But where does the tradition come from?

The origins of the ceremony date back several hundred years to at least the 16th century when the beating of drums signalled the end of a day’s fighting, the closure of camp gates and the lowering of flags. Among the English kings credited with having ordered troops to “beat retreat” are old enemies King James II and King William III.

The ceremony was standard practice by the early 1700s with flutes or fifes added to the drum beating before, following the Napoleonic Wars, these were both replaced with bugles, to help ensure the sound reached greater distances.

The ceremony has been held annually at Horse Guards Parade since 1966 and this year involves the Massed Bands and Corps of Drums of the army’s Household Division along with The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery as well as The United States Army Europe Band and Chorus.

The event is a prelude to the Trooping the Colour on Saturday when more than 1,300 troops will parade in honor of the Queen’s Official Birthday.

Beating Retreat will be held at Horse Guards Parade on 8th and 9th of June (Wednesday and Thursday night), from 9pm. For more information and tickets, see www.guardsbeatingretreat.com