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Rolling out the coaches for a royal ride to St. Paul's

With one hand on a superbly gilded door and one foot on a royal mounting step , Maj. William Phelps of the Welsh Guards launched into an explanation of horse holders, wheel chocks, fluorescent lighting, footmen, and postilions.

The bluff, no-nonsense Major Phelps opened up a whole new world to me in the depths of the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace -- the world of coach lore, coach etiquette, and coach behavior.

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Coaches? Yes, you know -- those splendidly swaying conveyances from the past , pulled by dappled grays and driven by men in black top hats and red and gold livery. Queen Elizabeth II rides around in them on state occasions.

Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, along with the Queen and other members of the royal family, will use them to go to and from St. Paul's Cathedral on their wedding day July 29 -- watched by an estimated 600 million people around the globe.

I had always taken coaches for granted. As more or less essential symbols of royalty. But Major Phelps soon put me right.

Coaches are tricky, very tricky, indeed.

"See how it sways?" he demanded as he put his weight on the step of the gorgeous maroon-colored 1902 State Landau. Word has it that Charles himself will use it to ride to St. Paul's (with his brothers, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward) and back again (with his new wife).

"If the horses move back or forwards, the coach can jolt the occupants as they are getting out or in.

"So we have to have a horse holder at the horses' heads, and we have to chock those wheels [with a nod at the huge wooden spokes painted red and ornamented in gold].

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"But we don't have enough footmen for every coach, just the Queen, you know, and maybe another."

At the thought of all the other hapless royals having to negotiate the steps while their horses backed and their wheels strayed unchocked, the major heaved a sigh.

It was clear that being Superintendant of the Royal Mews, responsible for the Master of the Horse, for the gold state coach (four tons in weight), and assorted state coaches, semi-state landaus, ascots, and barouches (not to mention 32 horses) is no easy task.

"We try to train the footmen to take the weight of the coach on their hands as they open the doors," he went on, "to stop the sway. It isn't easy."

So if you see the faces of several footmen turn red with exertion as the Queen leaves her coach at St. Paul's July 29, you'll know why.

The 1902 State Landau has a black top that folds down in fine weather, like the top of an expensive baby carriage. It comes complete with six horses, four giant coach lamps, and upholstery in crimson satin. It was built in 1902 for Edward VII. The Queen uses it to great foreign heads of state.

For the royal wedding, Her Majesty herself is thought likely to use the Irish State Coach bought by Queen Victoria in 1857 from the Lord Mayor of Dublin. It is fully enclosed, topped by a gilded crown, and lit inside by battery-operated fluorescent bars.

Exactly who will ride in what coach can be decided only by the Queen. (They are, after all, all her own coaches.) She has not yet announced her final decisions.

The whisper is that Lady Diana may ride to the cathedral in the Scottish State Coach, light, bright, and elegant, the only one with roof panels of clear glass so that people in high buildings can see who's inside. Chances Lady Diana will ride in it will increase if "the weather isn't too clever," Major Phelps said. Translation: if it rains.

The major will be out of bed at 4:00 a.m. London time on the day of the royal wedding. He will exchange his neat suit and striped tie for a scarlet uniform and a splendid black hat. Horses will be harnessed starting at 8:30 a.m. and ready by 9:30.

There are to be four separate coach processions leaving Buckingham Palace: six coaches carrying members of the royal family, four in the Queen's own procession, two in Prince Charles's procession, and one for Lady Diana.

The first coach will leave the palace about 10:15 a.m. The 2 1/2 mile journey to St. Paul's will take about 20 minutes along the Mall, through Admiralty Arch, past Trafalgar Square, along the Strand and Fleet Street, and up Ludga te Hill.

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