There is no doubt about it, the Brits know how to party and to celebrate, and a little thing like the renowned English weather is not going to stop them. So it was yesterday! The Queens Jubilee Pageant on the Thames, celebrating her 60 years on the throne; was one of those events of a lifetime, a once in 350 years spectacle that promised much and delivered even more; and we had a front row seat!
HMS Belfast was originally a Royal Navy Light Cruiser; she saw active service in both WW2 and in Korea and after modernisation spent most of her later years on exercise in the East. She is now a museum ship, moored on the Thames at Tower Bridge and she was our viewing platform for the Pageant. Talk about up close and personal; only the participants got closer to the action.
We arrived near Tower Bridge at the designated hour, it was grey, cold and drizzling that damp persistent type of drizzle, with very low cloud; the top of the Shard, the tallest building in the EU, was completely covered by cloud. We toured the ship, found our viewing positions, enjoyed a glass of bubbles, chatted to the other guests, mainly Americans and Brits, there were just two Aussies (us) and around 1.30pm partook of a pleasant buffet lunch. We watched events unfold up river on large screens but at around 3.00pm almost a full hour before “she” was due, everyone was itching to get up top, to grab a spot and wait. So we did!
Around us London was awash (very suitable word for the day) with people around 1.2 Million of them lined the river bank and the key vantage points, despite the weather; some of them had slept outside overnight to secure their chosen spot. They waited in the cold damp air; they sang, quite a lot of God Save the Queen, plus a few others and they waited, with that renowned British patience and fortitude.
Then, basically on schedule it all happened, this amazing flotilla of vessels of all shapes, sizes, colours and styles was on us; first came the floating Belfry followed by the rowed boats; lead by the Royal Rowbarge Gloriana; with celebratory rowers on board setting the timing for the whole fleet. They needed to make four knots over the whole pageant route (11 kilometres) and it would take a full 75 minutes for the whole pageant to pass one single point. So good was the organisation that the Thames Barrier was closed for the day (for maintenance) to reduce the tidal flow from 5knots (against the rowers) to 0.5 knots – good planning that!
The Commonwealth Flag squadron accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music, playing Handel’s Water Music aboard the Edwardian (Music Herald Barge 2) cruised past before “the moment” that everyone on board was waiting for; the arrival of the Royal Squadron. Almost on cue the heavens opened the rain bucketed down from the sky, and HM Queen Elizabeth 11 sailed down the River Thames from Putney to Tower Bridge on board the Spirit of Chartwell passing us on board the Belfast a scant 25-30 metres away.
She took the salute from a mixed guard of naval personnel and Belfast veterans (from all wars) on the foredeck (just a metre or two from where I was standing next to gun turret B) – they raised their hats, gave three hearty cheers! We all joined in Brits, Yanks, Aussies and the lone Kiwi we had found, and she waived back so did Prince Phillip, after returning the salute formally, as did William, Harry and Charles, (the salute bit) plus Camilla and Kate (Margie swears Kate waived at her).
Then they were gone, on down the river a few hundred metres more, through Tower Bridge where the bascules (the roadway bits) were raised in salute, where they completed a tight turn and took station to view the rest of the flotilla. We all sort of looked at one another and said “how good was that”? It was that sort of (almost) stunned reaction; most of us were so caught up in the moment we actually forgot to press the camera shutter so we missed the close-ups.
The sail past continued over the next 75 minutes or so, it just got wetter and colder and I have to admit we were back inside watching the big screen for the last few sections including the London Philharmonic which passed under the bridge around 5.30pm. Not the Brits though, they were out there, cheering, waving and singing celebrating the reign of their beloved Queen.
What of “The Royals” you ask? Well after taking up station on the other side of the bridge they all remained on deck and there they stood for the next 90 odd minutes, smiling, waiving quite a lot, at times (almost) bopping along with the music; well the younger ones (Charles and Camilla) did anyway. It was cold, it was damp, and it was rug up weather, where you want to sit by a warm fire, with cosy slippers and a nice glass of warming red and there was this 91 year old male and this 86 year old female standing watching and basically seeming oblivious to it all. Sure there was a canopy over the heads, but otherwise they were open to the elements, the Queen made one concession to the weather, she had acquired a matching scarf, but that was it. In a word – remarkable!
They love her these Brits and you can see why! Whatever you may think of the whole business of Royalty, inherited succession, and all that stuff; irrespective of scandals and challenges that have beset the family from time to time the Queen has endured. This amazing women has dedicated her life to her role and shows no sign whatsoever of quitting and she inspires her country and her people by her presence, her poise and her perseverance almost every day!
This was a great day; it was a day for history a genuine once in a lifetime event that I doubt that anyone alive on earth today will ever see again, so it was one for the memory bank. It was however more than that it was a memorial to a truly remarkable woman who is one of the most significant people of our time. As a very British gentlemen said to me just after the Royal Barge had passed; “she is truly wonderful – long may she reign!”
Written by : Peter Watson