Jubilee pageant: rain fails to dampen a very British occasion
It aimed to evoke the extravagant “water triumphs” of yore, a spectacle on the Thames to rival a Canaletto painting.
There was certainly water, too much, in fact, as driving rain drenched the diamond jubilee river pageant, the grandest procession the Thames has borne.
But to the estimated 1 million people crammed along the river’s banks, the 1,000-boat flotilla, with the Queen at its heart, was an undoubted triumph.
The armada was accompanied along the Thames by cheers from damp spectators, swaddled in rainwear and bunched under thickets of umbrellas. It was a very British occasion in all respects.
The 20,000 participants battled wind-whipped waters. Especially valiant were the rowers and kayakers following the Gloriana barge at the head of the £12m flotilla, and the soaked choir who managed a rousing rendition of Rule Britannia at the pageant’s end. The flypast of Royal Navy helicopters in diamond formation, which was supposed to provide a finale, was cancelled.
Aboard the royal barge, the lavishly decorated river cruiser Spirit of Chartwell, the Queen, with a pashmina wrapped around her shoulders and discreet rug to hand, waved at the crowds for an hour and a quarter. She shunned the specially constructed mini-thrones and opted to stand for most of the time.
Her highlight, judging from the beaming smile, was when Joey, the War Horse puppet, reared on the roof of the National theatre as the royals passed.
The Queen disembarked, no doubt with some relief, by Tower Bridge, where, back on terra firma and under a rain canopy, she watched the rest of the flotilla pass by.
The weather did little to dampen enthusiasm from many of those who had gathered, seven deep in places, several hours before the pageant, which began shortly before 3pm.
Klaxons, horns and trumpet fanfares marked its progress. Music from 10 musical barges – choirs, orchestras, military bands, bagpipes and drums – floated across the water.
A full complement of senior royals – the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall (her hand steadying her wide-brimmed hat), the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry accompanied the Queen on the flower-festooned royal barge. The Duchess of Cambridge, in a standout red Alexander McQueen dress, later donned a tartan scarf as it got colder, and colder.
Choruses of God Save the Queen greeted the royal barge as it passed beneath the 14 central London bridges. At Chelsea bridge, some even bellowed Vivat Regina.
Not far behind, on the Havengore, was London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, who got nearly as big a cheer as Her Majesty. Also on board was the Countess of Wessex, who, as the Havengore eventually tied up, confided that she was freezing.
On the other side of the river, anti-monarchists staged a protest near City Hall, waving placards reading “Republic Now!” and “Don’t Jubilee’ve it”.
More than 200 had gathered by midday, when Graham Smith of the campaign group Republic addressed them. “We will win this campaign,” he shouted. “No you bloody won’t,” retorted one woman passerby, decked out in red, white and blue. Republic said 1,200 had joined the demonstration and a second protest was staged at Tooley Street, London Bridge, central London, after placards at the first near City Hall were confiscated by private security guards. Speakers included the writer Joan Smith and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.
A 41-gun salute was fired from the Tower of London, and the bascules of Tower Bridge opened for the arrival of the royal barge. The royal family took up their places on HMS President, alongside David Cameron, to watch the rest of the seven-mile flotilla make its way down the Thames.
It emerged that the assortment of shallops, steamers, Dunkirk little ships, tugs, cruisers, kayaks, dragon boats, river cruisers and many more had smashed the world record for the largest procession of boats. Guinness World Records said a total of 670 verified boats completed the pageant route to achieve the new world record.
Many of those on board sheltered under umbrellas as the rain came down. Speaking after his vessel passed the Queen, Ian Gilbert, 61, from Shepperton, Surrey, skipper of the Dunkirk little ship Papillon, said: “When you’re at the helm you tend to miss a lot of what’s going on because you’re just so focused, but it was very enjoyable and it was all worth it.
“I don’t think anyone will put a show like this on again in our lifetime. We’re particularly proud because we had the biggest contingent of any association and I think that shows the importance of these little boats to the country and to the sovereign.”
The weather had not been so bleak at the beginning of the day, with drizzle shrouding London rather than the heavy rain that followed.
That allowed Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall to drop into the Big Jubilee Lunch in Piccadilly, central London, where the famous road was closed off for the first time in its history.
At Tower Bridge, Denise and Jim Farrar, from Aldershot, had began queuing at 7am and said the event was a double celebration for them. Mrs Farrar, 59, said: “We were coronation babies and we’ve been married 40 years this year, so we wanted to come along and celebrate. It’s the first time we’ve ever done anything like this, so we wanted to get a good spot.”
Dafydd Richards, 35, and Felicity Anderson, 30, from New Zealand, arrived almost six hours before the boats were due to pass and said they were used to braving the elements.
Celebrations across many part of the UK went ahead despite the weather, with some street parties being moved into village halls and local pubs at the last minute.
In Cardiff, scores of people were on the scene early at the start of the city’s Big Lunch celebration, in St Mary’s Street. Ceri Jones, 31, from Neath, got into the party atmosphere by offering sausage rolls to more than a dozen friends at the Big Lunch. “It’s a shame about the rain but it won’t change our plans at all. We intend to make this an occasion we won’t forget,” she said.
In Cornwall, Julie and Martin Starkie held their celebration at Polkerris, between Par and Fowey, where people tucked into a barbecue and took part in a sand sculpture competition.
Mr Starkie said: “Despite the bracing weather, people showed up with their brollies, buckets and spades and knives and forks for the beach lunch.”
According to the organisers, jubilee lunches brought six million people together at tens of thousands of gatherings. The biggest lunch took place in Greenwich, south-east London, with up to 10,000 people sitting down to eat.
Things were more muted in Scotland, where 100 official street closures had been applied for by party organisers over the weekend, with about a third staged in Edinburgh. Meals were also held to celebrate the jubilee in 70 countries across the globe, in places as far-flung as China, Algeria and the Arctic.
And though it did rain on her parade, the Queen, once she had warmed up, would probably have been touched by the overall success of the occasion.
She might also take some pleasure in the fact that Gary Barlow’s musical celebration of the diamond jubilee – featuring her grandson Prince Harry on tambourine – made it to the top of the UK album chart on her big day.
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