Changing the guard

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David Jones and Mark Hickey used to be “next door neighbours” at Buckingham Palace.

Both Lancashire lads, they would meet for an off-duty pint and chat around Westminster.

Now on civvy street, they are back together, this time on guard at Houndshill Shopping Centre, Blackpool.

And as the Royal Jubilee approaches they are preparing for the cash boost the celebrations (and an extra day off) are bound to bring. Former Grenadier Guardsman and soldier Mark is operations manager at the award-winning shopping centre.

A Blackpool lad he’s home after eight years in the army, seeing service in Ireland and elsewhere as well as ceremonial duties in London.

As a guardsman, complete with busby, he had to stand sentry outside royal palaces, maintaining a poker-faced stance despite the pranks tourists played to crack his resolve.

He still recalls the day Miss World contestants had permission to do a photo call with him. “They took their fur coats off, revealing very little underneath and draped themselves all over me. That was a tough one!”

The ceremonial uniform is also a tough call. “It’s indescribably unpleasant,” said Mark. “Hot, sweaty, and restrictive, but I never minded. I loved every minute of it. There I was a boy from Blackpool guarding the Queen – it doesn’t get better than that.”

Working in the Tower of London, where he took part in the Ceremony of the Keys was the spookiest of assignments. “It’s the eeriest place you could ever work in – standing guard at 2am, looking out over the Thames with the mist rolling in with the ravens just a few yards away you’ll hear footsteps on the cobbles and there’s no one there.

“You know it can’t be one of us because the beefeaters sleep in the Tower and we had to wear soft-soled boots at night so as not to wake them.”

David, 47, a ceremonial horseman in the Royal Mews, is now on guard as a security man. He grew up around horses. “My grandad drove shire horses for Greenall Whitley brewery and had ponies. After school I did my training as an instructor.”

In 17 years with the Royal Household, a detachment of the Royal Cavalry, David worked on countless state occasions including the weddings of the Prince of Wales and Princess Diana, Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones; the Edinburgh Tattoo, the Trooping of the Colour 17 times, visits by heads of state and duties wherever the Queen’s horses are required.

But the highlight was when he was wheel driver of the coach carrying the Queen at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

“It was nice to be a part of something which was taking place for the very first time and to be driving the coach carrying the Queen of our country.”

Working and living in the Royal Mews meant David met “The Boss” many times.

He said: “Because she is such an outstanding horsewoman herself and very knowledgeable everything had to be tip top all the time.

“She knew everything which was going on. At Windsor Castle where it is more relaxed members of the royal family would walk through the stables.”

“All the horses are broken in there and trained for riding and driving at ceremonial occasions when the eyes of the world are watching.

“We would be riding out in Hyde Park in the morning and breaking in young horses in the stables in the afternoon. We would take them to Wellington Barracks for ‘sights and sounds’ training to prepare them for public occasions where the unpredictable can happen.

“The harness and saddlery has be polished to perfection and the horses clipped and bathed and groomed for three hours a day. The bays are the hardest to keep clean, but when you see them standing proud they are beautiful.”

All the horses are named by the Queen. David’s favourites were Twilight and St Patrick. State occasions are rehearsed to the finest detail. “We had to be up at 2am to start rehearsals with the Queen’s Troop and Cavalry.”

While working at the Mews, David invested in a holiday home in Blackpool for his family. When son James, 15, reached school age he settled in the resort, working first with an old friend, former Kings Trooper Tony Fleming at World Horse Welfare, Penny Farm.

David also drives ponies with Trevor Box of Blackpool funeral firm Box Brothers. His eight-year-old daughter Hannah is a good rider too. David then got a job in security at Houndshill where his old mate Mark was working. Both miss the pomp and circumstance of their former lives but say precision and attention to detail remains the order of the day. “A lot of what we learnt transfers from one job to the other,” said Mark.

“Including being well turned out, disciplined and alert,” concludes David.