Ask someone you know for iconic images of London, and one of the first things they'll likely mention is the Queen's Guard (now King's Guard).
You know the ones — silent and unsmiling. Stationed in doorways and sentry boxes. Marching with exaggerated steps — usually with an SA80 assault rifle in hand, bayonet fixed. Moving in time to It's Not Unusual (it's true, we heard it for ourselves).
The duty of the King's Guard is to defend the royal residence — and make no mistake, that is exactly what they are there to do. Ceremonial they may appear, but these are active British Army soldiers drawn from the five regiments of the Foot Guards. You may have also seen videos of tourists testing the Guard's patience. Or getting in their way like this:
It is highly likely that those guns are loaded (though the army won’t confirm or deny such a thing).
But what is it that's perched on the Guard's head? That thing that makes them look like a gaggle of Marge Simpsons who've discovered Schwarzkopf 099? It's called a 'bearskin', a type of ceremonial military cap that dates back to the 17th century.
And yes, despite some controversy, the bearskin is exactly as its name suggests.
Bearskin hats are made from the skin of black bears, hundreds of which are killed annually from a large population in Canada. The British Army takes 100 skins for itself.
There have been endless calls to phase out the bearkin, and even an alleged offer from Stella McCartney to design new faux fur hats. According to the MoD, substitute hats have "unacceptable rates of water shedding" and don't look right. The issue continues to stoke controversy with animal rights organisations, such as PETA, who argue that the practice is cruel and outdated.
We asked an MoD spokesman why the army chooses real bear skin over synthetic materials. He told us: "We have examined various alternative materials in the past, but none has come remotely close to matching the natural properties of bear fur in terms of shape, weight and its ability to repel moisture in wet conditions." Perhaps we shouldn't expect to see an end to this questionable tradition anytime soon.