Diamond Jubilee: The day a nation pushed the boat out

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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.

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