If you’re visiting the UK capital why not try to time your trip to see some London ceremonies described below by Andrea Kirkby. While there are several well known London Ceremonies such as the Changing of the Guard for instance and Trooping the Colour in the summer; then in autumn, it’s the State Opening of Parliament and the Lord Mayor’s Show.
For me though, some of the most interesting ceremonies of the city (and events in Europe) are much quieter and more intimate affairs. For instance there’s the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London, which happens every night. It’s a short, understated ceremony, during which the outer gates of the Tower are locked and the guard is dismissed for the night. The surroundings and the dead-of-night hush in the air are what make it so evocative.
Tower of London by cafuego
There’s an even more special ceremony that happens just once a year, the ceremony of Roses and Lilies, at which members of King’s College Cambridge and Eton College remember Henry VI, who was murdered in the Tower.
A much lighter note is struck by the Grimaldi Memorial Service in February, which commemorates the life of Joseph Grimaldi, the most celebrated of English clowns (if you think the ‘sad clown’ is only a stereotype, read the story of his life – a superstar in youth, he died, a broken and broke man, at only 58). Holy Trinity Church in Hackney is the venue for the memorial, which clowns attend in full regalia.
Historian John Stow is commemorated by a ceremony in St Andrew Undershaft in the City, once every three years. His tomb shows him writing, quill pen in hand; at the ceremony, his effigy is given a new pen.
St Andrews Undershaft Church & the Gherkin by Henry Lawford
And if you want to see old Cockney traditions at their best, turn up for the Costermongers’ Harvest Festival, held at St Mary le Bow at the end of September. The Pearly Kings and Queens of London meet in Guildhall Yard in their traditional regalia and proceed to St Mary’s for the service, with donkey carts, brewers’ drays, marching bands and plenty of good humour. As the bells of St Mary’s ring out, you’ll recall the traditional definition of a Cockney – anyone born within earshot of Bow Bells.
Pearly Queen by Ian Farrell
Most of London’s ceremonial fare is a feast for the eyes – but the tradition of campanology is a delight for the ears. The Ancient Society of College Youths was founded in 1637 and has been ringing the bells at St Mary le Bow ever since; it now rings at other churches around the City and Westminster as well, including St Paul’s Cathedral. Practices are held on Tuesday evenings, 630-8, and you can hear bells on Sunday at St Magnus Martyr, St Paul’s, and St Michael’s Cornhill.
St Mary Le Bow steeple by LoopZilla
One of my favourite ceremonies is the Butterworth Charity, founded by the publisher Joshua Whitehead Butterworth at the end of the nineteenth century. On Good Friday, hot cross buns are given out to the children of the parish at St Bartholomew’s, according to the terms of the charity – in fact the service usually goes a good bit further and gives them out to the whole congregation if there are enough. Even the clergy get a hot cross bun once they’re finished.
Beating the Bounds is one of those good old English traditions which has died out in most places – patrolling the boundaries of the parish so that everyone could recognise them, thus avoiding boundary disputes. In the City, it is still carried out on Ascension day in the parish of Portsoken, with the children of Sir John Cass Primary School joining the Ward Constable and Aldermen of Portsoken together with the parish militia. It’s a wonderful event, mixing ceremoniousness with sheer anarchy when the children are given their sticks for bashing walls, railings, bollards, and lamp posts that stand on the boundary line. ‘Beating’ the bounds is meant quite literally.
Beating the Bound by avail
And finally, one of London’s great pageants actually doesn’t take place in the city at all – but since it starts just a little upstream of it on the Thames, and involves two of the City Livery Companies, it’s very much a London tradition. I’m referring to Swan Upping. For five days in July, starting from Sunbury Lock, the Queen’s Swan Marker together with the Swan Uppers of the Dyers’ and Vintners’ Companies patrol the Thames in a flotilla of six traditional rowing skiffs. Mute swans on open water in the UK belong to the Queen and on the Thames she shares her ownership with the two livery companies. Back in the Middle Ages when this all started, swans were the food of kings – now, Swan Upping provides an opportunity to carry out conservation work, checking the numbers of swans and also the health of the population.
A convenient hotel for experiencing London’s pageantry at first hand is the Rubens at the Palace – a 4 star hotel near Victoria – which has free WiFi for guests and overlooks the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace.
More London Tips
We’ve lots of tips for the best things to do in London in our collation post.