LONDON — To update Macbeth’s witches’ prophecy of unlikely occurrences, Big Ben figured to go skinny-dipping in The Serpentine before someone built a giant sandbox in the middle of Horse Guards Parade. Not that the open swatch next to St. James’s Park hasn’t been used for sporting events before. Back when King Henry VIII ran things in the 16th century, it was a tiltyard for jousts. For the last three centuries, though, Horse Guards Parade has been a ceremonial site for Trooping the Colour for the monarch’s birthday and for the massed military bands Beating Retreat.
For the next fortnight, though, it will serve as the grandest of all of the temporary Olympic venues, as beach volleyballers wearing little more han the customary quadrupeds will serve, set, and spike just down the street from where Queen Elizabeth lives as the world’s most famous clock tower chimes in on the quarter hour from around the corner.
“Actually we got ding-donged by Big Ben during practice,” Czech player Petr Benes reported after Wednesday’s workout. “That was fantastic.”
When London outpolled Paris seven years ago for the right to host these Games, the question was what the city could do to top Beijing, whose venues like the Bird’s Nest stadium and Water Cube natatorium were marvels of architectural imagination and whimsy. The answer was that the British capital would wow the world with its history and majesty, using (or tweaking) hallowed sporting sites such as Wimbledon, Wembley, and Lord’s Cricket Ground and turning royal preserves into five-ringed playgrounds.
So Greenwich Park, where falcons once sought prey, will be used for equestrian events. Hyde Park, the former royal deer park, will be the stage for triathlon and open-water swimming. The Royal Artillery Barracks will host shooting. But since there was no real beach nearer than fabled Brighton on the southern coast, the organizers brought Ipanema to the bank of the Thames, trucking in 4,115 tons of quarry sand from Sussex, spreading it in front of the old Admiralty Building and constructing a double-decked 15,000-seat erector set around it for spectators.
While hard-hatted workmen were zipping around in forklifts and securing seats, the Brazilians, who figure to take over from the Yanks at these Games, languidly were knocking the ball over the net amid 88-degree heat more suited for Rio. Outside, where helmeted knights in armor once unhorsed each other, tents had been set up to sell barbecue and rotisserie chicken during the competition. All of this just a few hundred yards from where Winston Churchill and his war ministers once pondered how best to land English soldiers on French beaches.
The streets and squares around the venue have been on tourists’ must-see list for generations. Big Ben and the houses of Parliament. Westminster Abbey, where crowned heads and immortals from Darwin to Dickens are interred. Buckingham Palace, where Britain’s kings and queens have lived since 1837. 10 Downing Street, home to prime ministers since 1735. Trafalgar Square, where Admiral Nelson stands resolutely atop his column while lions sit sentinel below.
Turning off Birdcage Walk into St. James’s Park, the stroller passes the canal dug in the mid-1600s for King Charles II, the “Merrie Monarch” who used to swim in and skate upon it. Near the 1841 cottage that was the birdkeeper’s home, pelicans and swans sun themselves while tawny owls, tufted ducks, and chaffinches nest. Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, and Beijing all built beach volleyball venues, but not with a Restoration-era backdrop. This is one Olympic venue where the cheap seats in the top row are the best ones, providing a breathtaking Whitehall panorama.
It’s unlikely that Queen Elizabeth, who came to Horse Guards Parade in her glass coach on June 16 as part of her 86th birthday celebration, will venture back down The Mall for a chance to feel the sand between her toes. But her grandson Harry already has a premier seat for the women’s final on Aug. 8. If the Prince wants to bring along a few family members, it might be a chance for a midsummer mingle. “If they want to have tea,” said Misty May-Treanor, the two-time gold medalist from Long Beach, “we are available for that.”