Ever Heard Of London's Secret Ghost Parade?

Ever Heard Of London's Secret Ghost Parade?
The Lord Mayor's coach at night

It's 3.30am and my hands are glued to the insides of my pockets in search of precious warmth. My body's telling me to get back into bed. Instead I'm watching men in bowler hats tend to six neighing horses and a blingy gold carriage. The ghost parade is about to begin.

Allow me to explain. Technically there's no such thing as the ghost parade. What I'm witnessing doesn't have an official name; it's merely the rehearsal for the Lord Mayor's Show. It takes place at this unholy hour because the roads are reasonably empty. At least empty enough to pull this jewel box on wheels through the City's major junctions.

Lord Mayor's Parade rehearsal in Guildhall Yard

While the Lord Mayor's Show has plenty of floats and characters, it's only the very core of the parade that gets to practise today. Three key elements are at play. The horses. The coach. And the Lord Mayor elect, who this year is William Russell. Everybody else present is, in one way or another, servicing at least one of those three.

The horses are attached to the Lord Mayor's resplendent carriage, then there's a quick briefing about what we're going to see. A lot of attention is paid to timings, and someone is given the responsibility of timing precise segments of the show with a stopwatch. Then the Lord Mayor marches in step to his carriage, the six dray horses tug it along and the strange procession departs Guildhall Yard.

Lord Mayor enters his carriage in Guildhall Yard

The speed takes me by surprise. I'd imagined we'd be trudging through the street, but things are at a brisk pace, and I find myself behind the two police horses and car bringing up the rear. I jog ahead on the way to Bank junction, passing the odd bemused drivers that populate London's roads in the wee hours.

Police horses on the streets near Bank

The convoy reaches Bank Junction and we all come to a stop. Right in the centre of the five way junction, with police on blue flashing motorbikes blocking traffic on all sides. This is where the Lord Mayor gets out of the coach to inspect the military guard during the parade, and so there's plenty that needs going over.

The carriage in Bank junction

The whole night is a meeting of past and present: at no point more than now. The motorbikes and the horses. Sir John Soane's neo-classical architecture with the glass skyscrapers looming behind. The medieval pageantry of the parade combined with the relative serenity of London at 4am. The resplendent Lord Mayor's coach and a National Express coach on its way to Stansted Airport.

With everything in order, we head off again, this time to St Paul's, where we're met with a glorious view. The golden carriage absorbing what little light remains, speeding past Wren's masterpiece.

The Lord Mayor's Carriage going past St Paul's

Next stop is the cathedral itself, past the stands set up for the show. We're stopping here as this is where the Lord Mayor is blessed by the dean of St Paul's, and there's a kneeler set up, ready for the dry run blessing. A few security guards watch guard, joking to themselves to pass the time and keep warm.

Horses lead the Lord Mayor's Coach, on the other side of the road ordinary traffic

Next we're back to Bank and by this point it's nearly 5am. The City is slowly starting to wake up, as more and more people appear, stare at the procession before whipping their phones out to snap a picture. I wonder if they want visual proof to believe it all really happened, so bizarre is the sight.

Door opened of the coach near St Paul's

And then it's over. The Lord Mayor disembarks and the carriage zooms back to Guildhall. A bevy of street sweepers and bulky cleaning vans wash away any traces of the six horses here mere minutes ago. Like the best ghosts, the whole apparition vanishes without a trace.

Last Updated 07 November 2019

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