Diamond Jubilee: The day a nation pushed the boat out

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The weather did its best to spoil the big occasion, but in many ways added a very British feel to the Jubilee pageant. A soggy John Walsh joined the million-strong crowd on the banks of the Thames

Say what you like about the British but when it comes to celebration, they sure know how to push the boat out. A thousand of them, to be precise, in the most stately royal river progress since Cleopatra's. For two hours yesterday afternoon, under louring, dishcloth skies, the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant Flotilla of boats, from the opulent magnificence of the Royal Barge to humble one-man kayaks, sailed seven miles downriver at a sedate four knots, to celebrate the longevity and enduring popularity of an 86-year-old monarch.

An estimated one million spectators lined the riverbanks from Battersea to Tower Bridge. Most of the capital's bridges were closed to traffic but a multitude of pedestrians swarmed on to vantage points at Battersea, Chelsea, Vauxhall, Waterloo and Westminster. Some spectators arrived to stake their territory as early as 8am. Some health and safety personnel, in their hi-vis yellow jackets, were preparing the bridges at 4am.

Jean Lee, from Essex, had been standing on Westminster Bridge for three hours before she saw the Queen waving from the Royal Barge at 3.45pm – quite a feat of endurance for someone celebrating her 90th birthday. "She's looking marvellous for her age," said Jean with kind condescension, "I got a lovely photograph." Had she seen the Queen in public before? "No, dear," said Jean. "She doesn't come to Great Dunmow all that much."

The weather was miserable, a typically English brand of miserable with the Tupperware-grey clouds holding a constant threat of a downpour, and little gusts of spiteful chilly breeze sneaking inside your defences. The crowd, as is mandatory in such conditions, remained unsinkably genial. They tried out the efficacy of their periscopes, on which were printed the words, "Thanks for the day off!" They fetched teas and Kit Kats from a makeshift tent run by two sisters called Asli and Alice. Everywhere you looked, there was a sea of cagoules and funny hats, especially spiky jester caps and Union Jack tea cosies.

Masks of Prince Charles and the Duke of Cambridge were popular. One little girl had dyed her hair red, white and blue. Others had painted Union Jacks on their cheeks like daubs of war. An elderly gent in a stripy jacket and panama hat, reminisced about previous pageants. "The Queen's first ever river pageant was in 1953, you know. She watched it go by from Festival Pier. Weather was bloody awful then, too, if memory serves."

At 2.20pm, we cheered as the Queen appeared on a giant screen, mounted above the bridge's portable lavatories.

In a sensational white ensemble, accessorised with white hat, white curls, white pearls and a diamond corsage, she resembled a fabulous baked alaska. She even managed to eclipse the Duchess of Cambridge in her cop- this-boys, figure-hugging, pillar-box red frock.

An hour later, the crowd turned their eyes from the screen to the actual river, as the first craft – 260-odd, man-powered boats – appeared on the horizon, filling the breadth of the Thames like an invasion of beautiful, exotic insects, their thousand oar-legs wiggling. There were Venetian gondolas, Maori dugouts, shallops, cutters, gigs and skiffs from Thameside rowing clubs. At the head of the procession was a "belfry boat" carrying a quarter-peal of eight church bells. Behind it came the gilded rowbarge Gloriana, presented to the Queen in 2002 for her Golden Jubilee.

The crowd surged forward, cameras and iPhones raised in supplication, as the Royal Barge came into view. The Spirit of Chartwell, once a sightseeing boat, had been transformed by the production designer Joseph Bennett and the horticulturalist Rachel de Thame, into a sumptuous floating exhibition of crimson velvet upholstery and coats of arms, and a hothouse of flower garlands, red, purple and gold.

The frontage was an eyewatering extravagance of gilded dolphins, seahorses and fair winds that wrapped itself around the prow in a way that, to be frank, flirted with vulgarity. But hell, this was the Queen's show-off vessel – her private quinquereme, her burnished throne burning on the water.

And as she passed underneath Westminster Bridge, the crowd's chilled limbs and mortal weariness (for we had been waiting so long) evaporated to see the Queen – Gloriana herself – standing on the upper deck in her pristine finery, waving to her noble lords on the Parliamentary riverside terrace, looking animated and amused by all the folderol and hoopla. The bridge folk cheered, and waved their flags, and shouted "Hurrah!" as if in some Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. It was hard not to feel, just for a second, a tidal tug of empathy between the monarch and her subjects, however foolish and illogical the thought.

Masterminding the whole operation was Adrian Evans, who for years has been director of the Mayor's annual Thames Festival. Yesterday he was Pageant Master, a title seldom needed today but one that harks back to the great fluvial displays of the 16th and 17th centuries, as captured by Canaletto. The Thames Barrier had been closed, leaving the Thames locked at just below high water, so that the thousand craft floating down it had no need to fear the exigencies of an ebb tide. Making sure that none of the boats crashed into each other, or cut across the bows of the royal barge, was Commander David Phillips, Chief Harbourmaster of the Port of London Authority, who acted as kind of aquatic air-traffic controller, overseeing the operation from the Thames Barrier Navigation Centre in Woolwich.

And the combined brains and muscle of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Metropolitan Police Marine Unit were on red alert all afternoon in case any deranged republican or anti-elitist malcontent tried to brave the crowded waters for purposes of demonstration.

The Queen's journey took her all the way to Tower Bridge, serenaded down the Thames by trumpet heralds, fanfares at every bridge, 10 music herald barges, the Commonwealth Squadron performing Handel's Water Music, the Royal Marines Band playing "A Life on the Ocean Wave", a London-Asian pipe-and-drum band called the Shree Muktajeevan Pipe and Dhol Ensemble playing traditional Scottish pipe airs and Bollywood film music, and the London Philharmonic playing "Rule Britannia". As the Queen and the senior royals reached their destination, the Thames behind them was crammed with 450 motor vessels, 90 passengers cruises and 160 safety and security boats, all sailing serenely on.

"Earth hath not anything to show more fair," wrote William Wordsworth 210 years ago, "Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/ A sight so touching in its majesty." He was also standing on Westminster Bridge at the time, but was marvelling at the beauty and stillness of the great metropolis lying asleep in the morning sun. Had he seen the thousand-strong armada of ships, boats, barges and clippers gliding down the Thames in a slightly chaotic celebration of a royal great-grandmother, he'd surely have echoed those words.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot