In the small hours one morning in the coming week, there will be a full military parade on the streets of central London. The Household Cavalry will clop and clank along the pink tarmac of the Mall from Buckingham Palace towards Westminster Abbey. Horse-drawn carriages will glide down Horseguards Parade. And six military bands will march into position strategically placed along the Prince William-Kate Middleton wedding route. It will be pageantry as only the British can do pageantry.
No one, but for a few pigeons, will see it.
The overnight sleepers will not have arrived from all corners of Britain and beyond. The television cameras will certainly not be there. It will be dark, probably cold and possibly wet. But the organisers of the wedding are leaving nothing to chance. This will be the final rehearsal for events taking place on the morning of Friday, April 29, 2011: the most widely watched nuptials since 1981, when the groom's parents tied the knot.
"As with all parades, major state and national events," explains Lieutenant Colonel Graham Jones, "we have to rehearse and the only way to rehearse it is to do it." Jones has another title. He is senior director of music of the Household Division, the unit responsible for the state ceremonial so familiar from the postcards, the mugs and the tea towels. For the past 10 years he has also been director of music of the Coldstream Guards. On Friday he will be standing with the Coldstream band somewhere on the Mall. The route will be lined with around 600,000 people. Up to two billion will be watching on television. It's a very big gig.
"There are a lot of experienced people in the band," says Jones, "and they will take it in their stride but they will still enjoy being part of a moment in history. That's one of the great privileges of what we do. This is not the normal state ceremonial, it's a big event, and therefore some of the younger guys are going to be nervous. It's a long stand. They want to play the best they can play."
By a long stand he means upwards of three hours. The band will march into position at 9.15 in the morning. They won't get back to Wellington Barracks until after 1 in the afternoon. And in that time they will barely move. They're preparing to play two hours' worth of music, mostly familiar music chosen to reflect both national pride and nuptial joy, downing their instruments only so the crowds can listen to the live relay of the wedding. There will be no loo stops. No moving. No refuelling.
"The hazards are very similar to all soldiers," says Jones. "What you don't want to happen is for somebody to faint. That can happen. If a soldier falls to the ground a stretch bearer will come in and recover them. But we are used to stresses both mentally and physically. The training and discipline kick in."
The most celebrated of all the British army's military bands are used to this sort of thing. Maybe not royal weddings, but the band of Her Majesty's Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards have been going since 1785. They've been changing the guard for 200 years. The world will know them from their brilliant red tunics, white belts, black trousers and, above all, their steepling bearskin hats. Indeed, aside from The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Band of the Coldstream Guards may well be the United Kingdom's most celebrated musical outfit. Every week they play to many thousands at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Their buglers opened the entire Live 8 concert in 2005. They've performed at major sporting events, recorded albums (most recently Pride of the Nation) and toured the United States, Japan and Australia. They are as much a part of London as the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. And the eyes of the world will be on them again as they take centre stage - or nearly centre stage - on Friday.
The iconic uniform tends to obscure an important fact: this is an elite group of highly professional musicians. One morning, I am invited to watch the Band of the Coldstream Guards as they begin preparations for the Royal Wedding. Their premises since time immemorial have been at Wellington Barracks, an imposing cream-coloured block set back from Birdcage Walk only a few hundred metres from the Palace. From the outside it doesn't really look like a military barracks. But this nonetheless is the wellspring of the British military pageant.
The entrance is round the back. I am greeted by Lance Sergeant Phil Dickson, a trumpeter who is hoping to recover from a hernia operation in time for the big day. He ushers me along a warren of corridors until we enter a practice room. Forty musicians in khaki pullovers and trousers are sitting in orchestral formation. This is the Band of the Coldstream Guards the way the public never sees them. Jones, also in khaki, is waving a baton as they work through a gorgeous version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's This Guy's in Love with You, then a high-octane burst of the Theme from 633 Squadron.
The sound is intoxicating. Afterwards they pack up and shuffle out to put on their uniform for the annual inspection. Once upon a time they would have all changed in the same room but there are now four women in the band. A young blonde in glasses emerges carrying a huge pair of cymbals. She introduces herself as the musician Sophie Parry. Like many of her colleagues, she is a multi-instrumentalist. The band can turn its hand from marching music to symphonies, jazz, rock, show tunes and soundtracks, so the band members need to be flexible. When she joined the army six years ago at 16, her first instrument was the cello. She then took up the oboe but its sharp reed is dangerous to march with.
Isn't carrying those heavy cymbals man's work? "Unfortunately or fortunately," she says, "the army is an equal opportunities employer and so I get told to play the cymbals and I have to play the cymbals."
She follows the crocodile of musicians in bearskins out of the basement. I ask Colour Sergeant Mark Hamilton, a short, thickset Scottish cornet player, to show me his bearskin. "They weigh three pounds," he tells me. How hot are they? "Hot," he says tersely. When the band takes part in the Queen's birthday parade, better known as Trooping the Colour, it's hot indeed. "You feel the sweat starting at the top of your head and going down to your ankles," Hamilton says. "It is very, very warm. It hurts. It is painful. But I take a lot of pride in doing it."
Having idolised the bearskins as a child, I find it strange to see these iconic hats backstage in a strip-lit basement. A couple of musicians check themselves in the mirror, correct the fixtures and fittings of each other's uniforms, maybe run a final brush through their bearskin. With that they ramble out into the open air in straggly formation. Some have a crafty cigarette as they wait to form.
A tall trombonist introduces himself as Colour Sergeant Dave Desmond. It turns out he wrote the music for the Live 8 booking. I ask how long he's been in the band.
"Since 1989," he says. "When I first arrived it was quite a culture shock. I wasn't aware of everything this band stood for. You certainly feel a fabric of London, if not the nation. After you've done a certain amount of years you forget how special it is."
The band starts to muster in formation in a slip road feeding onto the parade ground. An order is barked, they stand to attention, the drums roll and they instantly turn into the Coldstream Band we all know. They do a short amount of marching up and down the parade ground. It's early but the public already line the railings to watch, as for half an hour the band stand to attention while the top brass of the Household Division - General Bill Cubitt and Camp Commandant Lieutenant Colonel Tim Jelland plus seven other officers in navy blue officers' uniforms - stroll along the ranks inspecting dress and instruments.
Just over the road beyond the roaring traffic is Buckingham Palace. They've played all sorts in there. Their version of Thriller is a big hit on YouTube. At the other end of the scale, the first official duty of Jones - a few days after September 11 - was to conduct The Star-Spangled Banner for the US ambassador as a public gesture of national solidarity.
"I had a sergeant major next to me," Jones recalls. "He said, 'OK, you need to just march out to the front, good halt, lots of media watching you.' That image went all the way round the world." Later they played in New York at the Iraq War victory parade with the New York Philharmonic. This year they will bring succour to audiences in a tour of Japan.
I'm curious to know: are they soldiers or musicians first?
"Soldiers," says the principal horn, Lance Sergeant Nick Stones. "We joined to play music but we are fully aware that we have the soldiering aspect as well. We do the annual military education test which is standard so that if there was a warfare situation and they needed us, it's quite a quick process to get us up to shape for deployment."
Stones learnt the previous evening that he would be mobilised to Afghanistan in September. But before that he and the rest of the band are contributing to what will undoubtedly be the biggest event of their careers. They will arrive in barracks at 7.30am, have a hearty breakfast, make sure their shoes are shining like hubcaps and put on the famous uniform.
As they go out to play to 600,000 people, they will have the fortifying words of their musical director ringing in their ears.
"I'll have a pep talk with the musicians," says Jones, "and I'll be saying, 'This is who we are. This is what we do. We are the best in the world at this. There is nobody that can do this better than we can.'"
Band of brothers (and four sisters)
NUMBER OF MEMBERS 40 (70 before the British army was streamlined), four of them women
IN GOOD COMPANY The Coldstream Guards Band are one of five bands in the Household Division. The others are the bands of the Grenadier Guards and the Welsh, Scots and Irish Guards.
FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE The band signed a record deal, reportedly for £1 million (Dh6 million), with Universal's Decca label in June 2009. Their debut album, Heroes, was released on November 30 that year and was nominated for Best Album of the Year for the Classical Brits.
THE BAND ENSEMBLES Orchestra, brass quintet, woodwind quintet, function band, jazz trio, fanfare team
THOSE BEARSKIN HATS The bearskin is sourced from the pelt of the Canadian black bear. Officers have taller hats (made from the pelt of the female) than enlisted men.