Not far outside London is Sandhurst, the British Army’s military training centre for officers, and the grand buildings hidden behind high walls can be visited on special tours.
It’s a curious place to visit, with warning signs about official secrets on the main gates that lead to what would be anywhere else, a grand country estate, with lakes and well managed gardens.
A church is rehearsing its wedding bells, and then you hear machine gun fire in the distance. A sound that’s to become familiar as background noise as the future officers are in the woods around you learning their trade.
However at the heart of the estate are the main buildings, ranging from Georgian simplicity to Victorian Gothic and modern brutalist.
The tours will start with coffee in the Wellington room inside the grand Georgian building, and then into a space often used by cadets, the lecture theatre to learn the history of Sandhurst and how it came into existence following a number of British military defeats or near misses.
At a time when officers tended to buy their commissions, the idea that ordinary people could earn a commission as an officer by effort and skill was a radical one, and the guides will talk a lot about the man who drove that change, among many other improvements — John Gaspard le Marchant. A magnificent portrait of him dominates one of the rooms you’ll get to see.
Old College was the first building completed at Sandhurst, a grand Georgian one that opened in 1812, and that’s the heart of the first half of a tour – taking in the grand portico entrance, the hall, with a lantern that’s special, and currently flanked with two grand portraits. On one side is Queen Elizabeth II in her finery, and on the other, of the time that Prince Harry was commissioned from Sandhurst as an officer — and the guide may point out the oddity in the addition of the heralds.
The grandest room is the Indian Army Memorial Room, which is a spectacular space lined with military stained glass windows that celebrate the many overseas people who also served in the British Army. You’ll also learn why the lantern that used to hang low has to be chained to the ceiling — and you might guess why when you see what happens at the very end of the Sovereign’s Parade.
The tour also takes in the massive Royal Memorial Chapel, with its massive cruciform layout and you are given plenty of time to look around and take photos. It’s an exceptionally impressive space, and is large enough to be a cathedral almost anywhere else.
There’s a fascinating tale about the silver font, made from regimental silver that was melted down following the disbandment of the short-lived Machine Gun Corps in 1922. While it’s not unusual to go into a grand building and see a sign for the cloakroom to leave coats and hats — but this chapel also offers space for people to leave their swords — and you’re unlikely to see that again.
There’s also a Catholic chapel which was created from an old lecture hall in 1948, which would have been a huge problem when Sandhurst opened, but these days, we’re more tolerant of other faiths, or none.
As a working site, the sound of guns continued in the far distance, and on my visit, there were soldiers marching up and down practising pace sticking — which is something you may see when soldiers are being lined up for ceremonial events.
There is now an annual competition at Sandhurst for the best pace sticking team.
Yet for all that going on around you, there’s still the curiously calm air of a country mansion that permeates the estate. To visit Sandhurst for a tour is to see inside buildings that would otherwise not be possible to see, and to learn a lot about the history of how the British Army professionalised the training of its officers.
Tours need to be booked in advance, and once a date is agreed, then you need to pay them.
Photos are allowed, so long as you don’t include any of the Sandhurst cadets or staff, and there is a dress code of reasonably smart attire. You will also need photographic ID to show at the main gate when arriving.
The tours currently cost £25 per person, which is for a 2½ hour tour so pretty decently priced, and the tours are conducted by the Sandhurst Trust, the Academy’s official charity. A guidebook is also handed out at the end, and there’s a small gift shop.
For booking details and available dates, go here.
Getting to Sandhurst
If you are driving, you can park at RMA Sandhurst, or if coming by train, then the main entrance is about a 15-minute walk from Camberley railway station, and then about a 15-minute walk to the building for the tour.
Camberley is about 75 minutes by train from Waterloo station — either via Woking or Ascot. Both routes are about the same duration and cost the same, and although via Woking involves changing twice, the train to Woking is fast.
I found it easier to buy an all day off-peak ticket and then when leaving Sandhurst, check online which train from Camberley will get back to London first and head back via either Ascot or Woking (changing also at Ash Vale).