An Irishwoman's Diary


November is the month of the dead or, in the case of James 1st of England, the nearly dead, for it was on November 4th, 1605 that Guy Fawkes was disturbed as he set about laying some 80kgs of gunpowder in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament in London, writes Mary Russell.

Had he not been interrupted, the king would undoubtedly have been done for. So it is that, every year, there is a ceremonial search of the cellars prior to the state opening of the British parliament and this year, it'll be a close call: the opening takes place tomorrow, November 6th.

London does royal occasions with pomp and circumstance, with the state opening of parliament a major date in the diary. This is the day each year when the monarch summons her subjects to hear her speech introducing the new parliamentary session and it's a big day not only for Queen Elizabeth II but also her horses.

Round at the Royal Mews, they are led out for exercise at 05.30 and from then on, it's one thing after another - tails have to be bandaged, manes groomed and bridles put on. The gilt and bronze harnesses - each weighing 50kg - are attached to the carriage and it's here that the Irish dimension comes into it, for the monarch will ride, as she does every year, in the Irish State Coach.

The coach itself is the work of the well-known coach building family, the Huttons. The Dublin City Directory of 1850 has John Hutton and Sons, Coachbuilders, living at 115 Summerhill. The coach was built for Benjamin Lee Guinness, first elected Mayor of Dublin under the newly reformed Dublin Corporation. Benjamin, a grandson of the famous Arthur, also turned his attentions to restoring a crumbling Saint Patrick's Cathedral where a statue of him in the cathedral grounds commemorates his work.

The original coach was destroyed in a fire in 1911 but the faithful replica - and it can be seen most days at the Royal Mews - is a fine affair of gold, black and crimson, its seats covered in blue Damascus silk. On its annual outing it looks even finer drawn by four horses, followed by the household cavalry and with soldiers lining the streets. Unlike some of the others, it's a comfortable coach and comes with a few homely touches. Each lamp has its own canvas-covered spring which gradually raises the candle inside to the correct height as it burns down and if the day is chilly, a hot water bottle is supplied for the royal feet.

There are some 100 coaches of varied grandeur garaged in the Royal Mews and guides are keen to state that this is not a museum since all the coaches are put to regular use. Queen Alexandra's coach, for instance, will be used tomorrow to carry the monarch's crown and the state sword to the House of Lords, the soldiers lining the route presenting arms as the carriage passes. Also in the mews is a collection of miniature landaus, carriages and go-carts built specially for Victoria's many children. Nowadays, at Christmas time, the children of the Mews staff get to have their moment in the sun when these tiny carts and sleighs are harnessed up for the annual party.

The most recent addition is the coach given to Queen Elizabeth for her 80th birthday by those most loyal of monarchists, the people of Australia. It's a state of the art steel and aluminium job, with electric-powered windows and lamps of Waterford Crystal the whole thing decorated with kangaroos and emu. It was used only last week for the ceremonial procession through London when the Saudi king paid a visit to his royal counterpart. The most glittering coach, however, is the rarely used Gold State Coach. Commissioned in 1760 at a cost of £7,562 and displayed at the end of the Seven Years War when England had France vanquished, it is a loud statement of imperial power decorated with eight palm trees representing victory, numerous cherubs, some 67 crowns on it (I didn't have time to count them all) and with two golden tritons at the front blowing horns to signal the arrival of the king as Monarch of the Ocean.

But you can't have everything. William IV likened it to a ship sailing through rough seas, Victoria found the oscillations too distressing and George VI insisted on having the iron wheels clad in rubber.

However, it's the horses that steal the show as they clop proudly along the streets, full of themselves. In the old days, Hanoverian stallions were used to draw the carriages but they were found to be too frisky and were replaced, in the 1920s, with Windsor greys and Cleveland bays. The greys are bred at the Royal Stud at Hampton Court and all named by the queen herself, apart from the Clevelands which are pure bred and therefore have their own lineage which even a queen couldn't improve on.

Trained to be well-behaved, they are put into specially light harnesses, attached to their royal coach and taken out to get used to the route, though as this usually happens around 3am when traffic is not a problem they provide a sight which has led many night-revellers to worry about their alcohol consumption.

The Mews itself has its own attractions. A notice requests motorists not to sound their horns, an ashtray and a cat (dormant) adorn the clerk's desk and twice a day, a horse-drawn post cart sets off for Clarence House with mail for the Prince of Wales.

But tomorrow, eyes will be on the Queen in her Irish State Coach with possibly a few people wondering how it got from Dublin to Buckingham Palace Mews. The answer is that when, on a visit to Ireland, Victoria saw it, she had to have it. Perhaps she had recently taken a ride in the Gold State Coach and was in shock. In any case, an offer was made that the gentlemanly mayor could not refuse. He was, after all, elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament. The price paid? £700 - and that's in old money.