Long before dawn, the horses that will accompany the Queen’s coffin were being put through their final paces; in preparation their training has seen them go from being pelted with union flags and flowers, to the cacophony of loud bangs and people sobbing that will greet them along the Mall.
They will be joining 500 members of the military on Wednesday afternoon to accompany the Queen’s coffin from Buckingham Palace down the Mall to Westminster Hall, and are gearing up for the funeral on Monday, which will be the biggest parade of its kind in living memory.
Early on Tuesday morning, a full rehearsal of the military procession took place around Westminster along streets closed to traffic, with soldiers marching in full uniform to the sound of funeral marches by classical composers such as Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Chopin. This will be followed by another rehearsal on Thursday morning for the funeral’s 4,500-strong military parade.
The King will lead a procession behind the late Queen’s coffin. The coffin will leave Buckingham Palace at 2.22pm and arrive at Westminster Hall at 3pm. The procession will travel via Queen’s Gardens, the Mall, Horse Guards and Horse Guards Arch, Whitehall, Parliament Street, Parliament Square and New Palace Yard.
The procession will have a slow and sombre pace, with drummers beating 75 beats a minute – something that is proving a particular challenge for the horses.
“It’s quite a tall order to ask them to walk at a slow march pace. Any of our normal parades it’s a natural horse walking pace, which is a bit more forward-going than human pace, so we’re asking them to half that again,” said Sgt Tom Jenks, 30, who is riding the lead horse in front of the gun carriage that will be pulling the coffin.
His horse, Cassius, will be retiring after the parade after 12 years’ service, including Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, and has been kept on for his experience. Other horses have been selected for their black colour and calm temperament.
Christopher Ghika, the major general commanding the household division, who is leading on the ceremonial aspects of the funeral, said this week’s events represented the biggest and most complicated operation of its kind.
Troops have been rehearsing almost non-stop for four days to ensure nothing goes wrong, with many barely sleeping. Those who spoke to the Guardian said they were proud to be involved, despite the sacrifices required.
Ghika said there was a “very personal connection” for troops taking part in the parade, since the Queen was the head of the armed services and recruits had sworn an oath of allegiance to her.
“For everybody on parade it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s a very sad day but it’s our last opportunity to do our duty for the Queen, and our first opportunity to do our duty for the King,” he said.
“These are going to be significant international events, so the eyes of the world will be upon us. I’m expecting for everybody on parade that they will deliver a very spectacular performance which will do tribute to the Queen.”
Military personnel are playing a huge range of different roles in the processions on Wednesday and Monday.
The senior time-beater Neil Brocklehurst, 46, said he used a metronome stuck to his drum to keep time. He added it was a “huge honour” to take part. “This is never going to happen again, a sovereign who’s been serving all those years. There are so many people who’ve served under her and we get to do the final thing.”
Tara Kelly, 25, a wheel-driver in the mounted procession, said preparations had been similar to those for the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral but with “a lot more” people involved and “a lot of hours”.
“With everything going on, it’s so overwhelming. Everyone’s been very positive, but in a respectful way. Even with the long hours and how tired everyone is, no one’s trying to drag their feet, they’re all working hard and getting on with the job at hand,” she said.
Jason Burcham, 53, who will be leading the Royal Marines band in the procession, and who played piano on the royal yacht to reflect the Queen’s “eclectic” taste between 1994 and 1996, said that although troops had had a short time to prepare, “every time we’re out on parade essentially that’s part of our training for an event of this scale”.
Lance corporal Edward Christian Scheepers, 35, part of the Queen’s personal guard and a master tailor, has been working “a lot of late hours” on uniforms for the parade, including plumes, tunics and trimming. “We inspect everyone so as soon as they leave camp they are looking smart and nobody can be faulted for anything.”
Tristan Watson, 28, a diver working on underwater bomb disposal in the marines, has relearned how to march for his first ceremonial role. “My whole branch is probably going to be watching trying to pick up something I do wrong,” he said.
One of the youngest participants is Jack Westworth, 18, an RAF gunner, who said his “very, very proud” parents would be watching out for him before he is deployed to Iraq this autumn.
“I’m very proud to be taking part in such a historic event, and to be front and centre of it,” he said. “This is where I wanted to be but I didn’t think I would be taking part in such a high-profile event.”
• This article was amended on 14 September 2022 because an earlier version mistakenly referred to Christopher Ghika as a major in the household division. Ghika is the major general commanding the household division.