Honoured to serve
This month, the Rector wrote for The Church Times about his experience of being Padre to the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment during a year that has seen the funeral of the late Monarch and the coronation of King Charles III:
ON THE morning of 26 April 2022, I woke up and found myself in an intensive-care ward in Regensburg, Germany. I had been attempting to cycle from London to Istanbul when, through a moment of inattention somewhere in a Bavarian forest, I collided at speed with a telephone box.
I woke up in the hospital with internal bleeding, and a broken shoulder and collarbone. I was at a low ebb.
While marooned in my Continental convalescence, I had a call from a senior padre at the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department. “My dear fellow, how are you?” A question that is at the very heart of who a padre is, and what he or she does. I replied with a reasonable degree of honesty, using the best of Anglo-Saxon English.
“Well, when you’re back fighting fit, would you like to consider being the Chaplain to the Household Cavalry?”
My response was to say yes, and, although still lying on my sickbed, I felt warmed through with excitement. All sorts of questions filled my head. What was it going to be like? Who were the soldiers? What are the pressures of the job? Will they be friendly? Do I need to learn to ride a horse?
I first met the regiment not at their home in Knightsbridge Barracks, but in Bodney Camp, on the Thetford training area: a windswept place full of what looked like sheds for pigs, which is, in fact, the accommodation — it’s basic, but fun. The Cavalry go on exercise annually during the summer to give the horses a chance to exercise in the Norfolk countryside, and famously to gallop along the beach at Holkham.
My main effort on arrival was going to introduce myself to as many of the soldiers and officers as I could, and to try and be as useful as I could be. Very soon, I found myself having a chance to come alongside those who were more than happy to share their life stories with me. I also had the chance to play the Queen in a mock carriage ride, something, I’d suggest, I did rather well.
The main job of the Household Cavalry is to protect the sovereign. The regiment is a union of two of the most senior regiments in the British Army: the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals. It is separated into two halves, one ceremonial and one armoured. The Mounted Regiment plays a significant part in conducting mounted escorts for the monarch at ceremonial and state occasions. It has been a busy 12 months with the Platinum Jubilee, the death of our late Queen Elizabeth, the accession of the King, and planning for the Coronation.
The battle rhythm at Knightsbridge has been intense over the past few months, and I find myself in awe of these young men and women — many aged 19 — who have excelled in rising to the challenges and pressures they have before them. One baking-hot day last summer, I was standing outside Horse Guards. I heard a tour guide behind me say to a large group: “Of course, once upon a time these would have been real soldiers; now they’re just actors.”
I spun around, enraged like a father on the touchline whose child had just been mocked. “They’re most definitely not. Actually they’re some of the hardest-working men and women you’ll ever meet.” And they are.
Generally speaking, the working day starts at about 5 a.m. The horses are tended to, and then the watering orders begin. Officers lead their troops out of the barracks around Hyde Park, or to other parts of London: a chance for the horses to stretch their legs. At about 10.30 a.m., the new guard leaves for Horse Guards and the outgoing guard returns.
The rest of the day is spent fulfilling all of the mandatory training for serving personnel, including P.T., something that it is always good to be part of. (I had hoped that the dreaded “bleep test” was a horror that I had left behind at school; but, alas! no.) There is a considerable amount of kit to maintain, brasses to be polished, and horses to care for.
THE main effort now is preparing for the Coronation. There is a good deal of excitement in the lines for the leading part that the Cavalry will play on that day as the whole world watches. I will, of course, be playing a supporting role, ready to share in the excitement and also the pressure of the day. Being a padre in the army is an immense privilege, and to stand on the threshold of a moment in history, alongside men and women of such character and dedication, is truly an honour.