Carriages from the Royal Mews are a familiar sight on London streets, part of Her Majesty the Queen's Diamond Jubilee festivities in addition to routine duties carrying ambassadors when they present their credentials to the Queen, among other duties. Photo: Vicky Carrington
Are you heading for London this summer for the Olympics? Wondering what to do in the days between your ticketed events? Read on for our guide to equestrian locations around London where you can enjoy a unique experience of London's equestrian legacy.
(Note to summer stay-at-homes: You can have just as much, or perhaps more, fun at any of these locations before or after the Summer Games. File this article under: "Future Vacations")
Nobody appreciates horses more than the British, and is it any wonder? Just look at their monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who never appears happier than when she is around horses. Celebrating her Diamond Jubilee (60 years on the throne to date), Her Highness comes from a long line of horse lovers, a trait shared by many of her subjects as well as their ancestors.
Waddesdon Manor's grand stables no longer house horses, instead offering a courtyard and tea room for visitor refreshment, art exhibit spaces, and shops featuring horsey books, puzzles, and model horses for young visitors to take home. Photo: Nan Meek
London's equestrian legacy is reflected in its heritage stables, some still in use as stables today, others repurposed for changing needs over time.
At Buckingham Palace, home of the Queen, the stables are nothing short of impressive. The Royal Mews, as they are known, are located at the bottom of the Palace gardens, and open to the public almost daily. Tours last 45 minutes to an hour, and include guides who are happy to talk about the royal horses and carriages, history of the mews, and more.
Another aspect of royal life connected with horses showed up at Kensington Palace, home of Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, when they are in London, and other famous royal family members. Kensington Palace has recently been opened to the public, where out the back windows a view of Hyde Park stretches into the distance.
Open to the public for the first time, Kensington Palace offers views of Hyde Park as well as the Palace gardens from its windows, as well as breathtakingly beautiful installations that portray life within its walls from early days to modern times. Photo: Vicky Carrington
Hyde Park comprises a beautifully landscaped 350 acres of parkland, including manicured gardens, swathes of green lawn, and the famous Rotten Row bridle path, where the social elite took their exercise and gossip in equal measure during days gone by. Now, anyone who cares to rent a horse can follow in those bygone hoofprints.
If a stirrup cup is more to your taste than an actual trot down Rotten Row, Stables Bar at the luxurious The Milestone Hotel is just across the street from Kensington Palace. A split-level bar named for its original use as a carriage house, Stables Bar takes visitors back in time with an equestrian theme perfect, for instance, for the equestrian spouse who may need fortification for upcoming equestrian spectator duties.
Many of London's stables have been repurposed for modern use, including the aptly named Stables Bar (formerly a carriage house) in The Milestone Hotel across the street from Kensington Palace. Stable lads would approve. Photo: Vicky Carrington
The artistocracy also had a love affair with horses, using their vast fortunes to build stables that complemented their stately country homes. Two of these stately homes are within approximately an hour's drive of London, and show innovative uses for these monuments to equine luxury.
Audley End was one of the greatest houses of Jacobean England, with foundations that date back to a 12th Century monastery. House and stables were adapted over the centuries to the needs of its owners, and today the stables house an exhibition on the estate in the 1880s. History interpreters present equestrian demonstrations of sidesaddle riding, multimedia shows bring to life stable workers describing their daily routines, and very good-natured live horses allow the public close for a pet and a nicker.
Stately homes, many a day's carriage ride or an hour's car drive from London, possessed equally stately stables. In the grand stables at Audley End House, this display shows the riding habit and sidesaddle typical of an 1880s equestrienne. Photo: Nan Meek
At opulent Waddesdon Manor, the grand stable, laid out around a central courtyard that sports a modern and comfortable tearoom tent, takes a different approach to reconciling modern life with equestrian heritage. Art exhibits from magnificent permanent statuary to traveling modern art installations attract some, while tea and shopping draw families with children who happily scamper around the stables, climb the bronze horse, and take home horsey books, puzzles and model horses from the stable shops.
That's just a short introduction to London's equestrian legacy, which will soon add the 2012 Olympic Games to its place in the history books. There's much more to see and experience … but then, that leaves you something to explore and discover on your own.
(Note to summer 2012 visitors: Be prepared for traffic and crowds. Visit this website link for the inside scoop about getting around central London: www.london2012.com/local-residents/living-near-a-venue/site=central-london-venues. Another good resource is: www.getaheadofthegames.com.
Cheers to London – enjoy!
When Nan Meek is not exploring stables past and present, here and abroad, she works as a partner in Dark Horse Media Biz, providing marketing, public relations and communications to equestrian businesses.